Forty years ago, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch wherein Chevy Chase interviewed Richard Pryor for a job. It became instantly infamous because of a word association game the two comedians engaged in that culminated with Richard Pryor calling Chase a “dead honkey” after Chase offered up the word “nigger.” Paul Mooney, the legendary comedian who penned the sketch, said he based it on his experience being overly interviewed by network executives as to whether or not he was qualified to be one of Pryor’s writers for the episode. Forty years later, it is arguably one of the greatest sketches the show has ever aired.
This past Saturday, newcomer Leslie Jones took to the Weekend Update desk with a bit in response to Academy Award nominated actress Lupita Nyong’o being named People magazine’s most beautiful woman of 2014. During her appearance, Jones suggested Nyong’o’s being named the magazine’s most beautiful woman made her question the standard of beauty mainstream America has regarding black women. This question led her to entertain the idea that a black woman of her own type might have been better off a slave. What followed was an absolute maelstrom of critical backlash.
Now, I’m not here to defend her joke. Since the episode aired on Saturday, comedians such as W. Kamau Bell and Leslie Jones herself have offered up more interesting, better worded, and more appropriate defenses than anything a middling comedy scenester like myself could provide. What I’m interested in is what was it about that joke that made it the target of outrage when there were other jokes in the same episode that were potentially more offensive.
And I think I got my answer from Twitter. Monday evening, after a torrent of stupid tweets I posted about Leslie Jones, Donald Sterling, etc., I found myself engaged in an exchange with an African-American woman who responded to a tweet in which I asked “what stereotype did her bit enforce?” She proceeded to give me a historical laundry list of stereotypes and made some incredibly spot-on, valid points as to what she felt the joke did and why she felt it was inappropriate. But it was when she launched into comments where she revealed she was sick of black women being “the butt of the same joke as the fat, ugly, ghetto, undesirable one” where I went EUREKA! This woman was frustrated about how the media portrayed black women. Do you know who else was frustrated about that? Leslie Jones!
Her entire bit hinged on the premise that she felt that she was so undesirable as a big black woman to black men today that instead of having to suffer a modern dating scene where she was not ideal, she could exist in the slave days when it was ideal to be big and she could be easily paired up with the best black men as a broodmare. This hyperbolic punchline was arrived at through the same framework Paul Mooney used to arrive at “dead honkey.” Both comedians took an actual feeling of frustration they had with the world around them and presented it back to the audience in a heightened context. And the audience fucking laughed.
So when a person who expressed outrage about a joke reveals that the source of their frustration with the joke is the same frustration that inspired the joke, this leads me to conclude that what people are actually outraged by is when their own insecurities about their own identity are triggered. And it’s made even worse when the joke itself is laughed at. Dave Chappelle infamously had his moment of crisis when he could no longer tell if his racially charged humor was being laughed at or laughed with. It makes sense to me psychologically that a person would express outrage at a joke if that person is afraid that the laughter at the joke confirms the source of the frustration undergirding the joke itself. For instance, if a straight person makes a great joke that pokes fun at gay sex, and the audience laughs, is this a negative referendum on homosexuality or is it an audience acknowledging that they made a connection between a premise and a punchline? Is it both? There’s a lot to be insecure about in that situation. And there’s a lot of reason why someone who isn’t comfortable handling that insecurity could easily respond with outrage.
In a slightly similar but also slightly different instance, we saw this earlier in the week when the country was embroiled in outrage over the racist comments Clippers owner Donald Sterling made about black men. In a league where 8 out of 10 players is a black man, and black men have a historically founded insecurity about their relationship to white men of the ownership class, it is a no-brainer that there would be outrage when Sterling was caught saying what he said, triggering those long-standing insecurities. But it should be noted that few of these players were outraged about Sterling’s business practices as a low income housing magnate in Southern California, nor was there nearly as ubiquitous a sense of outrage when players and executives got caught making homophobic or misogynistic comments about gays and women. Why? Well, quite simply, because while 8 out of 10 NBA players are black, 1 out of all of them is openly gay and 0 out of all of them are openly women. So none of their insecurities were triggered.
I, for instance, am not only black, but I’m also gay. In the same episode of SNL, Spiderman planted a smackeroo on Coldplay frontman Chris Martin and the punchline of the sketch was gay kissy kissy ew look at them gay panic. Now, personally I didn’t particularly find that as funny as I did Leslie Jones’ bit, because I don’t really find sexuality to be a punchline, but I also wasn’t outraged. Why? Well, the sketch was silly and playful and without any intention to put forth a premise that pushed buttons. So naturally none of my buttons were pushed. Sure, there might have been gay men watching who are so frustrated with gay panic as a punchline that they were outraged at it, but it’s obvious that there wasn’t enough collective gay outrage that we’re talking about that sketch versus Leslie Jones. There’s good reason for that too.
Leslie Jones definitely took her seat at the Weekend Update desk and was looking to get down and dirty and make waves. She laid down her premise hard and, whether funny or not, delivered on it with her punchlines. Her jokes logically connected with her premise. And in the process, because of that core of truth she was playing with, she pushed a lot of buttons and people got uncomfortable.
But isn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t there a giant squee noise across the country pushing for new and diverse voices and perspectives to appear on SNL? What the hell could be more new and diverse than a big beautiful black woman cracking wise about how the media makes her so insecure about herself that she could joke about wanting to be a slave? Isn’t that right up there with Richard Pryor? Even if you found what she did to be unfunny and offensive, shouldn’t we be applauding what SNL attempted? They said yes to a voice that hadn’t been on the show EVER. And that’s great. Even if it comes at the cost of being outraged.
Because outrage definitely has its place – it’s just being misplaced. There are reasons to be outraged and good jokes reveal that. Sometimes the world sucks. Some people get dealt a shitty hand. Life isn’t fair. And you know what? There’s nothing more outrageous than that.
Lucas Zachary Hazlett is a comedy writer and performer in New York City who’s written for MTV, Comedy Central, and Marvel Comics. He improvises regularly at the People’s Improv Theater.