Natasha Leggero’s Stand: Protecting The Jester’s Privilege


"Sing what you like, Fool. Just make sure I laugh."

“Sing what you like, Fool. Just make sure I laugh.”

In days of old when knights were bold, it is said, the King’s Fool was able to safely say outrageous, disrespectful things to the sovereign that might get anyone else drawn and quartered. This lucky exemption came to be known as the Jester’s Privilege, and it existed, and exists, for valid reasons. Humor, satire and all the other permutations of comedy are essential to societal sanity, and it makes sense to give the broadest discretion to practitioners of the craft in their efforts to provoke laughter—which is, as Reader’s Digest still reminds us monthly, “the best medicine.” That means that comics should not fear decapitation if their inspiration of the moment fails to provoke the desired mirth, or touches an audience member’s sensitive areas. In addition, the jester is sometimes able to expose a truth that will not be reached any other way.

It sounds like a good rule, and it is a good rule, but as with most ethics-related rules, applying it is difficult. Who gets the Jester’s Privilege…only professional comics, or does it apply to amateurs too? What about non-jesters just trying to be funny? “It was just a joke!” is a classic excuse invoked by insensitive and vicious people, including politicians, when they say something outrageous, as they try to use the privilege without a license, and in so doing, make it less effective for the humorists who really need its protection. Not everyone should assume that they have the full armor of the Jester’s Privilege. Mockery and ridicule are too often used as political weapons of targeted destruction.

Should some subjects be exempt from the Jester’s Privilege? The official position of comics, comedians, wags and wits has long been “No,” but even in Ye Olde Days, jesters sometimes went too far, and ended up with their heads on pikes. The problem any humorless king had after doing this, of course, was finding a jester willing to hazard a joke more edgy than “Why did the king cross the road?” For that reason, I think it’s vital that the Jester’s Privilege be strong and a near absolute. The sin that matters is not being funny, which means topics of unusual sensitivity take care of themselves.For centuries, for example, comics imitated and mocked those afflicted with speech impediments, especially stuttering, with big laughs guaranteed. Somewhere along the line, though, Porky Pig stopped being funny. The absence of laughs was enough to retire him; no heads had to roll.

On NBC’s New Year’s Eve show, the following exchange occurred between host Carson Daly, comic actress Jane Lynch and rising comedienne Natasha Leggero:

CARSON DALY: SpaghettiOs on Pearl Harbor Day, they sent out a tweet featuring their mascot holding an American flag asking people to quote “take a moment to remember #PearlHarbor with us.” It offended a lot of people, corporations glomming on to, you know, sentimental American historic traditions, seemingly looking for people in business. It wasn’t good. But you were offended for another reason.

JANE LYNCH: I’m offended because they were referring to SpaghettiOs as pasta.

NATASHA LEGGERO: I mean, it sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew. It’s just sad.

Hilarity ensued, as the NBC gang laughed uproariously. Almost immediately, Leggero was getting flamed all over the social media and the wbs for denigrating the Greatest Generation. Steve Martin, I assume, would have humbled himself and apologized immediately, but not Leggero. She responded (on her blog) in part:

“It’s been a busy few days but rest assured, I have received all of your messages and have been busy sifting through the different creatively misspelled death threats, rape fantasies and most of all repeated use of the the C word. In the past few days I have been called a cunt so much I felt like I was in a British pub rooting for the wrong soccer team. Click here to see some of my faves!

“I wish I could apologize, but do you really want another insincere apology that you know is just an attempt at damage control and not a real admission of guilt? Let me just try instead to be honest. I’m not sorry. I don’t think the amazing courage of American veterans and specifically those who survived Pearl Harbor is in any way diminished by a comedian making a joke about dentures on television. Do we really believe that the people who fought and defended our freedom against Nazis and the Axis powers will find a joke about Spaghetti O’s too much to bear? Sorry, I have more respect for Veterans than to think their honor can be impugned by a glamorous, charming comedian in a fur hat. That’s not to say I don’t think comedians are a problem in this country, they are a financial drain on the people who date them and talk far too much about themselves. I’m thrilled to see how passionate (death threats against a five foot tall woman are always the height of passion!) people are about our country and our Veterans. I am too. My own father lost his hearing in the Vietnam War so the issue is pretty close to me too.”

She’s right, and ethics kudos to her for standing up for the Jester’s Privilege at a time when it is in particular peril from PC bullies and censors of the Right and Left. (As you might guess, most of the fire at Leggero was coming from hypocritical conservatives.) Jokes about the indignities of old age are older than Aristophanes, and through the ages, the aged have enjoyed them as much as anyone. Tim Conway’s creeping old man and the Carol Burnett Show’s frequent skits about geezers made my parents bust a gut. I am certain my father, a bona fide WWII hero who would now be in his 90s, would have laughed at Leggero’s well-constructed gag.Was the joke disrespectful? Sure it was: the whole idea behind a lot of humor is being disrespectful of honored and privileged groups. Comics are supposed to be disrespectful. If Valerie Jarrett tried that joke, she would be in big trouble, and would deserve to be. She shouldn’t juggle flaming torches, either.

The immediate problem is that the PC crowd gets such power from bending people to their will by crying “Offensive!” that they will never stop expanding the category of taboo subjects. After age, what? Jennifer Lawrence wants fat jokes to be taboo. Close behind will be short jokes, bald jokes, tall jokes, busty jokes, bad hair jokes, big nose jokes, buck teeth jokes, silly walk jokes, jokes involving stupid people, naive people, ignorant people, over-educated people, loud people, soft-talkers, close-talkers, slow talkers, fast talkers, accents of all kinds…and eventually environmentalists, libertarians, bleeding-hearts, super-patriots and Obama supporters. Do not doubt it. The recent grovel by Steve Martin because too many people didn’t understand his sly joke that was not racially insensitive in any way pushes us in this humorless and censorious direction. Leggero’s stand is courageous and important, if the Jester’s Privilege is to survive another thousand years, or even another fifty.

This does not mean that a comedian should never apologize for a bad joke. Comedian/actor Jay Mohr did a podcast after hosting the Dec. 6 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Awards in Las Vegas where Alyssa Milano was a presenter.  Riffing and getting nowhere, Mohr decided to tease Milano about her weight.

“It seems like she had a baby and said, ‘I don’t really give a shit’ … I read it on her gut… Somebody sat in the director’s chair and was not wearing Spanx and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ!'”

Milano didn’t call for Mohr’s head; she just made him feel like a jerk by tweeting,

@jaymohr37 So sorry you felt the need to publicly fat-shame me. Be well and God Bless. Please send my love to your beautiful wife.

Mohr is married to actress Nikki Cox, like Milano a former child star, who has herself been criticized for the fact that she isn’t 22 anymore. Well played, Samantha.

Mohr replied on his blog with a Level #1 apology:

“Comedians have a hole on their insides that can only be filled by generating constant content that is, many times, improvised in the moment. Unfortunately, in rare instances, it causes irreparable harm. I had thought (incorrectly) in an improvisational moment, that the incongruousness of my statements, when held up to the light of how beautiful Alyssa Milano is, would have been funny given that she is the size of a thimble. It wasn’t funny. Knowing that Alyssa, as well as her family, friends, fans, and especially her husband, heard things that were hurtful from my mouth crushed me. She has always been one of the kindest, most caring and beautiful people this town has ever seen. I will not make excuses for what I said. Although I immediately removed that segment from my podcast, it still doesn’t change the results. I know full well how much words can hurt people, having seen my wife get destroyed by the tabloids, and I am embarrassed that I didn’t think before I spoke. Alyssa is an extraordinarily beautiful person—both inside and out. Alyssa is a mother, a wife, an actress, and a class act that should always be celebrated. Sometimes comedians go too far. I went too far. I cannot change what I said, but I can assure you that my heart is broken that I hurt her. I am very sorry. With the utmost sincerity, Jay Mohr”*

The key sentence: “It wasn’t funny.” His “joke” was just gratuitous and mean, aimed at a randomly selected and named victim, causing pain without laughter. Mohr was a right to apologize as Leggero was not to.

* Milano immediately replied, with elan,

@jaymohr37 Thank you. Apology accepted. (She grunts while aggressively yet cautiously prying off her head-to-toe Spanx). #PassTheCookies

Sources: Newsbusters, Huffington Post, Newsbusters

Graphic: anotherfilmblog



20 thoughts on “Natasha Leggero’s Stand: Protecting The Jester’s Privilege

  1. I’m both amazed and depressed that people are so desperate for something to be offended by that something as stupid as a riff about SpagettiO’s occupies even a moment of our lives.

  2. Kudos to her for not bowing to the thought police. She was right to do so, and now stands miles above those who cave into to pressure groups and issue insincere apologies for damage control. The best line in Leggero’s response was: “Sorry, I have more respect for Veterans than to think their honor can be impugned by a glamorous, charming comedian in a fur hat.” That was funny, especially the part about the fur hat!

    The rest of her response was spot on as well where she points out the hypocrisy of those claiming to support the troops but do very little to help the veterans struggling with PTSD, war-inflicted injuries, financial and medical difficulties.

    Congratulations to her for standing firm against the PC police.


    PS: Jane Lynch is a very funny, quick-witted and clever person. She is absolutely wrong, though. Spaghetti O’s are as close to a perfect pasta as one can get without actually being pasta! Throw in some wieners and. by golly, you have a tasty meal!

  3. I would never have made the elderly link to canned pasta. Every shopper I’ve seen scooping them up had small children.

    While I think there are some areas, like stuttering and fat-shaming, that should be allowed to wither away, death threats are crazy. I think that people in any kind of elected or responsible position should not be expecting to use the jester’s excuse, after all the vizeer using that jester’s excuse to the king(public) would lose their head, correctly. That excuse is for trained professionals, don’t try this at home, kids!

  4. Much food for thought, as usual.

    The “not funny” rule has the advantage of weeding out so-called “jokes” that are pure weapons, like “How do you stop a [ethnic slur] from drowning?”.

    It’s notoriously difficult to get a consensus on what’s funny, though (“How many radical feminists does it take to change a light bulb?”).

    Then there are the ones that even a member of the targeted group can consider funny, but which reinforce potentially damaging stereotypes. I’ve seen a Jew online tell The Five Commandments. Would even a professional comic be justified in telling it in public, though? Even a Jewish one?

    “the whole idea behind a lot of humor is being disrespectful of honored and privileged groups” — is there a potential touchstone there, based on whether a joke further disparages a historically dishonored and abused group?

    Apropos of the need for jesters, an Arthur Clarke story about a future utopia had the designers realize that a utopia risked being boring so they created a social role for a jester _with high level access to the ruling computer_. He was not popular. He did accomplish his job.

    • Be thankful that meaningful events such as Pearl Harbor are still mentioned at all and that some survivors are alive to enjoy a can of Os if they’ve a mind to. Could be a nostalgia thing. As one of my dad’s friends, a vet of the Pacific War, used to say: the Navy always ate better than the Army.

      And light-bulb jokes are out, Fred. You have to wait 8-10 years between changes now.

  5. A good jest punctures pomposity, relieves the fear of the oppressed, makes evil look as banal and stupid as it is, injects sharp clarity for the rest of us – and is damn funny.

    The litmus test might be – told up close and personal, do the victims laugh as they cry, the powerful good guys squirm, the powerful bad guys look like dummies and do we all feel closer to each other and more ready to fight and die in a good cause?

    I respectfully submit the jest fails to qualify for Jesters Privelege. On all points. It’s an insiders ‘shared suffering’ joke told by an outsider who doesn’t share the suffering. It does not puncture the powerful (who don’t watch such shows), it punctures the veterans sense of themselves and of their distinct sub-culture. The joke is at their expense.

    While not offended by the joke as such I do consider it to be an alarming symptom – of permitted habitual cynicism. And an apparent failure to discern the difference between satire and abuse, or perhaps to care. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a funny joke. This joke was weak and I have no doubts.

    • It was a legitimate “Oh, that’s awful, I can’t believe you said that!” joke, which is a fair genre. Turning the offense of disrespect around to object to the Spaghettios plug on a basis that was more disrespectful than the ad itself is a good gag…”mocked by the one food they thought they could count on” is a funny idea. Every joke doesn’t have to profound. I laughed when I read it. By definition, then, it is funny.

      • I did try reading it in every voice I could think of. I did compare it with the shock of ‘Springtime for Hitler and Germaneeeee…”. And consider reflex/faux/ironic and every other position of the jester I could think of.

        But it’s your culture. If you think it was a some kind of a shock/double-take gag against the company I’ll accept your judgement. Always the benefit of any doubt goes to the jester – if you laughed. And if the veterans did.

          • OK, I’ve re-read the words again, it could be a joke against the kind of politician who likes to have their photo taken next to a uniform but didn’t ever wear one (and never would). That would be the kind of political pond life that would utter an unfunny version of Ms Leggero’s words, dripping with ‘sincerity’.. That being the case, Jesters Privelge granted, enthusiastically and with interest.

        • Inviting the question, were _any_ of the people who complained veterans?

          Outrage on behalf of others can be empathy, but it is all too often ego.

  6. Actually I think Pearl Harbor Veterans have a lot thicker skins than those who felt a need to attack Leggero for her somewhat silly joke. Maybe some of them laughed about it, those that are still around. They have other things to remember such as the loss of 1,177 men on the USS Arizona.

    • In my limited experience it’s the effort veterans have to make every day to forget that makes them vulnerable. That effort can include focussing on what there is to eat or do today, to blot out memories of their lost buddies and all that was done and seen, Vets are very vulnerable to a clumsy joke or stupid question.

      ‘Bill, you were in the trenches in WW1, what was it like, really?’ I got back one word ‘Horrible…’. before the nono-genarian tears came. Bill was an English Victorian, a generation born with a stiff upper lip. To ‘blub’ was a great disgrace for him. I will never ask that question of any ex-serviceman again. Ever. So if I react when I think I see the last generation of vets being mocked, that’s why.

      It’s not a matter of a personal thin skin. Mockery is a breach of faith, for me anyway. It’s how the vets received the joke that would decide the issue. Jesters Privelege not withstanding. Friendly fire is still ‘incoming; – something like that.

  7. Great article, I totally agree and I especially loved her response. The joke was rude but not victimizing- which is what I think the dividing line for the “jester’s privilege”. When you attack or slur or threaten the object of your joke, that is when it crosses a line; like Mohrs “hey you’re fat!” or tosh.0’s “hey that heckler didn’t like my jokes, I hope when she leaves all the guys in the audience rape her” There shouldn’t really be any subjects that are taboo, but a good comic should be able to be funny, rude, or even offensive without crossing the line into threatening or gratuitous. This joke definitely doesn’t cross the line, in my opinion.

    • Sorry Aural and Bill. I’m stil struggling to get this business in sharp focus. If the joke really is at the expense of the veterans as you seem to imply I can’t see that as legitimate. ‘Hey, old people are toothless’ is the same as ‘Hey. you’re fat’. It’s just a diffferent degree of knocking the little guy. No?

      If so, that’s over the line, abusive. It would be not a case of the Jester’s Privelege (to mock the powerful) but of the bullies charter – that powerless victims shoud toughen up. It would just be that these particular victims are every tough and thus no harm no foul, probably. But that doesn’t make it ethical.

      • I see your point, but the joke wasn’t “hey you’re toothless” it was more along the lines of, “toothless people are more likely to eat mushy food”. An insult like, “hey your teeth are gone so you suck at life” or “she’s ugly” etc, is just an insult, not a joke (not saying the joke was good, or even funny).
        But then again, I have all of my teeth so I may be biased, of course.

      • But there are perfectly funny fat jokes, just as there are funny old jokes and even Alzheimers jokes. (The one that ends, “Well, at least I don’t have cancer!” made my father laugh every time, though my mother, who was deathly afraid of dementia, hated it.) “Your mama’s so fat, she has her own zip code” is a valid joke. So is, from “Parenthood,” “Parenthood is like your Aunt Edna’s ass. It goes on forever and it’s just as frightening.”

        What was the matter with Mohr’s weak attempt is that 1) it publicly targeted someone by name, 2) it wasn’t a joke, it was just “she’s fat!” and 2) she’s NOT fat.

        • Thanks both. Funny can be cruel heartless mean. Jester’s Privelege works even if the joke is not funny (laughter just ensures his head stays on his shoulders it’s not an ethical matter its a matter of professionalism and survival) The jester is permittted to mock the powerful, the humour bully mocks the afflicted powerless. The jester has his permission to mock granted as to aid stability in his society – safety valve short of open vioent insurrection. The humour bully you are allowing to mock the victims – in order to keep the victims quiet? Or what?
          Mohr’s error was 1) being mean…..that’s it.

  8. Pingback: Who Tells the Best Jokes? Neurotic, Aggressive Jerks | pundit from another planet

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