What Is Considered a Fireable Comedy Offense in 2017?
The Friday before last, I noticed that my Twitter feed was suddenly really mad at Bill Maher. This wasn’t exactly anything new; he caught the ire of many people earlier this year when he had “alt-right” figure Milo Yiannopoulos on his show, and in general, courting controversy is kind of his thing. So, when I found out he had dropped the N-bomb in an ill-advised exchange with a Republican guest, I wasn’t remotely surprised. It was equally unsurprising when I watched him become the sole focus of Twitter’s attention for the next 24 hours. In the last four months, the internet has formed angry mobs against someone almost every week. It’s hard to keep up with, and with so many comics catching so many people’s ire, it begs the question: What should be considered a fireable offense for a comedian in 2017?
Obviously, in Maher’s situation, he kind of deserved it. He said what is often considered the worst word in the English language, and while it’s true that just ten years ago, Louis C.K. defended white usage of the word in a bit that was well-received at the time, the conversation has changed considerably since then, where it’s generally been agreed that if you’re not black, even clinical usage of the word is a bad move. Maher’s usage of the term would have been a big deal if anyone had said it, but his own history likely played a role in the backlash against him. Maher has used his show as a platform to make Islamophobic comments, and he’s always had a nasty sexist streak (out of all the legitimate complaints he could have made about Sarah Palin, he decided to call her a “stewardess”). If there wasn’t so much evidence that Maher was a bigot already, it would have been easier to see this as an isolated incident. Instead, it looks like the latest example of a frightening pattern.
But of course, Maher isn’t the only one under fire lately. Just a week earlier, Kathy Griffin caught a ton of heat for her photoshoot in which she held up a severed head of President Donald Trump. When her CNN New Year’s co-host Anderson Cooper turned on her, she was fired from that job, and her apologies weren’t enough to save her. A few weeks before that, Stephen Colbert mocked the close relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin by saying that Trump’s mouth was Putin’s “cock holster.” This joke brought the ire of both pro-Trump conservatives as well as LGBT activists who found the joke homophobic. Finally, there was SNL writer Katie Rich, who was suspended, and ultimately fired in January after joking that Barron Trump would be the first “homeschool shooter.” In the four and a half months since Trump became president, the line of what is acceptable has never been less clear.
Before we get into the question of who should or shouldn’t be fired for their controversial humor, it’s important to consider who is being fired. Of the four people mentioned here, it was the two women who ultimately lost their jobs, while Maher and Colbert both remain employed. Knowing that, sexism likely played a part in determining who was allowed to keep their job and who wasn’t. Admittedly, Maher and Colbert host their own late night shows and are more firmly established within their field than Rich and Griffin are, but then again, maybe that has something to do with sexism, too. Considering that Griffin and Rich went down for what Maher and Colbert ultimately survived, perhaps women just aren’t allowed to push the envelope as far as men are, or network bosses are more likely to stand up for men than they are for women.
Compounding this problem is that there’s a strong case to be made that of the four offenses we’re talking about here, Rich and Griffin’s were actually the least objectionable. First, let’s look at Griffin. Is holding up a severed head of the President of the United States in bad taste? Perhaps. But Donald Trump’s entire political career (and really, his entire career) has involved him trafficking in bad taste. Why is it that calling Mexican immigrants rapists, mocking a disabled reporter, and bragging about sexually assaulting women didn’t disqualify him from the presidency, but Griffin protesting him in a uniquely grotesque way meant she had to lose her day job? This situation took on a new wrinkle last week when CNN fired another TV personality, Reza Aslan, for calling Trump a “piece of shit” on Twitter. CNN is at least applying a consistent standard here, but it’s not the right one. Their unwillingness to stand up for Griffin or Aslan has sent a message to everyone at the network that going one step too far in calling out the president will result in immediate unemployment. As for Rich, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that yes, making fun of a 10-year-old kid is a questionable endeavor, but nobody really considered the broader point she was trying to make. She wasn’t trying to critique Barron Trump himself, but rather, the highly questionable conditions he’d be growing up under, and how that might affect him. Perhaps that point could have been made in a less dark way, but Rich caught flak from people who didn’t even attempt to understand where she was coming from.
Now, let’s consider Colbert and Maher’s jokes. First off, I’m a huge Stephen Colbert fan, and I never relish in seeing #FireColbert trend, but that joke was homophobic. Yes, his ultimate goal was to critique the relationship between Trump and Putin, but there are better ways to do that than “lol they’re gay,” and Stephen Freaking Colbert, of all people, should know that. As for Maher, we really don’t need to go into why the N-word is bad, and as stated earlier, his history of unfortunate comments about Muslims and women confounded the problem. He’s likely received all the comeuppance he’s going to get for the incident — a few stern lectures from the likes of Michael Eric Dyson, Symone Sanders, and Ice Cube on last Friday’s Real Time — but no change in his unemployment status. If nothing else, it was kind of fun to watch the most smug person on television have to admit to being wrong for once, but the whole thing was little more than a formality. All in all, the two worse offenders of the four escaped relatively unscathed, while the two more defensible of the group ultimately lost their jobs. The fact that the former were men and the latter were women doesn’t exactly seem like a coincidence.
I don’t think any comedian should lose their job over a single joke, even if it’s a particularly ill-advised one. Comedy is a difficult thing, where it’s much easier to make mistakes than people who don’t do it for a living would ever realize. Of the four people involved here, the only one who should have been let go is Maher, but that has more to do with his overall body of work than this particular incident. If we’re going to keep having controversies like this (and considering how easy it is for mobs to form on social media, we probably will), I’d like to see standards applied consistently. Preferably, I’d like to see leniency shown towards comics for the simple reason that it’s a lot easier to get mad about a bad joke than it is to write a good one. When Rich was fired for her Barron Trump joke, Dan Harmon criticized NBC for not standing behind their comedic talent, specifically noting that the Trump era is a time to protect people. Harmon is right on both counts; if comics believe that one misstep could leave them unemployed, they won’t take risks, and safe, dull comedy will be the result. Additionally, when we have a president who seems poised to restrict free speech, he should be subject to the most ruthless critiques possible. I’m glad Stephen Colbert didn’t get fired over a single bad joke, and while I really wouldn’t care if Maher got fired at this point, HBO not giving into mob mentality isn’t a bad thing. I just wish Rich and Griffin had been given the same support from their (now former) employers.