The Onion called 9-year-old Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis a very, very nasty word, and the Internet was furious. The satirical publication apologized and rescinded the tweet, presumably firing or at least disciplining the worker involved.
Comedy is subjective. What one person finds hilarious may offend another, though some jokes may fall flat for general audiences. When in comedy can we go “too far?”
Irreverent humor has been a staple of comedians for years. Comedy often pushes the envelope by not only making people laugh but also provoking discussion on social issues.
Whether it’s comedians like George Carlin, who explicitly discussed the seven words that broadcasters refuse to allow — the word that Wallis was called is among those, by the way — or Richard Pryor discussing racial conflicts, comedy has always been a vehicle for social commentary and critique.
Even contemporary comedians such as Sarah Silverman walk a fine line between offensive and critical. One 2007 episode of “The Sarah Silverman Program” shows her character going out in public in blackface, attempting to prove that being Jewish is harder than being black.
While blackface is almost universally considered racist, Silverman’s episode was about creating a dialogue about race in a culture where we often believe we’re “post-racial.”
For every Silverman, Pryor or Carlin, however, we also see comedians who are simply offensive. For instance, just after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., Dane Cook commented that “The Dark Knight Rises” was so bad that he would have asked someone to shoot him.
Does this have any place in creating a critical dialogue? Or is it simply in bad taste?
I’m not trying to pass any judgement on Cook or MacFarlane, or any other comedian.
Sure, there are personalities who I find funnier than others, and irreverent humor can sometimes have me literally rolling on the floor with laughter (Bo Burnham’s pretty good at that). The difference, I find, is in the intent — some intend to offend, whereas others use that potential to open up a dialogue or to simply poke fun at someone’s well-known tendencies.
The Onion calling Wallis a nasty word was plain mean-spirited.
Seth MacFarlane cracking a joke about her being almost old enough for George Clooney intended to mock Clooney rather than sexualize Wallis.
Neither attempted to create a dialogue, unlike Silverman’s blackface, but I feel that the Clooney joke was much more “fun” — if inappropriate.
Where do we draw the line? When is humor simply offensive instead of funny?
Do we pander to certain crowds and refuse to make jokes on things in case of offending the parties in question, or do we as a culture want to continue risking offense in attempts to get laughs and create discussion? Is there a way to push the envelope while still remaining tactful?
It’s up to you, readers, to decide.
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