The #CancelColbert controversy over the weekend has gotten me thinking about the perils of being a comedy professional — which I am not. However, some thirty years ago I was an aspiring sitcom writer and was working behind the scenes in comedy television, and totally agree that Comedy is HARD.
So is navigating the many avenues of race and ethnicity in 21st Century America. It’s a subject I tend to shy away from — not because I don’t care, but because I know that no matter how hard I try to understand and articulate my feelings of support, I am destined to put my foot in it. I am a middle class white woman and yes – I am privileged.
But, like everyone else in this so-called melting pot of a nation, I am not defined only by middle-class whiteness. I can also relate to being the Other, because in some contexts, that is what I am. Back in the 1960’s, ours was one of just two Jewish families at my elementary school in a blue-collar neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley.
On top of that, my mom was an immigrant from Cuba. The other kids saw my olive skin (which is usually tanned a shade of warm brown) and pegged me as Mexican-American. But I didn’t fit in with the Latino kids either, as they were the ones most likely to call me names for being Jewish. Plus, I didn’t speak Spanish.
The point I am trying to make is that context matters. I cannot know the indignities my Latino and African-American and Asian and LGBT friends must suffer from the thoughtlessness of others – even my own. But what I can do is listen when they call me out on it and try to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them.
Which brings us back to Colbert and the Twitter controversy.
I am not going to describe what happened: It’s now been almost a week, and if you still haven’t heard what went down, you can get a pretty good idea of what the bit was about and how it blew up on Twitter here, here and here. And the reason for my long preamble above is to explain why I am not about to weigh in on the larger issue of racism.
But I do have a few observations about the nature of comedy and the writing of jokes.
And I want to emphasize that these are merely observations. Although I do have a little experience writing comedy scripts (and even sold a couple, which is how I ended up a member of the WGA), I was pursuing the area of character-driven stories – not sketches, and certainly not jokes. However, as the secretary to Johnny Carson’s staff of ten comedy writers at the Tonight Show in the late 1980s, I typed a ton of one-liners, gags, sketches and prop pieces. I was privy to a number of conversations about jokes, what makes a good joke and the nature of comedy. Finally, I got to see one of the all-time masters of comic timing and delivery — on good days and bad.
Observation #1: Writing Comedy is Hard.
My first duty every day while working at the Tonight Show was to haul in a huge mailbag filled with newspapers and distribute them to the writing staff: The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Herald-Examiner (this was when we had two papers!), the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Additionally, the writers read People, the National Enquirer, the Star, Harper’s, and several other periodicals filled with dire stories about wars and famines and terrible things that human beings do to one another…
…and they would take all of this material and by noon, turn in five or six pages of one-liners.
I have never understood how they could do that. I would read the same material (I had little else to do while they were writing their jokes) and usually ended up just feeling depressed by it. I could see that they possessed a very special talent. And that they were probably all a little bit sick. I concluded that you have to be crazy to become a comedy writer, because it helps.
Observation #2: Nobody knows anything.
This is the money quote from William Goldman’s book, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” but I have found it applies to all creative endeavors. What works in the writers’ room may bomb in front of an audience. I’m sure Stephen Colbert was shocked at the backlash against him last weekend, because the bit worked in the writers’ room and it worked with his studio audience… but it didn’t work (out of context) on Twitter to an entirely different audience.
This is why Broadway shows have out-of-town tryouts and why Saturday Night Live does a full dress rehearsal in front of an audience before they do it for broadcast. And even those activities fail to offer full protection from a joke or routine that fails, because…
Observation #3: Funny is in the eye of the beholder.
The Tonight Show writing staff when I was working there was a boys’ club. I used to cringe every time I typed a joke making fun of Oprah Winfrey’s weight or sketches featuring a “dumb blonde” with big boobs. I loved what actress Teresa Ganzel did with that character – I just didn’t share the guys’ opinion that there was something inherently funny about her appearance. And I thought that relying on this particular stereotype was a cheap laugh, much as I think toilet humor and foul language get you cheap laughs.
When I pointed this out, the guys’ reaction was that because I am a woman, I had no sense of humor. Thank goodness they didn’t actually attack or bully me for voicing my opinion, but this was 20 years before the invention of Twitter and it’s harder to do that when you’re having a discussion face to face. But I think this is at the heart of the controversy, and it’s a direct result of the lack of diversity on writing staffs (not just in late night comedy, but behind the scenes in television production across the board).
I hoped that by now, there would not have to be campaigns to find an African-American woman to join the cast of SNL – or that the staffs of writing nominees at the Emmys would be gender balanced. And finding Asian-Americans both in front of and behind the camera is a futile task.
Would diversity in the production of our entertainment make a difference in our culture? I can’t prove it – but I’m inclined to say “yes” – much as electing more women to Congress has resulted in a spotlight on more issues that women care about.
Observation #4: A good joke is bound to offend somebody.
This is another assertion the Tonight Show writers made that had me arguing back – but I’ve come around to agree with them. If you spend all your time trying not to offend anyone, you’re not going to say much of substance. It’s probably better to focus on making your work good than worrying about who might not like it, because…
Observation #5: The audience will forgive you anything — as long as it’s funny.
This was something Johnny told the writers, and I think it’s still true, despite observation #3. But because funny is in the eye of the beholder and we’ve become a much more fragmented culture, I don’t think we’ll have many more comedians like Johnny Carson, who appealed to such a wide swath of Americans. My nephew thinks Comedy Central’s Tosh is a riot, while I think he’s simply obnoxious.
I personally love Colbert and the way he calls out what I think of as conservative hypocrisy. And I really loved the way he handled himself when he was back on the air after #CancelColbert trended so high on Twitter. But that doesn’t mean that his critics don’t have a point. I would love it if the next time his writing staff gets introduced at the Emmys, it better reflects the population of the United States (instead of its current makeup, predominantly of white dudes).
We are not a colorblind society and I’m not sure any more whether that’s even desirable. Imagine how much funnier our entertainment might be with full representation of our diverse population. I think it would rock.
I love this, both your memories of your experiences and the lessons learned. I think your point of what works in different settings is a huge issue, and that we’re always learning how things play in the new online sharing platforms. Context and tone can affect how things are received. Tons to think about. What a job to have had!
Thank you. Writing it, I worried that it would come across badly. It means a lot to me that you liked it. 🙂