Last night The Onion tweeted a terrible line about Quvenzhané Wallis, apparently within an hour of a tweet that was nearly identical from me. Nobody minded my tweet.
The reason I am not apologizing and they are is the very root of humor, appropriateness, and why something is or is not funny. It’s also the reason comedy is hard, risky, and tricky.
It is NOT an out. I write humor. I’ve been a columnist, a critic, and a fiction writer of humor. I’ve even done stand-up (very briefly). This lesson needs repeating: being sorry after you’ve said something that was not funny means nothing, erases nothing, and is not a valid excuse.
There’s a line. Comedy is brutal because you stop being a comedian the SECOND you cross it.
This is what I said:
It might have been considered mean, or snarky. Nobody flipped out, re-tweeted, or took offense. I actually got a lot of “she seems bratty to me, too.”
Here is what The Onion said, then deleted, then apologized for:
Pretty close. One difference. The word c***. About a little girl. A bratty little girl, but a little girl.
They crossed the imaginary line, and the INSTANT they did it, became massive assholes. The higher-ups apologized, and it was a genuine apology… but completely useless. Once you say it, it’s said. Once you fall flat, you’re flat. “It was a joke” is the most useless phrase in the universe, because the second you fail with humor, IT’S NOT A JOKE… IT WASN’T FUNNY… YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE, NO MATTER HOW SORRY YOU ARE TO BE ONE.
So why, when a humorist/comedian takes a swing and misses, do we flip out more than we would if, say, Nicholas Sparks set up a happy ending and killed everyone? Because of the risk. The risk is greater because humor is a trick on the audience, but one they are “kinda” in on. It’s jazz. It’s setting you up for the high C, then dropping you down for a low, smooth note. If it works, it’s dizzying, dazzling, and new. If not? Flat, jarring, and painful… because we expected the high note, you have to get the low note RIGHT.
So funny isn’t something you can screw up. Your audience won’t forgive you, even if they don’t QUITE know why, but the reason is the fall. The reason is the tricky part: you have set them up, and they want you to succeed, take them on the roller-coaster plunge toward the surprise they sensed, but could not QUITE predict… and you blew it. It’s like sitting across from the love of your life with stars in your eyes, hearing him or her say “I l—” and taking the breath to shout “I love you, too!” JUST as she/he finishes with “—like this restaurant.”
Crushed. Broken. There was a line, and you missed. It was not the GREAT thing I did not expect… it was something I did not expect that hit the ear like a flat saxophone note. It deflated like a busted soufflé. It set me up for joy, and kicked me in the funny bone.
And guess what? It wasn’t a joke. In order to be a joke, it has to be funny. It was an attempted joke, and now you’re an asshole standing at the microphone, feeling the silence hit you in the gut.
That’s why funny is scary, hard, and not for sissies.
“It was a joke” is a myth. It is, or it isn’t. Last night, it wasn’t. Know where the line is, or—like me, and every humorist who gets it—take your lumps. Period.
If you can’t, you can’t be in the business of making people laugh. If it were easy, everyone would do it. The Joy Behars of the world will always rely on the fallacy of the cloak of immunity, trotting out “it’s satire” or “it was a joke” with absolutely no redemption waiting. Everyone who tries to be funny risks failing.
When we fail we are assholes who weren’t funny. And we don’t get to be anything else until we clean it up, do it better, and try again.