If you want a template for the argument that comedy and jokes should not tread outside the thick, forbidding red lines of political correctness, you cannot do better than the Washington Post op-ed titled “Don’t believe her defenders. Amy Schumer’s jokes are racist.” Two professors, Stacey Patton and David J. Leonard, made the argument that Schumer’s humor is racist, and did so in as forceful terms possible. For example, they write:
Racial jokes allow white America to claim that race no longer matters, even as there’s talk whizzing in every direction about how blacks and Latinos are outbreeding whites, are criminals and welfare queens, are “stealing jobs” and victimizing whites through affirmative action policies and denying them the right to use the n-word. Comedy allows these comforting ideas to be shared with a built-in defense mechanism that protects white innocence.
America’s soil of racism is fed by jokes and incendiary speeches, by stereotypical images and symbols like the Confederate flag. Just as Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and other members of the Republican Party regularly disparage people of color and claim they are simply telling the truth, Schumer can use comedy as a protective shroud to deny the harm and hurt caused by her jokes. A joke is considered benign especially when told by a supposed white liberal feminist. We can distance ourselves from the anger, from the harm, from the ideology, and from the hatred of the “extreme,” but also find comfort in the same anger, ideology and hatred that is “just a joke.”
The abuse heaped on Schumer, a young, clever, rising comedian that I only recently became aware of because of her hilarious—filthy, but hilarious—parody of “Twelve Angry Men,” is breathtaking. She is called the equivalent of Donald Trump (who himself is misrepresented as a racist who believes all Mexicans—he said some illegal Mexican migrants—were criminals and rapists); she is declared complicit in the Charleston shootings and the creation of Dylann Roof, encouraging gun purchases generally, and “a worldview that justifies a broken immigration system, mass incarceration, divestment from inner city communities, that rationalizes inequality and buttresses persistent segregation and violence.”
This is why Mel Brooks says that “Blazing Saddles” couldn’t be made today. His brilliant seventies Western spoof, which many, including Brooks, believe is the funniest film ever made (I’d pick “Animal House,” but he’s not far from wrong) was immediately recognized as a devastating attack on racism, despite its frequent use of the word “nigger” and its employment of almost every black stereotype for maximum comedy effect. Schumer is no Mel Brooks, but her audiences aren’t stupid either. They understand that she, like Brooks, is spoofing both the stereotypes and the people who believe them, as well as properly zinging the individuals who craete the stereotypes by their own conduct. There is nothing racist about that at all, unless one has embraced the current, floating, broad and infinitely flexible definition of “racist,” which is whatever a progressive or African American critic thinks will be most harmful to his or her target at the time.
The reason “Blazing Saddles” was understood to be satiric and beneficial to the cause of racial understanding forty years ago, and Schumer’s far less harsh humor is being attacked now is simple: race relations are worse today, thanks to people like Drs. Patton and Leonard, who I would have banned at the box office if they ever tried to buy a ticket to a comedy I was directing, and civil rights establishment that has decided that hyping eternal victimhood is the way to power and wealth. People like this are incapable of humor, because they have to analyze whether they should laugh before they do laugh. To them, Popeye and the Road Runner encourage violence, Eddie Murphy’s Gumby impression furthers racial stereotypes, and Woody Allen’s movies are anti-Semitic. I’m sure they find Mel’s “Hitler on Ice” completely bewildering.
The Post apparently invited the two clueless political-correctness obsessed academics to write this drivel. Asking them to write about comedy is like inviting Mike Huckabee to analyze the rhetoric of Dan Savage (and vice-versa). In other words, it was a set-up.
Debra Kessler explored the origins of this strange essay on the comedy website The Interobang.
I spoke with The Washington Post‘s Outlook Deputy Editor Mike Madden …. “This is not the opinion of The Washington Post,” Madden told me, “this is the opinion of a couple of contributors to The Washington Post.” Of course both articles are editorials and newspapers print conflicting editorials all the time. But even op-ed pieces are edited and selected and subject to internal guidelines and even op-ed pieces enjoy the weight of The Washington Post banner– one which has a history of protecting journalistic expression feverishly.
Kessler also talked to Stacey Patton, who told her that the Post solicited the piece, and had to persuade her to write it. Apparently they couldn’t persuade her to write it fairly, responsibly, or competently, however:
Dr. Patton said a few things that surprised me. For starters, she said she’s not a specialist on comedy or humor. While she does enjoy comedy (she likes George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Martin Lawrence, the Queens of Comedy, and Bill Maher among others), she told me that watching comedy isn’t something she gets to do often. In fact, before the ‘Schumer issue’ came up, she had never seen Amy Schumer perform stand up, and she had never seen Schumer’s Comedy Central television show. Even more surprising, she said she didn’t watch any of Amy’s performances or shows while writing the article, not even as background for the piece. Her judgement was based on what she read, presumably in The Guardian, which had just published an article accusing Schumer of “having a blind spot for race.”
The Interrobang: Have you ever watched Amy’s television show… in preparation for the article?
Stacey Patton: Nope. Not at all.
The Interrobang: Her stand up set[s]? have you ever watched any of them?
Stacey Patton: Nope. None of them.
Let me enumerate some ethical problems with this:
1. It shouldn’t need to be said, but I guess I have to say it: stand-up comedy is performance art. Reading a transcript of what a comedian says is not an accurate representation of what the performer has done, communicates or intended. Delivery, tone, timing, facial expressions, body language all combine to send complex messages., often subtle and nuanced, that someone only reading the words will almost certainly misinterpret.
2. It is obviously unethical to criticize a comedian’s comedy when the critic hasn’t watched the comedy.
3. Worse, Dr. Stacy “Nope!” Patton apparently doesn’t see anything amiss in this, meaning that she is completely ignorant of the topic she has chosen to opine on in the pages of the Washington Post.
4. She likes George Carlin, who mercilessly ridiculed Christians and religious American generally; Richard Pryor and Martin Lawrence, both of whom trafficked in satirical stereotypes of African Americans (and whites) far more pointed than any joke Shumer has uttered; and Bill Maher, who grotesquely stereotypes all conservatives and calls women he doesn’t like “cunts” and “twats.”
The op-ed itself, meanwhile is sloppy and hypocritical beyond imagining. (To answer your question– What about Dr. Leonard, the white, second billed author?—I don’t know. He put his name to this junk. That tells me all I need to know.) For example, it accuses Trump, falsely, of calling all Mexicans “rapists,” then statesthat “Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and other members of the Republican Party regularly disparage people of color…” As written, this really is the kind of blanket, gross, bigoted statement she accuses—falsely, I repeat—Trump of making, but that’s okay! What hypocrisy. Do you think she has ever listened to Rush Limbaugh, especially as she has leveled this attack on Schumer without having watched her? I very much doubt it. It is a ubiquitous liberal talking point that Rush is a racist: he isn’t, and nobody who actually listens to him would make that accusation, unless they embrace the definition of racism that I mentioned above.
For the final verdict on the Post’s hit piece, I could not be clearer or more eloquent than Debra Kessler, who concludes in part:
I don’t doubt that Dr. Patton means well. She’s a well respected journalist, and from what I gathered in our conversation, very intelligent. She is concerned about very serious problems faced by people of color in America and the world today, and those problems are real and in need of redress. And without the important context of understanding performed comedy, Schumer’s act, and her persona, it might be hard to distinguish Schumer’s point of view from a completely different kind of joke– one that is harmful, and derogatory, and holds no benefit to the community at large. Patton described to me concerns about the type of people who “back during the Jim Crow period, while nearly 4,000 black people were lynched in this country, [were] making jokes; they were singing minstrel songs, putting on black face, telling chicken and watermelon and pickaninny jokes.” Those types of harmful, racially motivated jokes of course still exist today, and are just as rooted in hate as they ever were. And perhaps Patton is correct that the people who laugh at those types of jokes add to what she calls “this ecosystem of nasty rhetoric.”
But that argument ignores that performed comedy that integrates and confronts, and yes even “plays with” race and bias, is not the same as a “chicken and watermelon and pickaninny joke.” There is nuance and skill that a performer uses to communicate that they are not advocating racism and intolerance– on the contrary, they believe in inclusion and tolerance. Laughing at our own shortcomings, biases and history of intolerance can advance harmony in a way that lecturing, and even legislating cannot. When we, as an audience can laugh at stereotypes… we don’t reinforce them, we expose them. And it’s all to the benefit of society.
Patton has made presumptions regarding the racial composition of Schumer’s audience, and she has also made presumptions about the effect Schumer’s comedy has on her audience. Those presumptions are made without any real information, and seem to be based on nothing more than speculation and her own social media following.
Now that would be an op-ed worth publishing.