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.
“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