Friday, March 01, 2013

Comedy: The Other C-Word

Last Sunday, The Onion spit out a now-infamous tweet about 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis during its live Oscars snark-cast. The tweet called her the C-word, that word not being “cute.” The fallout from the remark was so severe that the editor of The Onion apologized for it, and promised to discipline the writer involved. This is unprecedented in the publication’s 25-year history.

I know how I’m supposed to feel about it. Supposed to.

I have a niece who turns 1 year old in a couple of weeks, a 10-year-old step-niece and a sister who was born just prior to my 10th birthday. Even though my sister is 23 now, I’d still hate to hear anything mean said about her, never mind about the little girls. In that sense, I understand why someone would object to a crack at a child, even a famous one.

But if someone did make that crack, it would tell me one of two things about them: 1) they are small, pathetic jerks, or 2) they have a misfiring sense of humor. In The Onion’s case, it’s the latter. It’s a much-beloved comedy publication that often veers into outrage (and yes, even jokes about children on occasion). The Wallis tweet’s real offense, in my view, was that it was a cheap shot. It wouldn’t be particularly funny directed at an adult celebrity, so aiming it at a child star made it even less likely to elicit laughs. The downside far outweighed the upshot, a fact perhaps overlooked during the flurry of live-tweeting.

My immediate reaction to the tweet was not laughter, but neither was it outrage. And this is where I'll defend The Onion. In the aftermath, people reacted exactly how they’d be absolutely justified to react had some misogynist pedophile said the same thing. Or a politician. Or anyone else whose stock in trade isn’t provocative comedy.

That’s not to say that provocative comedy doesn’t have limits or never misfires. But we already know (or should know) that successful practitioners of the craft are not who they pretend to be. I’m glad the top brass at The Onion recognizes the impact this had; it shows that they have heart. But is that really, honestly, a surprise to anybody? Would The Onion be a comedy empire if its staff was dark-hearted enough to think Quvenzhané Wallis really was worthy of such an epithet? No, because their only chance to be funny is if we know they’re kidding. Just ask Michael Richards how much that distinction matters.

Bad jokes should never spark the same contempt as genuine hate. Genuine hate deserves much more scorn. Not to mention, much more scrutiny.

When are we going to get an apology for that?

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