There seems to be a theme to this week’s news: controversial comediennes derailing their careers by making offensive attacks. First came Roseanne’s 2 a.m. Ambien tweet about Valerie Jarrett that got her entire career thrown down the PC memory hole. Then former “Daily Show” cast member Samantha Bee, who has a low-rated weekly "rant against Republicans" show on TBS (her ratings among Millennials are down 47% from last year), was forced to apologize to Ivanka Trump and lost two sponsors -- but not her show, naturally. It all started when Ivanka tweeted a sweet photo of her holding her two-year-old son, which for some unfathomable reason inspired Ms. Bee to call her an obscene sexist slur I won’t repeat and demand that she somehow make her dad stop enforcing federal deportation laws. (Just for the record: if you want someone with access to power to plead your case, calling them an obscene name on TV probably isn’t the best way to win them over.)
This story consumed the media on Thursday, with conservatives using it to point out the double standard and even liberals admitting Bee went too far.
Frankly, I’m a little burned out on talking about this subject (and I didn’t even get into former comedian Kathy Griffin’s sad attempt to remind us she’s still alive by tweeting an obscene attack on my daughter in defense of Bee). So I thought I’d turn this one over to an expert. I have someone who does freelance writing/research work for me and was also the longtime co-writer of a worldwide-syndicated daily topical humor service for radio. He writes jokes about the news for clients across the political spectrum. In today’s hyper-sensitive comedy world, he prefers to remain anonymous, but here’s his comedy writer’s take on the Samantha Bee brouhaha…
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“First of all, let me dispense with the predictable response that I must be one of those male comedy writers who think women aren’t funny. There are countless female writers and comics I admire, from Tina Fey all the way back to Fanny Brice. My writing partner, one of the best writers I’ve ever known, is my wife, and she can’t stand Samantha Bee’s show. So no, the problem isn’t that women aren’t funny. It’s that simply calling a woman the C-word isn’t funny.
I should also mention that I’ve spent my life studying such controversial comics as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison and Robert Schimmel, so I’m immune to getting offended. But in my profession, I have to know what offends my client’s audiences. I’m pretty sure calling the President’s daughter the C-word not only runs way past the line, it walks back and urinates on it.
What does offend me as a professional comedy writer is that Bee’s line wasn’t funny. It was angry, partisan, provocative, sexist, unfair – and I could still forgive all that if it were funny. But it wasn’t. It was just calling someone a nasty name. There was no wit, no clever twist, no joke structure, no creativity, no originality of language (I sometimes say my job is to rearrange the dictionary to tell the truth in funny ways that have never been said that way before). It’s the one thing I find truly offensive: bad, lazy comedy writing. It makes Ambien tweeting look like Mark Twain. It’s on the level of using the F-word to get a rise from a club full of drunken frat guys.
Celebrities like Michael Moore who declare such mindless junk “brilliant” just because it’s aimed at people they hate insult the art of comedy as much as they’re insulting our intelligence. Just as TBS does when it feigns shock over a line that obviously went through countless levels of writers, editors, producers and standards and practices people and that was even excerpted online to promote the show.
Granted, the cheap shot did get the expected response from the studio audience, which is known in the business as ‘clapter.’ It’s not laughter, which is hard to earn, but clapping at something you agree with. That doesn’t take wit, it just takes pandering. Again, pandering is easy, comedy is hard.
That’s why clapter has replaced laughter on most late night shows as the Comedy Central influence has infected everything from CBS’ ‘Late Show’ to ‘SNL.’ You know the style: a smug, usually Ivy League-looking guy in a suit (the formula sometimes varies to a black guy or a British guy or a woman in a blazer, but always with the same condescending elitist attitude) gives us the DNC spin on the day’s news, often more in lecture than joke form, tossing in the occasional hyperbolic metaphor or goofy graphic to remind us that it’s supposed to be humor. Real humor makes people look at things in fresh ways, and sometimes forces them to reassess their opinions and makes them uncomfortable. This stuff just preaches to the choir. I hope recent downtrends in ratings for these shows are a sign that the audience is finally getting tired of having anger over the 2016 election reinforced every night, and comedians will get back to trying to appeal to a broader audience and being funny again.
I usually avoid Samantha Bee’s show, but what I have seen was usually based on attacking whatever negative stereotype of the joke’s targets is most popular on the left. Little effort seems to go into understanding the point of view being ridiculed. This laziness also brought on her last forced apology, for ‘joking’ that a bald teenager at a conservative gathering was a racist skinhead when he was actually a cancer patient.
For what it’s worth, I’m a staunch defender of free speech. Comedy requires pushing the envelope, and sometimes, comics rip it. It’s an occupational hazard. It’s sometimes hard to tell where the line between “hilarious” and ‘too far’ is. I’d rather have comedians who accidentally go too far than who play everything too safe. But I grant that freedom to comics on both the left and right.
Comedy shows should be canceled only if nobody’s watching them. If people would just stop watching unfunny shows that traffic in partisan venom instead of wit, that would solve most of the problem. Or as the space aliens told Woody Allen in ‘Stardust Memories,’ ‘If you want to do mankind a favor, tell funnier jokes!’”