Opinion

The worst thing a comedian can do is apologize: Robyn Urback

Samantha Bee said she 'crossed a line' in calling Ivanka Trump a vulgar word, implying there is some objective threshold beyond which comedy goes from unfunny to unacceptable. There isn't, nor should there be.

Samantha Bee said she 'crossed a line' in calling Ivanka Trump a vulgar word

Apologizing for comedy is a no-win gesture: everyone has a different idea what 'too far' means, and the boundaries will forever evolve. (Credit: Getty Images)

In an interview with New York magazine in 2014, comedian Chris Rock noted that he had stopped performing on university campuses, saying they had become "way too conservative."

"Not in their political views," he said, "not like they're voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody."

Rock wasn't the only one — Jerry Seinfeld, Larry the Cable Guy and John Cleese have all said they avoid college crowds, which they have characterized (I'm paraphrasing) as bastions of overly sensitive scolds.

They're not wrong. Surely most of us have read enough stories about American flags as triggering symbols or grades maligned as expressions of power and privilege that we can understand why a comedian might want to take his bit about elderly women drivers elsewhere.

Obviously, there is no objective measure of when comedy is funny, or unfunny, or offensive. Indeed, so much of what makes comedy good is subjective. That's why I think the only way to treat it honestly is to remove all and any restrictions. Make everything fair game — race, gender, cancer, terrorism, genocide, abuse, religion, whatever.

Usually the point when it comes to joking about these topics anyway is not to poke fun at the vulnerable, but to target the structures that exploit them — in other words, to "punch up." Many people contend that the only acceptable comedy is that which punches up.

But as a comedy purist, I disagree. While I don't particularly find jokes at the expense of starving children funny — and indeed, many of them are just offensive — I think the overall craft of comedy suffers by setting these sorts of boundaries. And I know I've most certainly offended someone just by writing this paragraph.

Offence or 'offence'?

Sometimes, the offence comes from genuine hurt. But when it comes to more contemporary protestations by the comedy police, expressions of "offence" are typically just vehicles for the ostensibly more important objective of landing a political blow.

As an example: Much of the outrage about a joke made at the expense of U.S. press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner was about the supposed unwritten rule of decent comedy that precludes one from joking about a woman's appearance. Poking fun at Sanders' penchant for "truthiness," comedian Michelle Wolf said, "I actually really like Sarah. I think she's very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye."

Many critics called that joke disgraceful. But reading between the lines (or Fox News monologues, as it were), few of the scolds appeared truly wounded by the supposed objectification of a woman's body (a weak connection, at best), and were instead more concerned with the apparent double standard on the left when it comes to comedic decorum. It was "offence" over comedy, weaponized.

Same goes for the furor over comedian Samantha Bee's Wednesday night bit on her show, Full Frontal, in which she called the president's daughter a "feckless c-nt" in a segment about the Trump administration's handling of the immigration file.

Now, I don't doubt that many viewers were truly aghast at Bee's casual deployment of the Hiroshima of swears — and about the president's daughter, no less. But the narrative was quickly hijacked by critics asking how and why the network TBS could stand behind Bee — meanwhile, ABC had just thrown Roseanne Barr under the bus for spitting out her own offensive comment. Isn't this clear evidence of a double standard in Hollywood?

Well, no. The difference here should be obvious: Barr was not doing a bit. She was tweeting as herself, comparing a black person — former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett — to an ape.

Question of intent

Some might argue that Barr's Twitter account is a space where she does text-based standup. But it's quite obvious her intent here was not to perform a 2 a.m. social media bit (the tweet in question came in the form of a reply anyway, meaning it would've initially only appeared for users who follow everyone in the thread), but rather, to take a cheap shot at someone who was part of an administration she has long opposed. 

Had Barr said the line as her character on the show, it surely would have still caused an uproar, but I think there would have been room to argue for creative licence.

Barr was not doing a bit. She was tweeting as herself, comparing a black person — former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett — to an ape. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

We afford comedians that licence (well, "we" meaning those of us off campus) because we understand that so much of comedy is about tapping into our collective anxieties. It is about transcending taboo, blurting out things most of us would never say aloud and presenting certain absurdities as norms.

During his time as anchor of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert played the role of a fanatical right-wing pundit, satirizing some of the buffoonish and ignorant things said by U.S. political bloviators as a way to shine a light on that foolishness.

Much of the best comedy takes this approach. And the audience plays along by suspending its belief, understanding that the person at the mic making jokes about Hitler is probably not a bona fide Nazi (though these days, who can tell?).

Granted, performers who do late-night political comedy like Samantha Bee walk a tenuous line between speaking as themselves and acting as a comedian. In her case, it's tough to separate Bee as a person from the words in her script; tougher than it would be for, say, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who made jokes about Sept. 11 in his shrill, sputtering, put-on comedy voice (though he got in trouble for that, too).

Yet Bee was still performing (and making a salient point), and there should be licence for the offensive, crude and shocking in comedy, even if — and when — certain viewers don't find it funny.

Crossing a different line

Unfortunately, Bee did one of the most counterproductive things one can do when it comes to comedy — unless you are beholden to advertisers, of course — which is apologize. She said that her bit "crossed a line," therefore implying that there is indeed some objective threshold beyond which comedy goes from tolerable (if unfunny) to unacceptable. There isn't, nor should there be.

Apologizing for comedy is a no-win gesture. Everyone has a different idea of what "too far" means, and the boundaries will forever evolve. Someone will always be offended.

That said, there is nuance here, certainly. Making a racist comment and then later claiming it was just a joke is not the same as suggesting there should be no out-of-bounds when it comes to comedy as a craft. But the worst thing that can happen to the craft of comedy — beyond some windbag musing about it in a 1,200-word polemic — is censuring it until it becomes boring.

Good comedy might be very much subjective, but safe comedy is almost universally bad. Yielding to the outraged will lead it down that path.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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