An enthusiastic commenter to the post on Tony Kornheiser’s suspension by ESPN bases his defense of the suspended sports commentator on what I call “the joke excuse”: poor Tony was only joking when he insulted colleague Hannah Storm on his syndicated radio show, and that should insulate him from any negative consequences because humor is subjective, and we don’t want people without senses of humor snuffing out laughter in the world.
As anyone who actually has read the contents of this blog (the commenter in question has clearly not), I tend to be in general sympathy with the concept of giving humor free reign. The problem with its application here is that I see no evidence that Kornheiser was joking. His words:
“Hannah Storm in a horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She’s got on red go-go boots and a catholic school plaid skirt … way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now. She’s got on her typically very, very tight shirt.She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body … I know she’s very good, and I’m not supposed to be critical of ESPN people, so I won’t … but Hannah Storm … come on now! Stop! What are you doing?”
I’ll pause a second so you can catch your breath from uncontrollable laughter at Tony’s wit, deft use of irony. brilliant wordplay and creative absurdity.
But seriously, folks: what species of “joke” was that? It was just a series of plain, garden variety insults, that’s all. Could Tony plausibly say, “I didn’t mean it”? No, clearly he is, in a fairly straightforward way, criticizing how Storm dresses and looks, which he thinks is inappropriate for a woman of Storm’s age. If anyone who wasn’t an alleged humorist said something like this, nobody would think for a second that it was a “joke,” or take seriously anyone who argued that it was. (On the other hand, the fact that Kornheiser is a humorist should make it obvious that he didn’t intend this as a joke. Surely he can do better than this if he is actually trying to be funny.) Kornheiser’s reputation as a funny guy does not give him an automatic pass to have every comment he makes, no matter how unfunny or maliciously intended, regarded as an attempt at humor.
When non-comedians try the joke excuse, it is usually recognized for the lie it is. For example, Massachusetts Senate candidate Martha Coakley’s embarrassing identification of Yankee-killing Red Sox pitching hero Curt Schilling as “a Yankee fan” was pathetically explained by her spokesman as “a very dry joke.” Right. But that was hardly less plausible than defenders of comedian Wanda Sykes applying the joke excuse to her purely mean-spirited comment about Rush Limbaugh at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when she said “I hope his kidneys fail.” What a knee-slapper! As a general rule, “I hope you die” is not a joke, no matter who says it.
Even when it is a joke, the jokester is still accountable for how people react to it. When Washington D.C.’s shock-jock Doug “the Greaseman” Tracht made the second of two racially-charged quips that facetiously encouraged the murder of African Americans, it didn’t matter that everyone knew he was trying to be funny. He lost his job and his career, because his employers didn’t want somebody on their payroll who made those kinds of jokes. Everyone knew Don Imus’s infamous insult to a women’s basketball team was supposed to be a joke too, but if it was going to lose enough listeners and sponsors, his employers had every right and reason to bid him adieu. Similarly, even if Kornheiser had done a riff on Storm that had his audience rolling on the floor, his employer, ESPN, had every justification to adopt the position that its in-house comedians needed to find ways to be funny that do not denigrate their colleagues’ appearance, personal hygiene, breath-freshness, children or illnesses, because organizations function more effectively when everyone in them doesn’t hate each other.
Comedy is not for the faint-hearted. There should be few, if any, limits and barriers, but crossing into dangerous territory requires both guts and talent. Before I heard Don Rickles at his best, I never would have believed that a comedian who insulted everyone in the room could have a successful career. Richard Pryor’s comic material was so well-performed that it left offense behind; the same is true today of Chris Rock. Cross lines of taste and public tolerance without the wit and talent to pull it off, however, and you’re on your own. Nobody should care that “it was a joke” if it wasn’t a good enough joke to compensate for the damage it did, the people it hurt, or the trouble it will cause.
I respect Tony Kornheiser for not trying the joke excuse. When he apologized for his insulting comments about Storm, he didn’t say “I was only kidding,” because he wasn’t, and he knows he wasn’t. Making the joke excuse in that situation would just be just lying. Making the joke excuse when you were joking and the joke misfired, on the other hand, is refusing to accept the consequences of your actions.
Making a joke, after all, is a little like shooting a gun: whether or not it hits the mark, you’re responsible for the result.