In 1979 comedian Steve Martin released an album (remember albums) entitled Comedy is Not Pretty. Back in 1979, that was a very funny title and Mr. Martin, who can attribute much of his early fame to his appearances on Saturday Night Live, was a very funny man who left audiences in stitches with his character interpretations which ran the gamut from “A Wild and Crazy Guy” to “King Tut”.
Flash forward forty years to 2018 to a brave new world where humor has been replaced by a mélange of preachy political correctness and vitriolic mean-ness. Comedy has been figuratively put through the spin cycle which transformed a fluffy comfortable sweatshirt into a starchy ill-fitting piece of fabric. Or as Joseph Epstein said in a February Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal “Comedy Is Not Pretty, and Nowadays It Isn’t Even Funny”.
Once upon a time, we looked to comedy and comedians as way to lighten our load. During the hour or so where we would treat ourselves to a live or televised comedic performance or comedy sitcom, we had the luxury of checking our personal backpacks at the door or with the click of the remote. We entrust comedians with the dual responsibility of providing us with an escape from our daily lives, but also with crafting a comedic interpretation of the issues of the day. Laughter is a form of release. We all feel by increments better with the crinkling of the smile, the giggle, the laugh and the guffaw. William Shakespeare understood the importance of comic relief. That’s why the lion’s share of his plays, even the tragedies, included at least one funny scene.
Our 21st Century instant gratification, high tech, social media documented lives are just as hungry for humor as those of our Elizabethan counterparts. One could argue that our longer life expectancy makes comedy an even more critical staple than it was in the days of yore. But therein lies the rub. Back in its heyday (1970’s-1990’s) Saturday Night Live used to be really funny. But sometime after the millennium, the show’s producers and writers started losing their way which culminated in a major detour circa the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
The freedom of expression gives us the ability to critique and yes poke fun at our political leaders. Back in the 1970’s Chevy Chase portraying President Gerald Ford as a bumbling klutz was funny and ironic because the former University of Michigan football hero had fallen down the steps of Air Force One. However, in the age of Trump, SNL’s very talented ensemble cast has had more low moments than high ones with truly humorous one-liners increasingly fewer and farther between,
While the presidential campaign was in full swing, SNL was also taking pot shots at the Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton and her challenger Bernie Sanders, but once Trump won the election, SNL jumped on a 24-7 anti-Trump train which was sometimes funny, but mostly just mean and in some cases ghoulish and creepy. (Remember the Kellyanne Conway Fatal Attraction episode?).
That being said, SNL apparently has some perception that they could be potentially alienating half their audience. To that end, their Mother’s Day eve episode (May 12) took a vacation from “Trump attacks” with the cast and crew’s mothers appearing on the show with scripted commentary where some of the mothers were telling their children to stop making fun of the President. While this was a pleasant interlude, SNL was right back at it the following week in their season finale.
Comedy’s evolution from the hilarious to the horrible reached an apex at the 2018 Washington Correspondent’s Dinner on April 26th where a Wolf in a comedian’s clothing used her moment among Washington’s elite to skewer not President Trump, who wisely skipped the event for the second year in a row, but the woman he sent in his stead, his Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Michelle Wolf not only attacked Ms. Sanders’ physical appearance and her southern roots, she also attacked her integrity when she said that “she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
To her credit, Sarah Huckabee Sanders gracefully endured the comments. Reportedly many in attendance were cringing, but only a select few liberals decried it publicly, such as Mika Brzezinski. Wolf’s routine was not only mean-spirited, it wasn’t funny. I am not even going to comment about her jokes about abortion. Yet she was rewarded with a lot of publicity and her own show The Break on Netflix where she continues the same style of personal attack comedy.
And then there’s Roseanne Barr. On May 29th, the comedian who for the past few weeks has been enjoying the reboot of a lifetime with the launch of a contemporary version of her 1990’s hit sitcom about a working class family, went on a Twitter rampage where she compared President Obama’s former top advisor Valerie Jarrett who is partially black, to a spawn from a marriage of “the planet of the apes” and “the Muslim Brotherhood”. ABC quickly decried the rant as “abhorrent” and summarily fired Roseanne and cancelled the hit series.
Roseanne’s comments were completely inappropriate and also not funny. And her lame attempts to walk them back by blaming her Ambien dosage and saying that she did not know Jarrett was black just added more fuel to the public firestorm against her. Of course, the main stream media were quick to blame Donald Trump for Roseanne’s tweet. The first episode of the new series depicted the Roseanne Conner character as a “Make America Great Again” cap-wearing Trump supporter who is at loggerheads with her sister Jackie, a cat ear hat-wearing Hillary supporter.
And while President Trump sent out a positive tweet about the first episode which was a ratings bonanza, you can’t pin Barr’s rant on him. The comedian has had a history of being a lightning rod and an aggressive publicity seeker who has made racist comments in the past and also exhibited disrespect for patriotic symbols. Does anyone remember her deliberately off-key national anthem rendition? ABC should have known what they were getting into when they hired her.
But does the punishment fit the crime? 200 cast and crew members will lose their jobs. There is now talk about a Roseanne revival without Roseanne which would focus on the Darlene character, played by Sara Gilbert who is also currently an executive producer on the Roseanne show. But of course the show’s success is contingent upon the public’s interest in a Roseanne show without Roseanne. Say what you will, the public usually tunes in to see the lightning rod.
While the media and public at large were still grappling with the Roseanne rant, Samantha Bee stole the show with her own monologue on her TBS program Full Frontal where she referred to first daughter Ivanka Trump as a “feckless” expletive which begins with a C and ends with T because she has not challenged her father on his immigration policies. Bee also intimated an incestuous relationship between Ivanka and her father. Oh and by the way, Bee’s attack on the First Daughter was not a rogue event. The monologue was scripted and vetted before it was recorded. So the whole production team knew about it.
Like Roseanne, Bee apologized on Twitter, but only after a bunch of sponsors started squawking. Yet she still gets to keep her job. So a racist comment cannot be whitewashed, but the vilest of misogynist monikers can be easily forgiven? Would Bee have been so easily taken back into the fold if she used the same expletive to describe Chelsea Clinton?
What do the Roseanne, Michelle Wolf and Samantha Bee stories have in common? They are all examples of female comedians viciously attacking other women. The first females to break into the boys’ club of comedy such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers initially peppered their routines with self-deprecating remarks. While an act based on making fun of yourself has its limits, it is a lot more ingratiating than one that shoots poison arrows at others especially other women. After all, to quote former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.
Comedians, particularly political comedians, have a treasured role in our society. They are the story tellers of our day. Comedy does not need to be pretty, but it certainly shouldn’t be angry. And an angry woman is certainly not pretty.
Image: Excerpted from: Leah Mark – This file has been extracted from another file: Roseanne Hard Rock Cafe.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69545191