There Are Worse Things Than Racism, Part I: The Tina Fey Dilemma

The Kennedy Center embarrassed itself in 2010, giving an affirmative action (gender division) honor to Tina Fey. She received its Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which the Center has awarded every year since 1998 to individuals who have “had an impact on American society in ways similar to” Twain…you know, like Tina Fey.

The Center realized that it was short on female honorees (because humor, historically and now, is a field dominated by men), and because it can only give the award to the living, so it settled on Fey as a weaker than weak addition to the pantheon. I compared the award at the time to Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize and added,

If she vanished tomorrow, Tina Fey would at best be a footnote in the history of American comedy. Her qualifications for the Mark Twain Prize in 2010 appear to be 1) she is a woman, and there aren’t many women in comedy 2) she is a comedian, though not an especially funny one, 3) she is a writer, though neither of the screenplays she has authored would be called deathless classics, unless you think “Mean Girls” is on par with “Adam’s Rib,” and 4) she looks like Sarah Palin, which allowed her to do a popular impression mocking Palin during the 2008 campaign, and the people who give out the award really, really dislike Sarah Palin.

In short, she didn’t deserve the award in the first place, and the Mark Twain Prize lost its integrity and credibility by her receiving it. Thus there is some condign justice in that decision coming back to bite the Kennedy Center now, along with a second bad decision eight years later.

That year, the Kennedy Center decided to rescind Bill Cosby’s Mark Twain Prize, which the Cos had more than earned in 2009. Cosby did have impact on culture and humor comparable to Twain, and his achievements dwarf those of Fey like “War and Peace” dwarfs “Valley of the Dolls.” Again virtue-signaling to feminists, the Kennedy Center revoked Cosby’s honor after his conviction for sexual assault (which was just accepted for appeal this week).

I didn’t write about it at the time, I guess because there was nothing new to say that I hadn’t said in this post, where I observed,

[L]ast I heard Bill Cosby was still recognized as a major trailblazer in stand-up, TV comedy, and television integration (remember “I Spy”?), an important positive cultural force for race relations and black community self esteem, and a spectacularly talented comedian with a unique voice and presence. None of that has changed. Those were the achievements that prompted Cosby’s bust’s inclusion in Disney’s Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame Plaza, along with celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Oprah Winfrey who, like the Cos, have been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. O.J. Simpson is still honored in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was one of the greatest college stars ever. His post-career hobby as a murderer, like Bill’s extra-curricular activities as a serial rapist, have nothing to do with the honor, just as Cosby earned and still deserves, his honor for what he achieved on stage and screen.

That still applied in 2018, and it is true today.

But Bill was deemed unworthy nonetheless. Now, in the midst of the George Floyd Freakout, the frenzied statue-toppling, cancelling-happy, race-offense vengeance-obsessed mob has targeted Tina Fey. During her acclaimed NBC show “30 Rock,” which she created, often wrote, and appeared in, blackface was used for comic effect four times. This week, always seeking to follow the crowd, Fey said her mea culpas and had Hulu pull the shows from circulation, thus putting herself in the cross hairs. (I must note that this censorship, like all censorship, impedes knowledge and reflection, since it is impossible to assess what the use of blackface was. I never watched the show because mega-ass Alec Baldwin was a regular, and I would prefer chewing off my fingers than supporting anything he’s involved in.)

She was foolish to draw attention to herself, because the mob wants heads, not apologies. Today a black group asked the Kennedy Center to rescind Fey’s prize.

“We are not trying to cancel Tina Fey. Tina Fey cancelled herself when she asked Hulu to purge offensive episodes of ’30 Rock,’ calling the fruits of her creativity ‘ugliness,’” the group said in a letter. “We are simply alerting the Kennedy Center — which has acted in the past to protect itself and the integrity of the Twain Prize — to do so again in light of Tina Fey’s admission.”

Hmmm...what could they be referring to with that stuff about protecting itself and the integrity of the Twain Prize? Oh, right!

The Kennedy Center is in ethics zugswang.

Cosby, a black man, was dishonored for being a proven and convicted sexual predator. Is drugging and raping women far, far more serious than using blackface in a comedy? Of course it is; for one thing, it’s a crime, and has always been a crime. In contrast, the use of black makeup (Fey is also accused of instigating “yellow-face” on another show) at a time when the practice was not regarded as taboo is a retroactive “crime” based on shifting political and social agendas.

I note with some satisfaction that the letter,  in addition to making my points about how Fey was a weak selection for the honor (It says,”Quite frankly, Ms. Fey’s receipt of the prize in 2010 put her in a class of comedians to which she was, and often still is, inferior…”) wields the Cosby precedent like an ax as it asks for Fey to be stripped of the prize:

“This, as you know, is an action that is not without precedent. The 2009 Twain Prize given to Bill Cosby was rescinded in 2018 due to his improprieties committed outside the field that the Kennedy Center leadership determined “overshadowed” his accomplishments. In this case, Ms. Fey’s missteps occurred within the field and thus directly reflect on the honor of the institution.”

The Ethics Alarms position is that neither Cosby nor Fey should lose their prizes, but how can the Kennedy Center allow Fey’s honor to stand after removing Cosby’s? For regardless of logic and common sense, nothing is regarded by the mob as worse than racism now. Nothing. And spineless leaders and administrators are expected to bolster that position. What Fey did is thus worse than what Cosby did—after all, he was only a serial rapist—and she committed her unpardonable sin  in the very field she was honored for!

As Moe was prone to say, “Trapped like a rat!”

It gets worse: Fay is white. If Cosby, a black man, is punished for lesser misconduct than Fey, the Mark Twain Prize becomes a per se accessory to systemic racism.

I won’t even get into the fact that Mark Twain liberally used racist language in some of his novels, or that if Cosby’s appeal is successful, the reason his prize was rescinded will no longer exist. Or even consider that if they take Fey’s prize back, they almost  have to rescind Billy Crystal’s as well, since he appeared in blackface on Saturday Night Live.

I can easily see a scenario where Crystal, Fey and Mark Twain are stripped of their honors, and Bill Cosby gets his back: right color, lesser offense.

Or so some think.

And Sarah Palin will laugh and laugh and laugh.

You know what’s coming:


20 thoughts on “There Are Worse Things Than Racism, Part I: The Tina Fey Dilemma

  1. Wait til the mob finds out Mark Twain spent about two weeks in an incredibly disorganized unit of the Confederate Army

  2. “at a time when the practice was not regarded as taboo”

    As I mentioned in the Jimmy Kimmel thread, I think that it was taboo, and that intentionally violating the taboo was supposed to make it edgy (not even sure if they shoot for funny). Maybe it’s different for different parts of the entertainment world, I don’t know.

    • Using dark makeup was not taboo; it was standard comic fare if, as Megyn Kelly would say, it was to portray a character. Fred Armison plyed Obama on SNL with make-up. Obama said he didn’t think the impression was as good as Fey’s Palin. but he didn’t condemn it as blackface either.

  3. What’s the current status of black performers who have done comedic versions of black stereotypes? Twain prize winner Eddie Murphy’s outre’ “Buckwheat” on SNL comes to mind.

    Here’s a website on BLACKFACE, that has a section on “blacks in blackface”.

    • Flip Wilson. Tyler Perry’s entire oeuvre. Red Foxx. George Jefferson: “Weezy!” It’s a target rich environment.

  4. I’m actually surprised that I’ve seen no anti-Billy Crystal articles. I saw one mentioning briefly his Muhammad Ali, but no one seems to remember that he also did Sammy Davis, Jr. on SNL.

    And I’m sure Billy, at this point, hopes no one does remember.

  5. Jack, since the summer sale has started I renew my offer to buy you one of my favorite games, Life is Strange as a steam gift.

  6. Ditto on the “mega-ass Alec Baldwin was a regular” observation; pompous, anger-addled prick extraordinaire!

    But credit where credit’s due; (IMO) he was pretty good as Robert McNamara in Path To War (Michael Gambon knocks LBJ outta the park) and Jack Ryan in The Hunt For Red October.

    My FAVE? His…um…ending as the Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) back-stabbing “pal” Robert Green in The Edge.

    • Alec is and has always been an excellent actor and a versatile one. He’s also adept at comedy, except for his Trump impression, which is crude and not even a little funny unless you hate the President so much that you’d laugh at him being hit with a hammer.Baldwin was good Jimmy Doolittle, terrific in “The Hunt for the Red October.” and is generally a pro…when performing.

  7. If you think Tina Fey didn’t rise to the standard that the Twain prize is supposed to honor, wait till you find out they gave it to Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2018. She may be a gifted comic actress, but to my knowledge Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t actually created anything. At least Fey has written some jokes.

    • Oh, I knew about that one—just didn’t have space to note it. Because of Seinfeld (and Veep), Julia will be remembered long after Fey is forgotten. It was still a very weak choice, but still better than Fey.

      • I think Tina Fey is doted upon in the Katie Couric kind of way. She’s from east coast royalty, graduated FROM the University of Virginia and she’s cute and smart and spunky. And Jack, Tina’s mother was Greek! So give her a break, huh?

      • I don’t disagree that Louis-Dreyfus is more famous, but if the prize is intended for people who “had an impact on American society in ways similar to Twain”, then anyone who just performs someone else’s material is a automatically weaker choice than an actual comedy writer, no? Twain didn’t just recite knock-knock jokes from a book he found in a train station, he was a prolific author and social commentator. If you don’t actually *create* anything, you might still have an impact, but there’s no way you can have an “impact similar to Mark Twain”.

        The award has been a joke from almost the beginning, anyway, with the fourth honoree being Whoopi Goldberg. Really? What’s her lasting impact, and how is it great enough that she was honored before Cosby, Neil Simon, George Carlin, or Carol Burnett? In fact, looking at the list of honorees, it’s clear that modern society has very few, if any, people whose legacy stacks up well when compared to Twain. Perhaps they should redefine the purpose of the award so as not to invite such comparisons.

        • Not just more famous, but also with more staying power. You have to hang around to have cultural influence. As the letter asking for Fey’s removal notes, the original award was in part given for what she was going to do—you know, like Obama’s Peace prize.

          If Fey hadn’t looked like Palin, she would never have been honored. How stupid is THAT?

          But I agree: if just playing a comic role well was a proper qualification, why not Jason Alexander? Ted Danson on “Cheers”? Danny DeVito on “Taxi”?

  8. Maybe they should have just not given out an award in 2010 and 2018 by stating “We have had too many white male inductees and no female or male minorities rose to the level to deserve the prize. We hope next year will be better.”

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