When the media takes down a comedian, we all lose. When the hubbub of Twitter firestarters and talking heads are starting fights to fill time, and when those shrillest voices of dissent cost a satirist their livelihoods, there is no excuse. It’s as wrong as it is shortsighted — and sadly, it seems to be happening more and more.
The public rigmarole that comedians Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher are dealing with right now are nothing new… satire’s current king, Stephen Colbert, was going through this very nonsense just a month ago. But just as Colbert won the war waged against his very existence (and did so without even offering an apology), Griffin has lost. And Maher’s fate seems to remain underdetermined.
But the incidents that caused the Internet to uprise against these three jesters are very different.
For Colbert, it was his nightly POTUS roast that put him in hot water, after the Daily Show vet subtly suggestion a great use for the president’s big mouth.
For Maher, his heat came during a conversation with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, when he replied to an offer of fieldwork with an off-color use of a racial epithet.
And for Griffin, a Tweeted horror-movie type photo of her holding a severed head of the 45th — dripping in corn-syrupy red goo — proved costly.
As there remains no rulebook on how lines are crossed, and the consequences there-of, each of these comics got different social media “sentences.”
Colbert returned to his stomping ground “regret-free” the very next night , with only a routine FCC investigation for the use of a (censored) naughty word.
Maher, after issuing a limp statement of regret, appeared to be out of the immediate crossfire – his Sunday night timeslot remains unchanged and HBO issued no indication that he was persona non grata.
But for Griffin, the sky indeed did fall – she lost her annual gig drinking and hitting on Anderson Cooper during CNN’s New Years Eve telecast, she lost her commercial arrangement with toilet company Squatty Potty, and was blacklisted by fellow comedian-turned-Senator Al Franken, who was set to do a promotional event with the comic for his new book. Despite her apology and her “begging for forgiveness,” the world judged her harshly. As the death threats allegedly piled up, Griffin canceled her stand-up dates and is waiting for this to blow over. Hopefully, it does.
Putting aside the actual comedic merits of the photo, it poses plenty of eyebrow-raising issues. The problem here is not so much the image’s reaction, because those demanding a blackball of the redhead were likely not familiar with the Bravo star’s comedy anyway — wishing the worst on those unlucky few who “crossed the line” is a bandwagon jumping tradition.
Nor truly does the problem lay with that momentary high ground Griffin’s stunt gave Team Trump – First Lady Melania offered a solemn condemnation of the frightening photo, saying: “When you consider some of the atrocities happening in the world today, a photo opportunity like this is simply wrong and makes you wonder about the mental health of the person who did it.” While that statement no doubt stings, it’ll hardly be what people remember about this dust-up next week.
No, the larger issue at play is how CNN rolled with this punch. The news organization and a frequent target of the President’s “Fake News” labeling wrath opted to oust the contributor almost instantly, with her once-pal Anderson Cooper, positing the potshot, “For the record, I am appalled by the photo shoot Kathy Griffin took part in [which was] clearly disgusting and completely inappropriate.” That Twitter-blurted slam, an unnecessary kick when the 56-year-old is at lowest, is exactly what irks hardest about CNN’s fragile superiority.
CNN certainly dislikes when Trump bashes them publicaly, as reporting the facts is a job of theirs and something they take pride in. And Griffin, whether you chuckled at the gory gag or not, was absolutely in her professional arena of making jokes, something she certainly takes pride in as well. So was the “shock factor” a miscalculation? Apparently. But these days a comedy profession all-but has to takes these risks daily, as part of their job unofficial job description includes a vigorous social media dossier, required active engagement with the news of the day to offer constant hot takes to fans eager for their brand of bile.
Whether followers react negatively or positively should be irrelevant – it’s no greater sin than telling a stinker during the honing phase of a new stand-up routine. And it should go without saying with such a visceral visual gag, but Griffin clearly intended the gruesome gourd to be gasp inducing. So for anyone is cable news to slam the door because of a strong opinion (or perhaps in this case, a satirical stand) is beyond the pale insane – that’s exactly the currency they trade in!
Without the magic formula for how to predict the future, no doubt many of the Internet’s comedy minds note the Griffin backlash as a parable and at least thought twice about their statuses that weekend. But cautious thoughts are not what comedy deal in – comedy propositions often are intentionally provoking, designed to challenge your natural perspectives. If Griffin played her career safe, CNN likely wouldn’t have had a relationship with her in the first place. To in effect shun the comedian for doing her job is a cowardly act, but to bad-mouthing as well is downright shameful – to say nothing of the risk such a gambit runs. Pray that sort of second-guessing doesn’t start happening to reporters or journalists… or pundits.
While comedians should hardly be allowed to live under a different set of rules, their valuable contributions to societal discourse shouldn’t be dismissed. In a tangled, interconnected world where access to power players often keeps the media at arm’s reach, somehow satirists have become the unfiltered voices in the storm – unafraid of criticizing those on top directly. Its an enviable position, as the best jokers get the fun of rubbing elbows with Hollywood, while also getting to expound their positions on the issues that matter. But the worst thing a comic can be is inauthentic and audiences have showed time and time again they respond when funny people speak their truths, both earnestly and through their medium.
The media, now more that ever, should be protecting those still brave enough to speak at all, let alone offer up a joke. And no one should lose their heads if they just don’t like it.