This latest twitter storm over Tina Fey is why. Or an example of why. And one reason why humor these days – in general – feels constrained, cautious, afraid.
It’s not conducive to art of any kind to live in fear of offending someone … having a joke taken the wrong way … upsetting the irony-challenged … pissing someone off because they don’t understand your historical or cultural reference … or just plain fucking up. By fucking up I mean actually crossing the line, saying something that might be or actually is offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Saying something that even you – upon reflection and when no longer in the heat of comic battle – might well be offended by.
Comedy is hard. Making it up on the spot … or under network deadline … is harder. And mistakes happen when you try.
If fear consumes you, you won’t be able to write or tell jokes. You won’t be a comedian. Or not the kind of comedian I admire, anyway. Here’s a brief and very incomplete list of older humorists I admire: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Nichols & May, Dick Gregory, Lily Tomlin, The Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor, Richard Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Paula Poundstone, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks and back through movie time to The Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields on back through literature to Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift. Oh, and that Shakespeare guy.
I don’t know what the answer is. I just know what I do. If I hear a joke I don’t like or understand, I don’t laugh. Comics, especially, stand-ups, are like card counters. They can tell you exactly how many laughs they got that night and which jokes fell flat. Don’t laugh and they’ll hear you
I’m good with that. Only that. I don’t need to tweet about every joke gone awry. Or call on the global small town to assemble with torches and pitchforks. Or eat cake. Unless Tina’s buying.