Policing Comedy and Defining the Terms of Debate

You Can't Do That on Television, Redux

There was a fantastic contrast on SNL during the Weekend Update segment on Saturday. Watch the video below. Note first the "joke" about gay marriage from timer marker 1:16 or so to 2:15 or so. Then feel to skip ahead to 6:30 or so and listen to the "joke" about Bruce Jenner.*

The gay marriage riff is a perfect example of clapter, the sort of joke designed to flatter the audience's sensibilities and reinforce the limits of the debate. And, indeed, when Colin Jost pronounces that polygamy and gay marriage have nothing to do with each other** and that "everyone's already onboard the gay train" anyway, there is a gale of clapter. Hoots and hollers abound as the audience signals that their entertainer has said The Right Thing That We All Agree With.

Compare that to the joke about Bruce Jenner—currently transitioning from male to female, much to the chagrin of some—which draws some uncomfortable chuckles and a few groans. Some background on the Jenner bit: Jost's Weekend Update partner, Michael Che, ran into some trouble with the outrage mobs last week when he cracked wise on the Internet about Jenner's decision:

Not that strategically delaying your transition to avoid the whole massacre in your underpants thing isn’t a real hoot, as he finds most things involving gender, but huh? Backlash time: You don’t have to be a humorless self-appointed dissector of hilarity to note that 1) when you transition to becoming a woman you don’t get ovaries from sexual reassignment surgery so you can’t menstruate, and 2) women go through menopause much earlier than 65.

Well, no, you do actually kind of have to be a humorless scold to get bent out of shape by a joke like that. It's practically the definition of being a humorless scold. The humorlessness in your scolding is quite apparent. That's why Ashley Hoffman feels compelled to engage in a bit of preemptory self-defense: she recognizes that she is being a "humorless self-appointed dissector of hilarity."

The larger goal of shaming Che, however, is far worse than getting him to shut up on social media. The point of shutting him down on Facebook is to shut him down on SNL. And that's why the Weekend Update bit is so darkly amusing. It's a metajoke about jokes, one that actually tries to push the boundaries a bit and get the PC scolds to reconsider the world that they are creating. But it also tacitly acknowledges that the scolds have won. A key portion of the humor derives from Che pointedly refusing to take part in the bit, telling Jost what he is allowed and is not allowed to say—and Jost, eventually, giving up and agreeing. It's all quite depressing.

More humorously, at least to me, is the fact that some of the scolds didn't realize the joke was, in part, on them. Consider this hot take, in which it is argued that SNL needs to restrict itself even further:

Clearly, the show wanted to make a statement about the issue of racism in the country. But, seriously, isn't it too soon to be making jokes about the city suffering the loss of a citizen and currently in the throes of civil and social unrest?

I mean, I get it. Nothing is really off limits in comedy. This isn't the first time SNL has toed the line of controversy, erring on the side of inappropriate. Still, just because it happens doesn't make it OK, does it? …

So, here's the question: What makes the Baltimore riots and the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray less worthy of respect than Bruce Jenner's gender identity?

Emphasis mine, because I just love that formulation. "Nothing is really off limits in comedy—except, of course, for the things I think should be off limits." Because "respect." And, as we all know, humor is all about showing respect.

When we decide what others are allowed to joke about, we decide what is allowed to be discussed, period. It narrows the terms debate. But I guess that's the goal, innit?

*Scare quotes around the first because clapter is not funny. Scare quotes around the second as it's funny precisely because there's an uncomfortable lack of a joke.

**Jost's effort here is particularly pernicious, since there's quite an open debate as to gay marriage's impact on efforts to limit polygamy. As someone who supports gay marriage, I've yet to hear a convincing argument that slope is not slippery. If the government has no business telling two people what to do with their love life, I have no reason to believe it has any better justification for telling three or four or fifty people what to do with their love lives.