Six years ago, I left behind a career as a newspaper reporter — working beats from City Hall to police, utility districts, general assignments, features and entertainment in newspapers across the country — to start The Comic’s Comic because nobody cared enough to devote full-time resources to covering comedy as a beat and an art on par with the other performing arts.
How times have changed. And how technology has changed the times.
The other cliche I’m looking for right now is I should have been careful for what I had wished.
While we all joked nervously about how much the NSA has snooped into our lives in the name of national security, the more pernicious truth is that Big Brother has become all of us. We are the snoops. Social media not only has given us the wherewithal to describe ourselves as “comedians” on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, but also convinced so many of us that we’re also journalists and critics and enforcers of truth and justice — however we may define any and all of those terms.
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen individual audience members take down the likes of Tracy Morgan and Daniel Tosh, using Facebook and Tumblr as their “comment cards” to the world to force public apologies out of their prey. In 2013 we saw so many websites troll us with rants and allegations against stand-up comedians over a particular joke or Tweet that wasn’t to their liking. Never you mind the context of these jokes. It offended me, so you must apologize to everyone, and do it NOW!
So it was the other day that Steve Martin — legendary comedian, actor, author, artist, magician, musician, Oscars host and honorary Academy Award winner Steve Martin — found himself raked over the coals by the newfangled sharply-fanged media-turned-Comedy-Police.
I am very upset that a tweet I sent out last week has been interpreted by some to be insulting to African Americans. By now media coverage of the unfortunate tweet has only added to this perception. To those who were offended, again, I offer a deep, sincere, and humble apology without reservation.
But I feel I need to tell you the context and origin of the joke.
I was riffing on Twitter, inviting people to ask me grammar questions. I replied with what I hoped were funny answers. For example, a person might write “What’s the difference between “then” and “than?” I would say, “then” is a conjunctive preposition, and “than” is a misspelling of “thank.” I have done similar things to this on other occasions, and there is a great spirit of fun between me and the Twitters followers.
I was going along fine when someone wrote, “How do you spell “lasonia?” I wrote: “It depends if you are in an African American neighborhood or an Italian restaurant.” I knew of the name Lasonia. I did not make it up, nor do I find it funny. So to me the answer was either Lasonia (with a capital), or Lasagna, depending on what you meant. That they sounded alike in this rare and particular context struck me as funny. That was the joke. When the tweet went out, I saw some negative comments and immediately deleted the tweet and apologized. I gathered the perception was that I was making fun of African American names. Later, thinking it over, I realized the tweet was irresponsible, and made a fuller apology on Twitter.
Then, Salon.com reported on the story and changed the wording of the tweet. They wrote: “It depends if you are in an African American restaurant or an Italian restaurant.” Clearly, this misquote implies that an African American restaurant can’t spell “lasagna” on the menu. And my name was attached to the misquoted tweet. Other websites, including TMZ.com picked up this incorrect version and for the next four days, and more, it continued to spread and I couldn’t get out of hell.
When the error was fixed, neither TMZ nor Salon footnoted it. However, one website which had jumped on me harshly, Twitchy.com, made a generous apology:
“The original version of this post stated that Martin’s tweet denigrated the spelling ability of people who live in African American neighborhoods. A more likely explanation is that he was referencing the tendency of some African Americans to use names that include the prefix “La.” If we misinterpreted his joke (and we think we probably did), we apologize.”
I felt a little better, but not a lot.
Comedy is treacherous. I used to try out jokes in clubs and the audience’s feedback would tell me when I had crossed a line, or how to shape a joke so it is clear. Today, the process is faster. It’s your brain, a button, then millions of reactions. But it’s my job to know.
Comedy is treacherous enough onstage, from the very first open mic to your comedy clubs and one-nighters, up to theaters and maybe even arenas.
Comedy is treacherous enough.
A joke doesn’t always just magically appear fully-formed and perfect from premise to punchline. It takes work. It takes thought. It takes the immediate feedback from the audience to help the joke’s writer edit and massage that joke to magical perfection.
I know that because I’ve been that joke writer. I’ve performed stand-up and improv in clubs, theaters, bars and makeshift performance spaces across the country. I’ve killed. I’ve bombed. I’ve opened for comedy’s brightest stars and slogged through competitions with other aspiring headliners of all ages and backgrounds. So when I interview, review and analyze another comedian’s act, I know a little bit of what they went through to get to where they are now, and I keep all of that in mind. I try to, anyhow. But that’s just me.
What’s your excuse?
Comedy is treacherous enough without you telling comedians what’s best for comedy.