The Limits of Comedy

Controversies involving Jimmy Kimmel and "The Simpsons" highlight a perennial question.

Controversies involving Jimmy Kimmel and “The Simpsons” highlight a perennial question.

Earlier in the week, Ira Madison III called out Kimmel and others in a Daily Beast column titled, “Jimmy Kimmel’s Homophobic Attacks on Sean Hannity Expose a Liberal Blind Spot.

The ongoing feud between Sean Hannity and Jimmy Kimmel has been mostly exhausting.

Incensed at Kimmel lightly mocking first lady Melania Trump, Hannity has accused the late-night host of being “Harvey Weinstein Jr.,” pointing to sketches from Kimmel’s previous TV series The Man Show as evidence. Ignoring how Hannity’s repeated jabs make light of Weinstein’s actual crimes (comparing dozens of sexual assault allegations to scripted comedy sketches), his allegations are laughable given his passionate defense of former colleague/credibly accused sexual predator Bill O’Reilly, and the whole charade reeks of a desperate ratings stunt in light of rival Rachel Maddow’s March domination, nothing in this feud was particularly memorable until Kimmel hit Hannity with a jab of his own.

On Friday, Kimmel tweeted at the Fox News host, “Don’t worry—just keep tweeting—you’ll get back on top! (or does Trump prefer you on bottom?) Either way, keep your chin up big fella..XO.” In addition, he tweeted, “When your clown makeup rubs off on Trump’s ass, does it make his butt look like a Creamsicle?”

Kimmel was lambasted on Twitter for resorting to gay jokes to get in a dig at Hannity. But he’s far from the only person—that day even—who lobbed homophobic jokes at the Trump administration. Also on Friday, Chelsea Handler tweeted, “Jeff Sessions is definitely a bottom.” When called out on it, she responded, “I’m a bottom and proud of it.”

Why do “progressive” comedians so readily jump to homophobic jokes when it comes to mocking conservatives? Either insinuating that they like receiving anal sex via bottoming—or any other homosexual sex act—is the surefire way to knock someone down a peg. Because insisting that they’re gay must be the ultimate insult, right? Because the insinuation that a man might want to have sex with another man is somehow funny. The act itself is comical.

They’re not the first liberal comedians to resort to such cheap jokes. Just think of last year, when Stephen Colbert used homophobic jokes of his own to attack President Trump on The Late Show. “The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster,” Colbert said to Trump during a 2017 monologue. Once again, the idea of a man engaging in a sexual act with another man is seen as funny. It’s the worst way to insult a straight man: implying that he might be gay.

Most people don’t find these terms homophobic—like Alec Baldwin when he was called out by Anderson Cooper in 2014 for using anti-gay slurs. After referring to a tabloid reporter as a “toxic little queen” and “cocksucking [whatever],” CNN’s Cooper called him out for using anti-gay epithets on The Howard Stern Show. “When he called the person a cocksucker and then said he didn’t know ‘cocksucker’ was an anti-gay—the worst thing you can possibly think of to say, which is what this situation was, to talk about a sexual act between two guys as being the worst thing you can possibly think of. That seems to indicate [anti-gay rhetoric]—but I never said he was homophobic. I have no idea what’s in his head,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile, a longstanding charge that the Indian convenience store owner Apu on the long-running animated series “The Simpsons” is racist escalated.

The NYT culture critic Sopan Deb (“‘The Simpsons’ Responds to Criticism About Apu With a Dismissal“):

At the end of 2017, Hank Azaria, the voice behind Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a convenience-store owner on “The Simpsons” with a thick Indian accent, responded to a recent groundswell of criticism that the character was racist. It came to the forefront thanks to Hari Kondabolu, a comedian of South Asian descent, who made a documentary, “The Problem With Apu,” which debuted last fall.

“I think the documentary made some really interesting points and gave us a lot of things to think about and we really are thinking about it,” Mr. Azaria told TMZ. He said he found the situation “upsetting.”

On Sunday night, “The Simpsons,” a cultural staple and television’s longest-running sitcom, now in its 29th season, finally responded: with a dismissive nod that earned the show more criticism, especially from Mr. Kondabolu himself. The episode, titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” featured a scene with Marge Simpson sitting in bed with her daughter Lisa, reading a book called “The Princess in the Garden,” and attempting to make it inoffensive for 2018.

At one point, Lisa turns to directly address the TV audience and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The shot then pans to a framed picture of Apu at the bedside with the line, “Don’t have a cow!” inscribed on it.

Marge responds: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”

Followed by Lisa saying, “If at all.”

The writers of the episode — one of whom was Matt Groening, the show’s creator — received immediate backlash. Some viewers found the response tone deaf, and criticized the choice of Lisa, often the show’s moral center, to voice it. (And not to mention: “Don’t have a cow!” could be interpreted as a jab at Apu’s Hinduism.)

NPR’s Linda Holmes (“‘The Simpsons’ To ‘The Problem With Apu’: Drop Dead“) was even more harsh:

So Lisa, the show’s unshakable crusader for justice, including in matters of popular culture, has been reduced to a mouthpiece for the lazy idea that asking for better representation is an unfair burden on creators; an unreasonable demand that things be “politically correct.” That is regrettable, to say the least.

Taking these in reverse order, I tend to side with Reason‘s Robby Soave (“The Simpsons Admitted Apu Is Problematic, Just Not the Way People Wanted“):

 The clip was clearly introspective. After lamenting that erasing all offense can make for uninteresting comedy, Lisa tacitly references the show’s history of depicting Apu as a stereotype. Marge say that “some things will be dealt with at a later date, if at all.” Many seem to be interpreting this as the writers letting themselves off the hook (The New York Times called it “a dismissal”), but I’m not so sure. It sounds like The Simpsons is making fun of itself for not handling this whole thing better, while also mocking the humorlessness of political-correctness-run-amok. The expressions on their faces say a great deal: Lisa and Marge look uncomfortable, even regretful, rather than defensive.

This falls well short of a full apology, and thus it isn’t surprising that Kondabolu and company aren’t satisfied with it. But The Simpsons didn’t dodge The Problem with Apu. The writers evidently think the problem is more complicated.

Rather clearly, the Apu character wouldn’t be in the show if it were being created today. As it is, though, he’s a staple of the series that’s something of an embarrassing anachronism. It’s a play to cultural stereotypes that we commonly joked about once upon a time (Joe Biden was roundly lambasted for falling into this particular one a few years back). But Kondabolu himself acknowledges that he loves the show and was once grateful that it even had a character that looked like him in the regular cast.

Still, as Holmes rightly observes, they’ve had 30 years to figure this out.

Apu is not the central character of The Simpsons, and it’s absurd to suggest that the fabric of the show will be unwound if he doesn’t continue to be the same caricature he is. His existence at the periphery — his very flatness, and his definition as a bag of signifiers meant to scream “INDIAN!” is integral to what it means to write a racist stereotype. It’s galling that writers will force a character to exist as funny scenery and then complain that they cannot change him without upsetting the emotional arc of the series.

Furthermore, Apu is not appearing in a 50-year-old book by a now-dead author. Apu is a going concern. Someone draws him, over and over again. Azaria makes money to keep imitating Peter Sellers imitating an Indian man. Scripts are still being written. What if Marge were confronted not with reading Lisa an old book, but with reading a new book in the same series that continued to embrace the same racist portrayals it did 50 years ago? Is Marge really supposed to relax and read Lisa a new racist book because she loved an old racist book?

The idea of processing art in its own context while still recognizing its flaws is a delicate act. Consider Molly Ringwald’s recent essay about the early John Hughes movies in which she appeared. She has affection for them, and for Hughes, but she knows what realities they reflect. Movies exist; they are fixed pieces, and you can approach them from a lot of angles. But there’s no grandfathering in of a character or a franchise, as The Simpsons seems to suggest, such that you can’t complain about new material written for a stereotyped character because he’s been a stereotyped character for almost 30 years.

Furthermore, she notes,

But what really reveals the blind spot at issue here is the idea that Apu was once “applauded and inoffensive.” The writers equate what they have heard with what has been said, and they equate what has been said with what has been felt. The fact that they have managed to ignore the criticism of Apu until recently doesn’t mean that Apu was inoffensive and is now offensive — or, as they prefer to say, “politically incorrect.” It means that they were doing exactly what they’ve been accused of doing: They were stereotyping people who had very little access to opportunities to loudly object.

What is entirely missing from this response is any recognition of the effects on the people who find themselves not represented, or represented poorly — and they were at the center of Kondabolu’s documentary.

 As to the controversy surrounding Kimmel, Handler, Colbert, and others, one presumes that these comics get away with it precisely because they’re liberal—and usually attacking conservative targets. Were the situation reversed, it would be seen as clearly homophobic and mean-spirited.  But because it’s coming from progressive, likable comedians who are friendly to gays—and their targets are not—the joke is on Hannity and Trump, not on the gays.

This speaks to a larger issue, though. Some of the best comedy is great precisely because it pushes the envelope on social taboos and makes people uncomfortable. Lenny Bruce was slightly before my time but was literally arrested on multiple occasions for violating public decency laws; he’s now considered among the greatest comics of all time. George Carlin and Richard Pryor, the great stand-ups of my early youth, were incredibly profane for their time and shocked audiences with both their language and their frank discussion of religion and race. The most important comics of recent years, Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Louis C.K.,* likewise push taboos.

It’s certainly possible to do be a great comic and stay within the zone of comfort. Bob Hope,  Johnny Carson, Bill Cosby,* Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, and Jim Gaffigan come to mind. And, in some ways, it’s harder to be great while staying within the bounds acceptable for “family” acts. But, almost by definition, they’re not expanding the bounds of their medium.

Chappelle and Gervais, in particular, have been rather outspoken pushing the notion that there are no topics immune from jokes. Chapelle opened a recent Netflix special with the observation,

“Sometimes, the funniest thing to say is mean,” Chappelle says at the very top of his newest hour. It’s a trigger warning of sorts for those in the audience. “You guys gotta remember, I’m not saying it to be mean. I’m saying it because it’s funny. And everything’s funny until it happens to you.”

Gervais, on the eve of an Oscar hosting stint several years back, observed,

“A comedian’s job isn’t just to make people laugh, it’s to make them think. If there’s a meaning to it, and a substance and a bit of a depth, then you’re doing something. Now, here’s the rub: offence, is never given, its taken. If you’re not offended by something, then there was no offence, it’s as simple as that. If you are offended by something, walk away. I’m offended by things all the time but I haven’t got the right not to be offended, and remember this: just because someone is offended it doesn’t mean they’re right.

“Some people are offended by equality, some people are offended by mixed marriage, some people are offended by everything. You can’t worry about that. And you can’t legislate against stupidity. I’m not one of those comedians who thinks my comedy is my conscience taking the day off, my conscience doesn’t take a day off. I can justify everything I do. You have got to be able to look someone in the eye and tell them why you made that joke. And if I’m doing stand-up and I go suddenly go, oh God, I hope so-and-so isn’t in tonight, then I shouldn’t be doing that joke.”

He’s come under increasing fire, as has Chappelle, for jokes that are offensive to the transgender community. Brilliant, funny jokes, in my opinion. But, then, I’m cisgender.

Similarly, the sheer twistedness of Chapelle’s controversial take on Bill Cosby strikes me as genius:

The ’70s were a wild era and while all this was going on, Bill Cosby raped 54 people. Holy shit, that’s a lot of rapes, man. This guy’s putting up real numbers. He’s like the Steph Curry of rape. Man, that’s a lot of rapes! Fifty-four! If he had raped 30 less people, that’s still two dozen rapes! Don’t forget, each one of these rapes has eight hours of sleep in it. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s over 400 hours of rape. It only takes 65 hours to get a pilot’s license. If rapes were aircrafts, this nigga is Top Gun for sure.

Yeah, that’s a tough one. And I was onstage not too long ago. I was in Syracuse, New York… the show didn’t go so good, all because I was talking about Bill Cosby a little bit. Not a little bit. I’ll be honest. I talked about him for like maybe 25 minutes. And a woman stood up in the back of the room and she screamed out, “You are a fucking asshole for saying these things!”

“I know.”

Instantly I felt bad. Not bad about what I was saying. I just felt bad like, “Oh, that’s too bad she doesn’t like the show.” I didn’t realize it at first but not only did she say that, she was rushing the stage. By the time I saw her, I just saw this shadowy figure fucking charging up the aisle towards me in full fight mode. I was horrified. I said, “Oh my god! I’mma kick this bitch in the face.” Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. Security tackled her. But it was a really fucking horrifying scene. A scuffle ensued. And then, finally, she screamed out to me, “Women suffer.” I said, “I know.”

And ladies, I need you to know that I know. I need you to know. Seriously, there’s a lot of men in this room that identify themselves as feminists. I would include myself in that. Don’t ever forget, we all have mothers and daughters and sisters and wives, and we want to see all these women do well and not be held back by their gender. There’s a lot of men like that in this room. There’s a lot of men like that in the world. Or as we are known on the streets, bitch-ass niggas.

But as this woman was wrestling and screaming at me, I started to take offense. And I’ll be honest, race was involved. She was a young white woman. Well-intentioned but just not thinking it all the way through. “Bitch, how the fuck are you going to yell at a black man about discrimination?” She didn’t get it. She just kept going.

“Women suffer!”

“I know.”

“Women suffer!”

“Same team.”

“Women suffer!”

“I know.”

And this is when she went too far: “We suffer just like you.”

“Slow your roll, bitch. You suffer, yes, but not like me. Not like us.”

She goes, “Suffering is suffering. What’s the difference?”

I said, “Come on, white woman, you know what it is. You was in on the heist. You just don’t like your cut.”

You suffer, I suffer. You suffer, I suffer. That’s how it works. Can’t do comparative suffering. If you’re hungry and your friend said, “You know, people are starving in Africa,” “So what, nigga? I still want lunch.” Black people know about comparative suffering, and you know that it’s a fucking dead-end game. Blacks and Jews do that shit to each other all the time. You ever played Who Suffered More with a Jewish person? It’s a tough game. Whenever you think you’ve got the Jewish guy on the ropes, that motherfucker will be like, “Well don’t forget about Egypt.” “Egypt? Goddamn, nigga, I didn’t know we was going all the way back to Egypt.”

What the fuck is wrong with her? What does she think? Does she think that I don’t know that rape is wrong? Does she think that maybe I don’t have empathy for Bill Cosby’s alleged victims? And I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that technically these are all still allegations. Although, I admit it looks very bad. Perhaps if she looked at it correctly, she would have empathy for me, the man she was attacking, a 42-year-old black comedian.

Later in the set, in the sort of callback Chapelle is famous for, he returns:

Obviously, Bill Cosby was a hero to me. And she doesn’t know what it feels like to think that your hero might’ve done something so heinous, my God, you can’t imagine. It’d be as if you heard that chocolate ice cream itself had raped 54 people. You’d say to yourself, “Oh man, but I like chocolate ice cream. I don’t want it to rape.”

Didn’t want to believe it. At first, I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Man, these people are obviously trying to destroy Dr. Cosby’s rich legacy.” Even 34 allegations into it, I was still like, “Man…he probably only raped 10 or 11 of those people.”

I know, I know. But it’s really tough. You guys are young. Imagine if you found out 40 years from now that Kevin Hart raped 54 people. You’d be like, “Oh my God.” The only one that would believe that would be Katt Williams. He’d be like, “I knew that motherfucker was up to something! I knew Kevin raped those people!”

The sheer volume of taboos he breaks—and insights he offers—in that bit is staggering.

He pushes the envelope further in a bit about the #MeT00 movement. His commentary on the Louis C.K. incident and one of his alleged victims is particularly tough:

To those who come up to him and ask if he knew about C.K.’s behavior, Chappelle says, “No, bitch, I did not know. What the fuck do you think we talk about at the comedy club?” Acknowledging that he “shouldn’t say this,” Chappelle says the allegations against C.K. were “the only ones that made me laugh.” He cracks up uncontrollably as he imagines all of C.K.’s comedian friends reading the details of his actions in the paper and saying, “Word…?”

“It’s terrible, I know it’s terrible,” Chappelle says. “Ladies, you are right. But at the same time, Jesus Christ, they took everything from Louis. I think it might be disproportionate. I can’t tell. This is where it’s hard to be man.”

To the female comedian who has said that Louis C.K. masturbating in front of her ruined her comedy dreams, Chappelle replies, cigarette in hand “Well then I dare say, madam, you may have never had a dream. C’mon man, that’s a brittle spirit.”

“You think if Louis C.K. jerked off in front of Martin Luther King, he’d be like, ‘I can’t continue this movement?'” he asks. “How the hell are you going to survive in show business if this is an actual obstacle to your dreams?”

As a “black dude,” Chappelle says he is just “held to a higher standard than these women.”

But he defends this as being in the service of comedy:

“You tell jokes from everything, from race to politics … do you worry about crossing the line or is there a line that you won’t cross?” King asked.

“Comedy is weird. The line, the line moves. It changes,” Chappelle said, adding, “but I think a lot of, especially in comedy, a lot of it has to do with intent.”

“And your intent is?”

“To make people laugh, to reconcile paradox. I’m, like, just openly – sometimes openly venting. I think that when you get to a certain altitude, there’s more scrutiny over the things you say, ’cause the platform is so powerful,” Chappelle said.

Or, less convincingly,

“Everybody gets mad because I say these jokes. But you have to understand this is the best time to say them. Now more than ever, I know there’s some comedians in the back — motherfuckers, you have a responsibility to speak recklessly, otherwise my kids might not know what reckless talk sounds like. The joys of being wrong. I didn’t come here to be right, I just came here to fuck around.”

Returning to the controversies of the day, it seems obvious that the Apu character has to go away or transform. It would be perfectly acceptable for, say, “South Park” to feature an Indian store clerk character to skewer our stereotypes. But Apu doesn’t seem to serve that purpose.  Rather clearly, neither the showrunners nor Azaria have malign intent. But the humor is unintentionally punching down.

The Kimmel and Colbert jokes are different, in that they’re punching at equals, if not up. But I suspect we’re getting to the same point with sexual orientation-related humor as we are with race-based humor; it’s just incredibly difficult to pull it off for those in the out-group. Like it or not, gays making fun of straights simply lacks the same sting as the reverse.

Louis C.K., for example, managed to pull off jokes using “faggot” and “nigger” to widespread praise, mostly from the left. Again, though, that was because he was doing them through a progressive lens and using them to skewer homophobes and racists. But even he was getting some pushback from other comics and culture critics. One suspects white, straight comics won’t be doing these sort of jokes a decade from now.

Years ago, the legendary Mel Brooks offered brilliant insights into the limits of humor in an interview with Der Spiegel.

SPIEGEL: Your new comedy “The Producers” is set at the end of the 1950s on Broadway and concerns a Nazi musical that breaks box office records. It shows a dancing and singing Hitler. Isn’t that a bit tasteless?

Brooks: Of course. But it’s also funny, isn’t it? The film revolves around a Broadway producer who, for financial and technical reasons, wants to produce a flop. After he turns down the chance to adapt Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” he comes up with the idea of creating a musical about Hitler, produced by the lousiest director in the city, cast with the worst actors by far  in the middle of the Jewish metropolis of New York. He’s sure it won’t work. Yet because the audience considers the piece to be a brilliant parody, his worst fears are realized, it’s a hit. “The Producers” therefore deals with the difficulty of having a flop.

SPIEGEL: Which you of course know well yourself.  “The Producers” is based on a musical that you produced that ran successfully on Broadway for five years and also on the film “The Producers” that you shot in 1967. How did the audience react to the film back then?

Brooks: The Jews were horrified. I received resentful letters of protest, saying things like: “How can you make jokes about Hitler? The man murdered 6 million Jews.” But “The Producers” doesn’t concern a concentration camp or the Holocaust.

SPIEGEL: Can you really separate Hitler from the Holocaust?

Brooks: You have to separate it. For example, Roberto Benigni’s comedy “Life Is Beautiful” really annoyed me. A crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp. It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it. The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp.

SPIEGEL: But the film has deeply moved a lot of people.

Brooks: I always asked myself: Tell me, Roberto, are you nuts? You didn’t lose any relatives in the Holocaust, you’re not even Jewish. You really don’t understand what it’s all about. The Americans were incredibly thrilled to discover from him that it wasn’t all that bad in the concentration camps after all. And that’s why they immediately pressed an Oscar into his hand.

SPIEGEL: So there are limits to humor?

Brooks: Definitely. In 1974, I produced the western parody “Blazing Saddles,” in which the word “nigger” was used constantly. But I would never have thought of the idea of showing how a black was lynched. It’s only funny when he escapes getting sent to the gallows. You can laugh at Hitler because you can cut him down to normal size.

SPIEGEL: Can you also get your revenge on him by using comedy?

Brooks: Yes, absolutely. Of course it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. In doing so, we should remember that Hitler did have some talents. He was able to fool an entire population into letting him be their leader. However, this role was basically a few numbers too great for him—but he simply covered over this deficiency.

I’d add that, at least in 1967, only a Mel Brooks—a Jewish man who had in fact lost loved ones in the Holocaust—could have gotten away with “The Producers.” Similarly, were Kondabolu writing or voicing Apu, it would be taken differently.

Like it or not, the line between pushing the boundaries of political correctness and insensitivity moves constantly. But one is always safer if the butt of the joke is more  powerful than the comedian, not less.

*Obviously, the rape and sexual assault allegations against Cosby and C.K. retrospectively color their work. Still, the scandals involving these men were related to the abuse of the power their stardom gave them, not their comedy.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Entertainment, Humor, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Comedy is pain turned sideways. That means there is a cruelty inherent in comedy—either cruelty towards yourself or cruelty towards others. Maybe it’s time for no comedy.

  2. TM01 says:

    “one presumes that these comics get away with it precisely because they’re liberal—and usually attacking conservative targets. Were the situation reversed, it would be seen as clearly homophobic and mean-spirited.”

    This. So much this.

    Vs a “macaca moment.” What the heck is a macaca?, says 99% of the country. That one off hand comment is Leading News against a republican. Biden got a bit of push back for his 7/11 comment, but he’s Just Crazy Old Joe.

    Then throw in the whole “tea-bagger” (snicker) crap.

    Also, I don’t know one bar owner who is like Moe. When will that insensitive character be changed?

  3. Butch Bracknell says:

    That was intense. And far afield of “security studies.” But thoughtful and useful.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Comedians are always pushing. Every now and again one is bound to step over the line. I can’t get to worked up over it.

    A good read James, but I have to take exception to this:

    Like it or not, gays making fun of straights simply lacks the same sting as the reverse.

    It’s hilarious. Being a straight guy, I find the zingers even funnier than some of my gay friends. But then I have the ability to laugh at my foibles, especially the ones I’m not even aware of until they are pointed out, something that is all too lacking in some of our fellow humans.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Right. But that’s really my point: Straights can laugh when gay comics point out their foibles because being straight is the norm. It’s like “white guys can’t dance” and its variants.

  6. KM says:

    @TM01 :

    Then throw in the whole “tea-bagger” (snicker) crap.

    To be fair, they named themselves just like the alt-right did. They were very proud of it until someone pointed out what it was slang for and then suddenly it’s a hideous slur on their character, how dare you liberal!! We actually have pictures and videos of people wearing tea bags around and citing the Boston Tea Party while cheerfully telling the world they were “TEA baggers”.

    You don’t get to blame others for the nickname you pick for yourself. Five seconds on the internet would have told you what a bad choice that was.

  7. george says:

    I don’t know, is there a single regular character on the show which isn’t some sort of mocking stereotype? Apu, Tony, the Scottish janitor, Homer himself (do you really know any white male like him?), Bart … they’re not supposed to be realistic.

    There is definitely a problem with stereotypes in serious shows (I hated the depictions of native Americans in westerns), but taking shows like “The Simpsons” or “South Park” seriously about race relations is like taking say what happens in Bugs Bunny’s “Road runner” seriously about physics. Its a cartoon.

  8. SKI says:

    First of all, great piece, James. Demonstrates the inherent advantage of blogging over twitter – the ability to discuss, illuminate and demonstrate nuance and reasoned, rationale discourse.

    That said, and it wouldn’t be me without my quibble, I think you missed on one paragraph. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the same one that made TM01 so, so happy.

    As to the controversy surrounding Kimmel, Handler, Colbert, and others, one presumes that these comics get away with it precisely because they’re liberal—and usually attacking conservative targets. Were the situation reversed, it would be seen as clearly homophobic and mean-spirited. But because it’s coming from progressive, likable comedians who are friendly to gays—and their targets are not—the joke is on Hannity and Trump, not on the gays.

    Two things struck me about it – one initially and the other after reading the rest of the piece. The initial reaction was that your admitted presumption was wrong – both factually as they clearly aren’t “getting away with it” given that they have all gotten a lot of heat for those jokes and stylistically as it struck me as DC-conventional wisdom gruel rather than actual analysis.

    The second reaction was based on reading the second half. There are three key factors swimming around in there – all of which I think are correct and applicable. One of which is your actual conclusion “But one is always safer if the butt of the joke is more powerful than the comedian, not less.” The other two are (a) that groups, particularly disadvantaged or minority groups, can make fun of themselves in ways that outsiders can’t and (b) intent matters.

    Kimmel and Colbert were wrong to make the jokes they did. Period. They they didn’t have malicious intent is the reason they weren’t seen as “mean-spirited”. That they weren’t targeting gays themselves is why they weren’t accused of being “homophobic”. It wasn’t their politics or their assigned partisan team affiliation. It was the facts. They were wrong to use the slurs and did in fact get slammed for it. That they didn’t get called mean spirited and homophobic is also not because they are progressives but because they weren’t either. Yes, that they weren’t punching down helped but it didn’t save the joke or excuse it. They were just wrong.

  9. A narrow point in regards to Apu and the on-screen response: I am constantly struck that “politically correct” seems to be deployed the most (or so it seems, at least) in the context of people griping about why they can’t make fun of minorities. This undercuts the complaint, to me at least.

    (And this comment is not directed at the post or to James, but to the broader conversation).

  10. With regard to Apu, notwithstanding the stereotyping, one could make the argument that he’s the sanest character in all of Springfield. An apparently successful business owner, family man, loyal friend.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @SKI: My only quibble with that is with this: “That they didn’t get called mean spirited and homophobic is also not because they are progressives but because they weren’t either.” A conservative comic who wasn’t personally homophobic would nonetheless have been treated differently. That’s not even a complaint really but an observation about how group associations work.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “politically correct” seems to be deployed the most (or so it seems, at least) in the context of people griping about why they can’t make fun of minorities.

    And women and the LGBTQ community. I agree. I don’t much use it anymore because of that connotation but when I do it’s in the broader sense of offending current elite orthodoxies.

    @Doug Mataconis: I had a similar argument in an early draft but was reminded while researching the post that he was, at least in early iterations, also portrayed as something of a crook—selling outdated merchandise and whatnot.

  12. Franklin says:


    Then throw in the whole “tea-bagger” (snicker) crap.

    This is where you lack in self-awareness. It’s not funny because it’s a jab at gays. It’s funny because it’s mostly conservative gay-bashers naming themselves something that is associated with gays.

  13. Franklin says:

    As a young libertarian and everything that entails, I recall watching some long-forgotten SNL skit which was using exaggerated stereotypes. I said to my friends, “I can’t believe they’re doing this.” And that’s where I lacked self-awareness. I was interpreting it as making fun of minorities, until my wiser friends pointed out they were making fun of the stereotype itself.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    Really excellent, piece, James.

    It is infinitely harder to craft a good joke than to find some reason to be offended by same. Taking offense requires no skill, no effort, just a random bleat on Twitter. People who know absolutely fck-all about comedy can sit on their fat asses being in a constant state of rage. In fact, if you want a single picture to embody those on the far right and those on the far left, it’d be some loser in a state of perpetual rage. Turns out Orwell was wrong, the future isn’t a boot stamping on a human face forever, it’s a cage match between the offended for primacy in the victim olympics.

    For the record, Chapelle is right. Black people own this category. Their only competition is Native Americans. Many, many other groups have been screwed, but in the same way that the Holocaust is about Jews (even though many others died) oppression in this country has been overwhelmingly about white on black and white on red. But you know who is not running around in a constant state of high dudgeon? Black people. They didn’t just discover oppression, it’s baked into their lives, and one of the ways that they (like Jews, like the Irish) cope with oppression is humor.

    Who are the most offended people in this country? White progressives and white reactionaries. And some of the comics they are most angry about are black (Chapelle, Rock). White progressives are gentrifying victimhood, suffering from Acquired Victimhood Syndrome. The thing that seems not to have occurred to white people (though I bet it has to black people) is that white privilege is being leveraged to empower the cultural appropriation of experiences and adaptations to same that are the birthright of blacks and reds and whatever color Jews are.

    However, that screed aside: There was a time when the Simpsons would have handled this brilliantly, with heart and insight and above all, humor. But The Simpsons died a long, long time ago. This is zombie Simpsons, run by mediocrities and devoted to nothing but cashing checks. Of course they flubbed the Apu response. Of course they did. They’re hacks

  15. teve tory says:

    It is infinitely harder to craft a good joke than to find some reason to be offended by same. Taking offense requires no skill, no effort, just a random bleat on Twitter. People who know absolutely fck-all about comedy can sit on their fat asses being in a constant state of rage.

    And sometime not even real rage. Joe Rogan refers to people engaging in “Recreational Outrage”.

  16. teve tory says:

    Outraged leftists can be obnoxious, but 9 times out of 10 it’s some 21-yro Oberlin student drunk on Lit Crit and not really a menace to anyone in the big picture.

    Right-wing censorship is still much more fearsome. I live in a state where state employees are prohibited, with threats of firing, from even using the term Climate Change. Scientists applying for grants under the new administration are warned not to even mention global warming in their proposals. Scott Pruitt has gotten multiple career employees fired for truthfully admitting what Pruitt did. Countless women have gone dark on the internet from too many death threats, rape threats, and doxxing. Jerry Falwell Jr. just told a liberal christian speaker that campus police will arrest him if he so much as sets foot on the campus. Trump wants to change the libel laws so he can prosecute the Washington Post. Some right-wing Sinclair host just resigned after saying he wanted to shove a hot poker up 17-yro David Hogg’s nether regions. Ted Nugent got cheers for saying he wanted to machine-gun Hillary in a sensitive area.

    21-yro Oberlin dingbats trying to deplatform a douchey speaker is eye-rolling, but not the real threat, in my opinion.

  17. Joe says:

    I watched that whole Chapelle monologue a few months ago with my late teen/20 year old kids and we had a long talk about many of the same points James makes here. It was really a stunning meta-comedy speech (genius, anyone?), and allowed me to discuss with my kids (who are in creative arts) just these kinds of boundary issues. We also got into the “whaddya do with Cosby and Louis C.K.” discussion and how to you look at art by people you know did bad things. These are complicated issues and we will all struggle them forever. Glad to see the discussion here.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    @teve tory:
    In the country as a whole the Right is absolutely more dangerous. But not in terms of art, literature, movies, comedy etc, because the ‘creative’ world has long-since been inoculated against conservatives. In the creative world it’s the Left you have to fear.

    I’m having lunch today with a famous and talented writer whose career is being systematically destroyed by the Left over – and I am making this up – jokes. Racist jokes? Nope. Misogynist jokes? Nope. Anti-semitic jokes? Nope? Just jokes that ‘made me feel uncomfortable.’ That is now the standard.

    I’m bailing on kidlit largely because the atmosphere has become so oppressive, so grim and humorless and angry, and that is all on the Left because we don’t have anyone in kidlit on the Right. So, predictably, having no real enemies we care about, we’re turning on each other.

  19. James Pearce says:

    Some of the best comedy art is great precisely because it pushes the envelope on social taboos and makes people uncomfortable.

    Fixed that. It’s not just comedy. It’s art in general.

    Now I know there are aesthetic movements, like Soviet Realism, that emphasize realistic imagery and political ideals, but that’s certainly not the only, or even best, way to do it.

    It seems we are making a huge mistake, culturally, by trying to Akhenaten our way to a specific artistic style and a particular social ideal. Maybe we should be like the Muslims and expressly prohibit any attempt at representation, which they find definitionally inadequate and offensive.

    That’s the choice we need to make as a civilization. Choose wisely.

  20. Hal_10000 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    This was the point that occurred to me. The whole point of the Simpsons, as the producer have said many times, is that everyone is stupid and conforms to silly stereotypes. But that’s OK because, in the end, most of them are decent people. Apu may have some stereotypical features, but even in the early days, he was a more three-dimensional character. It’s easy for me to say since I’m white (although they also play around with Jewish stereotypes at times). But the message I have always taken from that, if a message can be taken, is that if you look beyond stereotypes, people are people.

  21. Hal_10000 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Rage is the addiction of our time. Fed by new media and social networks. I once watched an otherwise reasonable person fly off the handle because he saw a commercial for “Transparent” and thought it was pushing an agenda. Maybe it is but … is it worth getting mad over? Just don’t watch the show.

  22. teve tory says:

    @michael reynolds: I agree, and I completely understand artists finding the Left more censorious at the moment. I just wanted to remind people that a generic citizen still has lots more to fear from the Right.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    I’ll offer a simplification: Work ≠ Creator. They are two separate things. In fact, anticipating just such a moment of cultural confusion, I have always despised and rejected the self-aggrandizing language of artistic sacrifice, spilling blood onto the page and all that horsesh!t.

    Shakespeare wrote Merchant of Venice, a fantastically anti-semitic play, and was, by modern standards an anti-semite (though moderate for his day, apparently.) And yet, Hamlet is one of the greatest plays ever written, and Lear is another, and Macbeth another, etc… and more etc… The play, book, movie, TV series is a creation, a product. If you started purging every piece of art created by an abusive drunk or drug addict, or a wife-beater, or a racist, or an anti-Semite, or fraud or a bully or a traitor or a gay-basher, you’re going to be left with damned few works of art, damned few books, and by the way, neither the Bible nor the Koran would survive that test.

    I don’t like the fact that Patrick O’Brian evidently lied about his nationality and may have abandoned his family. Love his books. His books are not about his nationality or his family. I don’t like Nazi-sympathizers like Ezra Pound. But:

    List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
    Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
    Deprived of my kinsmen;
    Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
    There I heard naught save the harsh sea
    And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
    Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
    Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
    The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
    Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
    In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
    With spray on his pinion.

    Is still some pretty fair versifyin’.

  24. Tony W says:

    I have always assumed that when the left lobbed homosexual accusations at the right it was intended to call out the right’s homophobia.

    In other words, if somebody accused me of homosexual tendencies I’d shrug it off as idiocy – a feeble attempt at injuring me with something that the perpetrator would find devastating if the situation was reversed.

    And it’s probably all projection anyway.

    I have come to believe hetero/homosexuality is a continuum, not a black-and-white syndrome, but a scale of grey where people fall somewhere on a scale. I think even a tiny homosexual tendency panics those of the Mike Pence school of fear and repression.

  25. Kathy says:

    I will only say this:

    “The Simpsons” are responsible for one of the best anti-homophobic jokes I’ve ever heard.

    It happens in an episode where Nelson dates Lisa. At one point one of the other bullies tells him “You’re kissing a girl? Dude! That is SO gay.”

  26. Joe says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Your argument was the tenor of the conversation in my house. You would lose a lot of good art if you had to approve all of the artists. Still seems too soon to resurrect Cosby. And, although it didn’t go there, if I had picked a poet with annoying political leanings, I would have gone with Yeats.

  27. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    They didn’t just discover oppression, it’s baked into their lives, and one of the ways that they (like Jews, like the Irish) cope with oppression is humor.

    That is exactly right. Making humor political is the last thing we need.

  28. george says:


    We also got into the “whaddya do with Cosby and Louis C.K.” discussion and how to you look at art by people you know did bad things.

    That computer you wrote your post on? Much of the fundamental theory behind it was done by Heisenberg (the solid state physics is built on the foundation of his and Bohr’s work) who happened to be a member of the German Nazi Party during WW2, by Bill Shockley (a key figure in the development of the transistor, which is what all current chips are based on) who was a eugenicist, and by a long list of sexist and probably racist guys going back to Newton.

    If you can’t (as Reynolds says) separate work from creator you’d better give up your computer, your car, and just about every bit of modern technology (meaning invented after about 1900), because its all tainted, and by things a lot worse than what Cosby is accused of doing, let alone by the depiction of Apu.

    Everyone has good and bad in them; take the good and leave the bad.

  29. grumpy realist says:

    @michael reynolds: Actually, it’s only when you read The Merchant of Venice after reading something like The Jew of Malta that you realize exactly how much of a humanist Shakespeare really was and how brilliant The Merchant of Venice is. Shakespeare has stereotypes, sure. But his Shylock gets off some very good lines which make him real and raise him far beyond the cartoon villain of “a Jew” which litter other Jacobean and Elizabethan plays.

    It’s a lazy writer, comic or otherwise, who uses stereotypes to keep from doing the work of creating real people. And reviewers who have a knee-jerk reaction against seeing individuals with certain stereotypical traits, screaming “stereotype!” no matter how complex the character is–are no better. I should be able to write a story with a female with blonde hair and a ditzy personality without immediately being accused of sexism. (John Dickson Carr, in “The Third Bullet”, did a very funny take on this. Check it out.)

  30. R. Dave says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: A narrow point in regards to Apu and the on-screen response: I am constantly struck that “politically correct” seems to be deployed the most (or so it seems, at least) in the context of people griping about why they can’t make fun of minorities. This undercuts the complaint, to me at least.

    Well, that’s at least in part because in the last 30 years or so (which I believe is the period in which that term has largely been used), it’s primarily jokes aimed at certain minorities that spark the objections in the first place. As others have noted in the thread, The Simpsons is entirely built on characters that are reductive stereotypes on the surface but have a greater depth that the show reveals through the narrative. Willie is a reductive stereotype of Scottish people; Fat Tony is a reductive stereotype of Italian Americans; Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel is a reductive stereotype of poor, rural whites; Krusty is rife with reductive stereotypes of Jewish people; Mr. Burns is a reductive stereotype of rich people; Homer’s father is a reductive stereotype of elderly people; Homer himself is a reductive stereotype of lower-middle class American white men; and so on, and so forth. Yet it’s solely and specifically Apu, the reductive stereotype of a visible minority, that triggers all the soul-searching and recrimination.

  31. de stijl says:

    A key factor is also whether the comedian is “punching down” or “punching up.”

    Punching down is usually mean-spirited and intended to offend, and is always not funny.

  32. Modulo Myself says:

    This is less about comedy and more about white people.

    … a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races. The black pixie—played by Chappelle—wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. “When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable,” says Chappelle. “As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f______ time out after this. Because my head almost exploded.”

    It’s dumb white people who do the Apu voice when they see someone who is Indian. The joke isn’t that funny in the show; certainly not now when the show should have terminated decades ago. Read anything by an American who isn’t white, and you’re going to get the same refrain, over and over and over. I agree with Michael. I love Wallace Stevens, and he was racist as hell, and that was when people knew it was wrong. Personally, I’m really curious how many people who defend controversial art are reading, say, Ishmael Reed. White America is about the most limited basic unit of being in the world.

  33. Kathy says:


    If you can’t (as Reynolds says) separate work from creator you’d better give up your computer, your car, and just about every bit of modern technology (meaning invented after about 1900), because its all tainted, and by things a lot worse than what Cosby is accused of doing, let alone by the depiction of Apu.

    There’s a major difference here, and that’s that science and the basis of technology are objective natural facts. The laws of thermodynamics, for example, imposes the same limitations on heat transfer used for work regardless of the race, ideology, proclivities, culture, peculiarities, politics, etc. of the people making use of engines. In that sense, they are independent of the person who discovers them.

    A work of art is very particular to its creator, and it’s certainly influenced, to varying degrees, by the laundry list of factors cited above.

  34. george says:


    Well, post-modern folks will tell you science is as much cultural as anything else; I don’t actually believe that, but many of the folks making a point of not looking at a piece done by someone who’s done awful do.

    Now I personally agree Heisenberg ‘simply’ discovered the laws of nature; however it was an act of genius, those laws aren’t out there in plain sight – its why very few physicists have the success that Heisenberg had (and believe me, we all try), and its why it took a couple of thousand of years after Archimedes for Newton to come up with his mechanics, despite his laws being out there just waiting to be discovered. Without the Heisenbergs etc we wouldn’t be using computers simply because few of us have that kind of genius.

    But even if I concede the point about science, the technology that came from Heisenberg’s work (ie the transistor which set solid state engineering on its way) was totally an act of its creators – the transistor was no more out there in nature waiting to be discovered than Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” was, it was completely an act of human creativity. Same for as are computers and the various algorithms that run on them. And a key developer was a eugenicist, and many of them had racial and sexist views that would make the Simpsons look mind boggling politically correct … it was in fact a norm for the time.

    If watching say Cosby is condoning his criminal acts, then using a computer is condoning racism and eugenics. Again, I’d say we take the best of what people do, and leave the worst.

    Because there’s almost nothing humans have done which hasn’t been created an individual flawed in one way or another.

  35. george says:

    @de stijl:

    Punching is punching. Mike Tyson was shorter than most of his opponents, he was always punching up. Got a lot of knockouts in the process.

    Meaning, its pretty patronizing to suggest minorities can’t do damage because we’re punching up.

  36. Kathy says:


    Keep in mind, too, that scientific discoveries are not shaped or tailored by the discoverer. Einstein did not set out to make the speed of light the speed limit of the universe (if I may simplify), nor Heisenberg to cause uncertainty in measurements, nor Darwin to make natural selection the major force of evolution, etc.

    A work of art is shaped by its creator and the culture where it’s made in almost all respects.

    Think about it this way: different scientists have come up with identical discoveries independently; different artists have not come up with identical paintings independently

  37. george says:


    I’ll concede the point about science. Though I suspect that without geniuses like Newton and yes, Heisenberg we’d still be using 18th century technology – again, the only people who think those laws take less creativity to discover than completing a good work of art has never tried to discover a scientific law – the school books make it sound like a rote, basically mechanical procedure. Its almost never that way in reality, only the subsequent confirmations are straightforward.

    In any case, the technology that comes from those laws is as completely shaped by its creator as a work of art is shaped by its creator. Think of the laws of physics like the grammar of a language; the transistor, the computer and so on are no more inherent in the laws of physics than “Macbeth” is inherent in the English language; they’re both completely shaped by their creators.

    Which means if enjoying a work of art is condoning the crimes of its creator, then so is using a technology condoning the crimes of its creator. And I can guarantee you just about every piece of technology any of us uses has had creators in its development path who have done some very bad things – some a result of their time (our electrical system – again, a human creation not inherent in the laws of physics – was put on its path by people as racist and sexist as their time), some a result of the normal human failings every one of us has.

    The only way to be pure is to forgo any technology older than an ax (and I suspect there were problems in its development as well). Alternatively, accept the good people do as good, and reject the bad they do as bad. The elders have said that is the old way, and its always made sense to me.

  38. grumpy realist says:

    @george: Shockley was basically a brilliant lunatic with a bee in his bonnet about IQ. He was quite taken aback when he discovered one of the women he interviewed for the position of secretary had a higher IQ than he did. (I heard the story from the woman he interviewed, many years ago at a Xmas party. She thought it a good joke.)

  39. Modulo Myself says:

    If watching say Cosby is condoning his criminal acts, then using a computer is condoning racism and eugenics.

    This is a pretty silly argument. Cosby’s act isn’t about drugging women. There are many flawed people who don’t throw their flaws into their art, just as there are poets like Pound who wrote poems about Mussolini. There’s also stuff that doesn’t age well, like wife beating jokes in the Honeymooners, or Apu.

  40. James Pearce says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    There’s also stuff that doesn’t age well, like wife beating jokes in the Honeymooners, or Apu.

    Do you think there will be things from today that will not age well?

  41. george says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    That’s my point. Cosby’s flaws as a person are independent of his acting, just as Shockley’s flaws as a person are independent of his engineering. Which is why I don’t think watching Cosby’s shows are condoning what he did, and why using a computer isn’t condoning Shockley’s views about eugenics.

    Stuff that doesn’t age I’m happy to judge on its own merits – if I don’t like it today, I don’t care if others liked it in the past. Or the merits of lack there-of of its creator. The work stands alone, for good or for bad.

    Reynolds said it well; separate the person from their work. If the work stands on its own. Mozart apparently really was a jerk. I’m still going to listen to his works, even though there are plenty of lesser works by nicer people out there.

    If Apu is unacceptable (I don’t think it is, nor the mockery of native Americans “The Simpsons” has done, because its a cartoon that mocks everyone and isn’t meant to be taken seriously), then its unacceptable on its own merits, not because of who its creators are.

  42. george says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Your anecdote about Shockley doesn’t surprise me at all; brilliant minds with character flaws is fairly common. I’ve heard Newton wasn’t exactly an angel either. I’m still going to use his physics, probably while using Shockley’s transistors.

  43. An Interested Party says:

    I can’t help but compare the reaction of that woman in Chappelle’s audience to his Cosby jokes to Chappelle’s own reaction to how funny the white guy thought Chappelle was in blackface…as Chappelle himself said, “And everything’s funny until it happens to you.” Indeed…

  44. Grewgills says:

    There are a couple of rather important differences in using a computer vs watching the Cosby show.
    When you watch the Cosby show on television or purchase the media, you are both directly and consciously celebrating the man and you are putting money in his pockets. When you use a computer you are not consciously celebrating Heisenberg and neither are you putting money in his pocket. Your logic equating Shakespeare with Heisenberg and others also doesn’t work. Refusing to use a computer because of the faults of men who were instrumental in it’s development would be akin to refusing to watch any play that could trace influences back to Shakespeare (ie most modern Western plays, movies, and television).

  45. mister bluster says:
  46. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @James Pearce:

    Do you think there will be things from today that will not age well?

    Well, for one, Trump comes to mind, almost immediately.

    30 years from now, people will think we had all lost our collective minds.

  47. Kathy says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Well, for one, Trump comes to mind, almost immediately.

    30 years from now, people will think we had all lost our collective minds.

    People the world over already think so now.

  48. Franklin says:

    @mister bluster: I love the only comment on that video!

  49. James Pearce says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    30 years from now, people will think we had all lost our collective minds.

    Well, sure, but there are only about 3 presidents that are universally loved, and if you think back on the last 10, there’s at least 5 you despise. That’s tribalism.

    I’m talking about ideas we have today that will seem terribly outdated or out of fashion in the future. I mean, one thing I know for sure is that we’re not as enlightened as we think we are, and 30 years from now, we’ll know it all too well.

  50. Matt says:

    I’m bisexual and I am friends with a wide variety of gay people. We can’t figure out how any of the remarks in the first quote are homophobic. I didn’t even realize using the term cocksucker is now a horrible anti-gay slur as many of my friends (including non gays) view it as a fun activity =/ I can understand how a straight man would consider it an insult to be called one though.

    Sorry but I have a hard time getting worked up over a brown noser comment or a dick sucking reference when there’s a whole segment of the population and a political party who are determined to deny me basic rights as a person..

    EDIT : How long before saying someone is sucking up is considered a slur too? Because that’s how we saw the cock sucking comment.

  51. george says:


    Well, you’re talking about a different thing now – basically your point is that its important to make sure that someone that’s done a crime never makes any money again, even if its in some activity unrelated to the crime. That’s different than saying a product is linked to the crime (which is the argument I’ve usually heard, ie that Cosby’s show is eternally linked to Cosby’s crimes).

    So what you seem to be saying is, that if say a grocery store hires someone who at some point in the past murdered someone (to pick a crime worse than what Cosby is accused of doing), then the moral path is to boycott that store, since shopping there would be financially supporting someone who once killed another human being. Okay, I suppose there’s a certain moral consistency in saying that crimes once committed must be punished forever. Its a common viewpoint, as any ex-con will tell you.

    However, I disagree, possibly because so many of my people have spent time in jail (a bigger percentage than even blacks), possibly because I ‘m pretty sure I’m in no position to be a moral judge of others.

    In fact, I’m a big believer in redemption – to the point where I’ve gone out of my way to hire ex-cons to do work (because they have a hard time finding employment because most of society shares your opinion about the need for a crime to follow people the rest of their lives). Do I think people should profit off their crimes? Never. Do I think people should be able to profit from different activity after committing a crime? Yeah, I’m afraid that I do, and I’ve even aided and abetted people in doing so.

    For me, Cosby is different than Apu in that regard; the case with Apu is against the product itself. In Cosby’s case, the product is independent of his crimes, so again, I have no more problem watching one of his shows than I have hiring an ex-con to help me with yard work.

  52. dino says:

    once you agree with Soave you lose all self-respect.

  53. Grewgills says:

    I could buy that argument, if there had been redemption on Cosby’s part. There has not. He still denies what he has done. He is still calling the women he raped liars. Financially supporting an unrepentant rapist is not something I want to do.
    Your grocery store analogy doesn’t work on a few levels and I think you know that. An additional shopper doesn’t make the clerk more money. The hypothetical murder in your scenario has done his time and presumably isn’t telling customers that the person they killed wanted it and so they didn’t really commit a crime. So, no, I’m not saying that crimes should be punished forever. I think you probably understood that. I’m saying that it is entirely legitimate to boycott financially supporting unrepentant criminals who have committed heinous crimes. BTW, killing a single person is heinous, but raping dozens of people is worse.

  54. george says:


    The redemption point is a good one, though it assumes Cosby is guilty. Now I’d bet heavily that he is, and I’m hopeful that’ll be shown in court, but I’m somewhat leery of proclaiming anyone guilty of anything before they’re actually convicted – for that matter, I’ve reasons to sometimes be skeptical of it even when someone is convicted. I’ve no great love for prosecutors, or the legal system.

    I agree your points against the grocery analogy are good, so I’ll restrict myself to the second example I mentioned, my hiring ex-cons to help with various short term work (in these cases I’m directly increasing their money supply). Your point of redemption comes in there for most, though a few swear they were innocent all along (and it happens, as the innocent man project will attest), and so they show no redemption (in their defense they’d say there’s no need as they were falsely accused and convicted, and in at least two cases I’m pretty sure they’re telling the truth).

    And yes, I guessed you weren’t saying a criminal act can never be forgiven; however it seems to me inherent in what you were saying. Adding redemption into the equation is good when there’s no doubt about the actual guilt, but as bad as I think the legal system is at determining guilt, its still the best we have. If I require someone to repent for something they claim not to have done, before the courts have looked at it, its the same effect as refusing to forgive them.

    As to your last point, I disagree about raping dozens being worse than murder (though it is of course a horrible crime). Murder ends all possibilities forever. It cannot be ameliorated, people cannot heal from it. That’s why capital punishment is so wrong. Many pro-capital punishment people say life in prison is as bad or worse than capital punishment. I disagree, as do most people you read about who were on death row and then released when new evidence came up (often despite the best efforts of the old prosecutors to suppress that evidence).

    I’ve never liked the summation theory of law (no idea what lawyers call it). Doing 20 non-violent break and enters gives you a longer sentence than committing murder, for the reasoning that I assume you use – the sum of many lesser crimes adds up to a greater score than a single bigger crime. And maybe that makes sense within a category of crime. But for me the taking of life, the nullification of all future chances, is a different category.

    As horrible as rape is, people have survived it, some say they are ultimately stronger because of it. No one has come back from being killed to say the same. However, I’ll admit I’m going against the flow on this one, most people (and the law) will with you say repeated lesser acts is worse than a single great crime. Physically assault (punching someone etc), rape, and murder are examples of what I’d call great crimes.

  55. Grewgills says:

    There are certainly people who are wrongly convicted and many more of them than most people would assume. That said, the rich, powerful, and well connected are rarely ever wrongly convicted. It is generally the opposite. It is the poor and dispossessed who are regularly wrongly convicted and disproportionately punished. People who have served their time need to be given second chances or they will have no option other than to resort to crime and/or public assistance. That is not good for them or the society they live in. We need more people who are willing to give people second and third chances. If that person is going to be the face of a business, that business will be better served for said person to have found redemption of some kind or to have compelling evidence of their innocence.
    Too often the only recourse against the rich and powerful is social condemnation.
    As to summation theory, at some point a volume of lesser crimes becomes worse than a single instance of a worse crime. To use a ridiculous urban myth as an example, drugging someone and stealing a kidney is worse than breaking someone’s finger. However, at some point if you go around randomly breaking peoples’ fingers you will have done more harm than stealing a single person’s kidney. I don’t know what that number is, but there is a number. Rape is one of the most heinous crimes a person can commit against another. It does permanent harm and at some point the aggregate harm to multiple people and the aggregate harm to society is greater than the harm of one murder. Keep in mind also that although some might say it made them stronger, others can’t live with the pain it caused them. Lives are destroyed by rapists. If they are any less bad than murderers, it’s not by much.

    PS: If Cosby serves his time I have absolutely no problem with him being hired to work in a grocery store and wouldn’t fault the store for hiring him.