Pop Culture, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Road Tripping To SXSW: Part Four, The “Why Comedians Don’t Give a F*ck if You’re Offended” Edition

On the road...again

On the road…again

3:30PM Sunday afternoon: Before I left for Texas, my mom asked me to explain the purpose of SXSW. She’d heard of the festival before, but wasn’t quite sure what exactly it entailed. I explained that it’s basically a collection of both front-end and back-end “creatives” who’ve gathered in one place to share ideas, innovations, and inventions. While the parties and performances are a main draw, as the 2,000 different panels taking place during the festival prove, most go to learn how to be better at whatever it is they’re doing. And, as noted in my recap, it’s the only event I know of where you’re likely to find anyone from the founder of Whole Foods to a natural hair blogger sitting in on or leading a panel.

Personally, I jumped at the opportunity to go for three reasons:

1. As a “creative,” manning a panel there is a pretty big belt notch. I’m not too cool to admit that stuff like that matters to me.

2. I want to be better I what I do.

3. For a writer/blogger/content producer, getting out and meeting people in person is perhaps the best way to find new revenue streams, and there’s no better place to do this than SXSW.

So, while the recaps so far have focused on the “fun” parts of the trip, the business end is why I convinced myself to spend 50 hours in car during a 100 hour span just to be there.

And, after attending multiple panels in both the BiT (Black in Technology) house and the convention center, I noticed a theme. The Black panels dealing with blogging/writing tended to be more focused on revenue end issues—brand building, crowd-funding, content partnerships, etc—while the “mainstream” panels I attended discussed the actual craft and the thinking behind it a bit more. (Note: I’m not saying that each of the “Black” and “White” panels followed this script. But, the ones I personally happened to see did seem to trend a certain way)

You could make the argument that this trend is an example of us (Black people) being more concerned with appearances and/or the bottom line than if what we’re doing is actually meaningful and helpful. But, I don’t see things as pessimistically. Although the people in the Black blogosphere are stars among ourselves, very few of us are able to make a name off of blogging/writing, and even fewer are able to make a decent living off of it. Generally speaking, the people on the “White” panels I attended are there because they’ve “made it” already. Basically, most of us don’t have the luxury to travel 2000 miles and spend $2000 dollars just to discuss our craft. And, in order for some of us to reach the book deal/TV show/paid speaking appearance/Writers Guild membership point, learning about some easily applicable macro ways to better yourself isn’t necessary a bad thing.

Anyway, the most memorable panel I attended that weekend happened to be a “White” panel that (ironically) was dominated by a Black panelist. Moderated by Joe Garden and featuring Eddie Pepitone, Janine Brito, and W. Kamau Bell, “Why Comedians Don’t Give A F*ck If You’re Offended” touched on many of the writing/content-specific issues I’ve gone back and forth with over the past few years. Most notably, are there any subjects that should be “untouchable,” and should writers be held responsible if someone happens to get offended by your work/words?

Being that Garden used to work for the Onion (former Onion editor Baratunde Thurston was also in the house), it was no surprise that the Quvenzhane Wallis tweet controversy was the first subject brought up. In his pre-panel intro, he mentioned that he was more disgusted by the Onion’s apology than the actual tweet. Basically, if the intent to satire is obvious—which, in my opinion, it was—a comedian shouldn’t have to apologize for a joke that just wasn’t constructed properly. Pepitone disagreed, saying that while there are no sacred topics, writers also have a duty to be aware of their limitations.

(Personally, I side with Pepitone here. Full disclosure: There was nothing about the Quvenzhane tweet that I thought was offensive. I saw it, thought “oh, that was a little off-color,” and would have forgotten about it if not for the controversy it caused. But, just because something doesn’t personally offend me doesn’t mean that it’s not offensive. And, a person who attempts to go there with that type of humor needs to be aware of the racial and social implications if he fails. Also, as Bell pointed out, the tweet had a limited upside. Whoever authored the tweet basically attempted to build a grenade from scratch without reading any instructions. If it works, great. You now have a working grenade that you’ll never, ever use. But, you’re much more likely to fail. And, if you fail, you’ll probably blow your entire face off)

Bell—who was easily the star of the panel—brought up another point about comedians and workshopping. He told the story of how Chris Rock became upset once when footage of him appearing at a small comedy club was passed around the internet. When professional comics go to these types of clubs, they’re workshopping—thinking aloud and testing out new material before it goes out to the public. Basically, as Bell put it, releasing that footage allowed people to see Rock’s “half-baked ideas before they’re fully baked.” And, when that happens, you run the risk of having people offended by a newly conceived thought that actually wasn’t “ready” to be heard yet.

Blogging has a unique relationship with this concept, because the thing that makes most blogs popular—the idea that you’re able to read a person’s unfiltered thoughts—is also the thing that occasionally gets bloggers in hot water. Basically, bloggers don’t have a workshop because blogging is the workshop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something at 11:45pm, published it, woke up, read it again and thought “Shit, I can’t believe I said that.” You can always delete things, but if 5,000 people have already read it, doing that is pointless and actually seems kinda weak.

Other points

***The internet has created a dynamic where the permanentness of it can get people pissed at you today for something you did two or three years ago. Bell shared a story where a woman recently approached him, pissed about something he’d written in like 2007. When he told her “Yeah, you’re 100% right. What I said was f*cked up, and I actually apologized for it three years ago” she actually seemed disappointed that she couldn’t be outraged anymore.

***Bell: “Political correctness is always dishonest.”

***Bell (again) “Presidents and Popes apologize, so why should a comedian believe he doesn’t have to do that too?”

***Pepitone (paraphrasing): “The best comedy is when a person makes fun of something with equal or greater power. The Quvenzhane tweet failed because it ignored that rule.”

***Also, a point each panelist touched on was their annoyance with people who “volunteer” to get offended. Basically, there’s enough info out there to learn about someone like Louie CK before you attend one of his shows. And, if you’re the type to get easily offended, why still attend…and why not just buy tickets and see the thousands of other comedians whose style/content is more compatible with your sensibilities? You wouldn’t go to a Taylor Swift show and complain that she’s not Ghostface, so why do that with comedy?

We left Austin right after this panel. I’ve debated whether to recap the trip back home, but aside from me falling asleep at the wheel right outside of Cincinnati and almost killing us both, nothing worth mentioning happened.

In summary, this entire experience was one of the most memorable moments in my life. I loved Austin so much that I’d consider moving there. I loved the atmosphere of controlled creative chaos SXSW cultivated. I mean, where else are you going to walk out of a panel featuring W. Kamau Bell and run right into this…

workout women

I loved the surreal experience of driving past cities like Memphis and Little Rock that played such a huge role in the civil rights movement. I loved finding out that, if coming from the east, you have to cross the Mississippi river to get to Arkansas. Even though I will never, ever, ever, ever do this again, I loved being able to say I successfully completed a cross-country road trip. And, honestly, I loved the audacity of Texas. Facing that type of conspicuous and ubiquitous regional pride was initially off-putting, but it became endearing and even enviable.

I will definitely be back next year, I’ll definitely plan to stay longer, and (hopefully) I’ll definitely remember to actually make a schedule, bring some sneakers (my feet are still killing me), and buy my plane tickets in time next time.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a contributing editor for EBONY.com. He resides in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes.

  • Rewind

    I saw Mr. Bell on a taping of his show on Valentine’s Day (my gift to the lady) and before this, I had heard him on both Marc Maron’s WTF podcast & Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy podcast. He’s highly intelligent but also willing to be vulnerable…I emplore everyone to at least listen to them to see what I mean.

    Anyway, topic at hand. You can’t prevent people from being offended by the things you say, but I think you can be more offensive by not sticking to your guns. Either say what you mean or leave it alone. If you need to pool your material to test it out, fine, do it amongst a sample group (this is what Bell was saying about Chris Rock, and this is a big grip for comedians lately. They don’t like trying out material and then seeing a clip of it on Youtube, when it wasn’t finished yet. Now the world can see it and they can’t finish the joke).

    Clearly a blog is different than a comedy show. But if you have a knee jerk reaction everytime you type something down, you will never get far. Champ, you’ve gotten plenty of firestorms for shyte you say, hell you got some today from WC. But if you mean what you say, leave it be. Either be about it or leave it in your head, but don’t play the fence, because then no one knows how they should react.

  • http://twitter.com/SoulaPowa SoulaPowa

    I haven’t had the chance to watch W. Kamau Bell’s show yet, but everytime I read a quote from him, I come off impressed. That line about apologies is 100% accurate.

    • camilleblue

      i just wanna say that your avi IS…

      • http://twitter.com/SoulaPowa SoulaPowa

        I’ve decided to take your avi selection statement as a compliment and thank you for it.

        *smiles*

        • Camilleblu

          It was absolutely a compliment *daps and smiles back*

    • Jay

      I too had high hopes for Totally Biased. It’s decent… has potential but nothing to write home about as of yet.

  • camilleblue

    are those men?? dressed in jane fonda workout gear??

  • Pingback: Road Tripping To SXSW: Part Three | Very Smart Brothas

  • mena

    NC-17 seems to be the only blogger that is about to hit the big time and its bc of the connections he made before he started blogging. From what I have read on his blog, he has been networking for sometime in LA, wrote for TV shows, then started his blog which became popular. Now he has a show (VH1) and book in the works.

    Running a popular blog seems to be a stepping stone into other avenues. It seems like you learned a lot from the convention. I will say that the popular black blogs only talk about a few topics (which PJ mentioned a few posts ago) so it isn’t weird though a tad disheartening that you had to attend “white” panels to learn something innovative to take back with you even though what you learned most was from a black panelist.

    It takes a lot of work to build your brand and I do hope that you guys find much success with your show and future book. Many of us are actually rooting for you guys to reach your goals and dreams. Appreciate the success and defeats that you both have seen. It’ll make you both better business men in the future.

    • camilleblue

      +1

  • Jay

    I can’t express to you how jealous I am that you went to SXSW. All I can say is… NEXT YEAR. Did you catch any shows while you were there?

  • http://www.iamyourpeople.com I Am Your People

    * The term “revenue streams” is so cute. Just say “I’m out here in these blogger streets tryna make this money.” This is why I’m not a panelist on SXSW

    * Not a gawddamb thing can justify that Quvenzhane Wallis tweet. Sexual jokes about children are never okay. I didn’t realize that was The Onion’s first ever apology, tho. Also – Remember when Kathy Griffin got fired for making that joke that Dakota Fanning was in rehab? Her azz got banished immediately for talkin bout that lil white child. The funny thing is, in a later comedy special, she said she thought about saying Lindsay Lohan (who hadn’t fallen off the wagon yet, but was starting to exhibit suspect behavior) because she thought it would be inappropriate. That’s right, Kathy Griffin found something inappropriate, ans she’s about as PC as The Onion.

  • iamnotakata

    “There was nothing about the Quvenzhane tweet that I thought was offensive. I saw it, thought “oh, that was a little off-color,” and would have forgotten about it if not for the controversy it caused.”

    Glad you loved my city!!! Austin is awesome and super unique that’s what makes it special lol…no but I felt the same way about the Onion tweet and i’ll leave it at that…

    “The Black panels dealing with blogging/writing tended to be more focused on revenue end issues—brand building, crowd-funding, content partnerships, etc—while the “mainstream” panels I attended discussed the actual craft and the thinking behind it a bit more.”

    And I agree it seems black run or owned business do tend to lack in the customer service/ relations department because they are so focused on making money, rather than offering a quality service or product that will make returning customers out of their patrons.