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”)

Five People It’s Still Perfectly Okay To Make Fun Of

Don't worry, mixed kids. He got your back

Don’t worry, mixed kids. He got your back

The controversy regarding the Onion and Quvenzhané Wallis is a perfect example of how people can look at the exact same thing and come away with completely different takes, as it has served as a bit of a Rorschach test for people’s opinions about satire, social media, race, gender, and the use/usefulness of outrage.

Even with these myriad divergent opinions, there is one point everyone seemed to agree on: The Onion’s tweet crossed the line.

Some feel The Onion’s attempt at satire was inappropriate, but not egregious  Some still want heads to roll. And, the rest feel somewhere in between. Rorschach test or not, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks what happened was perfectly fine.

Also, this story serves as an example of how, in the blogosphere/media, there are certain demographics you just can’t say negative things about without expecting swift and harsh pushback. We’ll call them “untouchables.” Some of these people are protected for obvious reasons (children, the physically impaired, etc) while the protection given to others may be more politically-minded. Either way, the list of who you “aren’t allowed to” joke about and/or criticize seems to grow by the day.

Despite this, there remains some people who you can still shit on with impunity. Certain demographic groups who can still safety be the butt of jokes without anyone giving a damn, and here are a few people it’s still perfectly okay to make fun of.

1. Short Men

The perpetual redheaded stepchild of the human race (not that there’s anything wrong with being a redheaded stepchild), men who are a few inches shorter than the average man are routinely discriminated against, bullied, and used as punchline fodder by everyone. What separates them from others who experience the same thing is that shitting on them never goes out of style, never becomes politically incorrect, and never receives any criticism other than “Awwww. Leave the midget men alone.

While the “protection” given to other groups maybe be seasonal, “shitting on short men” is like a pair of Levi’s—safe, comfortable, versatile, reliable, timeless.

2. Women With Conservative Sociopolitical Leanings

“Make sexually repugnant remark about a woman” = “misogynist!!!”

“Make sexually repugnant remark about a woman who happens to be a conservative” = “Oh Shit!!! LOLOLOLOLOL!!!!”

3. Light-Skinned Black Women and Men

One specific to the Black community—there’d be some furniture moving if Rush Limbaugh dared say something bad about Jurnee Smollett—it’s never not okay for Black people to disparage light-skinned Black men and women. Why? Well, that’s obvious. Lighter-skinned people are—by virtue of their lighter skin—assumed to have a level of privilege that regular ole’ Black people don’t.

And, since “privilege” basically means “we can talk about your ass, and you have to sit there and take it,” you can say anything from “Light skinned men all smell like texturizer” to “I mean, really. Light skinned women are Black, I guess, they’re not really BlackBlack” when speaking of them and no one will bat an eye. Shit, you can even start a thousand petitions about why a light-skinned Black actress isn’t actually BlackBlack, despite the fact that she’s come out and said “I’m BLACK!!!!” numerous times. 

(Note: This only applies to light-skinned Black people with two Black parents. Biracial Blacks now have Obama, Drake, and empty bottles of Mixed Chicks to protect them.)

4. Stupid People

It’s not very politically correct to make fun of physically underwhelming men or women. It (obviously) still happens, but if you do this in front of certain audiences, you will get called on it. Why? Well, it’s not fair (or fun) to pick on someone for something they can’t control, and it reeks of bullying.

Interestingly enough, this doesn’t seem to apply to people who weren’t blessed with above average or even average intelligence. You can argue that it’s because there’s the idea that a person can always get smarter if they want to. If you’re stupid, you’re willfully stupid and deserve whatever’s coming to you.

But, this isn’t true. Some people are born dumb, live dumb, and will die dumb, and there’s not much they can do about it. Still, this doesn’t stop us from making fun of them. I mean, they’re stupid, so it’s not like they’re going to “get” any of the jokes anyway, right? No harm, no foul.

5. Bisexual Men

You’d think bisexual men would get the same type of “protection” gay men receive. But, its hard to be protected when most people (well, most Black people) don’t even believe you really exist. 

Honorable mention: Attractive women, skinny men and women, fat men. men with small penises, Christians, people not from “important” cities, sexually inexperienced men and women, athletes (high school, college, or pro), White men

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Seven Things I Think I Think About Quvenzhané Wallis, The Onion, Outrage, Comedy Writing, C*nt, And Being A Robot

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1. I think I first heard the word “cunt” when I was 12 years old. (Actually, this is a lie. I know without a doubt that was my first time hearing it. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I’m staying with “I think.”) It was halftime of an AAU tournament game. We were up a couple points against a team we should have been beating by 50, and our coach was livid. I wasn’t having a particularly good game, and the coach, um, let me know about it, calling me a “scared shitless cunt.”

Although I didn’t know what a cunt was, the spit congregating in the corners of his month gave me the idea that it wasn’t a good thing to be. After learning what it meant, I eventually categorized it with “cock,” “prick,” and “jizz” on my list of “Weird colloquialisms White people—and Black people who’ve spent too much time around White people and/or watching White porn—use to describe sexual things” and I probably didn’t hear it aloud for (at least) another decade.

It wasn’t until later (and by “later” I mean “like three years ago”) that I realized cunt is considered by many to be the single most offensive word in the English language, and I’m not sure about why this is. I mean, for other words that have been deemed unspeakable—nigger and bitch, specifically—there are clear historical, political, and sociological reasons for it. And, while cunt is a vulgar way of describing a vagina, it doesn’t seem any more vulgar than pussy or twat or cooze or any of the dozens of other slang terms for female body parts that have been used as slurs against women and 12 year old basketball players committing too many turnovers.

I guess what I’m asking is if there was a particular tipping point for cunt that I’m not aware of? What is it about this particular word that makes it dirtier and nastier than the rest?

(Personally, I think it may be due to the fact that the word just sounds nastier than most other words. It’s pronounced in a way that makes it seem like an ominous whisper. It also has a hard T ending, which can make a word sound like it has a perpetual sneer.)

2.  I think I totally get what whoever is in charge of The Onion’s Twitter account was attempting to do Sunday night. The preternaturally cute, talented, and charming Quvenzhané Wallis is the last person anyone would think to call a cunt, so the tweet was very obvious satire. In this sense, it was no different than saying “Those Phoenix winters sure are cold.”

But, just because something “structurally” works doesn’t mean it’s appropriate, or funny, and if a piece of satire is inappropriate, offensive, and lacking humor, it doesn’t work. This isn’t to say that Quvenzhane Wallis is impervious to satire or that you can never use that word in a joke. But, anyone who attempts to create that type of humor should also have enough wherewithal to know that certain things are just flat out wrong, and using a sexual reference—the most vulgar sexual reference at that—to joke about a nine year old actress is exactly that.

Whoever wrote that tweet didn’t just shoot and miss. They shot, missed, and put a hole through the f*cking backboard.

3. I think many people who regularly write jokes and other forms of potentially provocative/offensive material for a living have cold sweats about what happened last night. I know I do.

When your popularity/readership/relevance is predicated on being funny, or entertaining, or irreverent or whatever, you’re encouraged to push the envelope on what’s acceptable to say. Usually, it works. But, when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work, and the push back received from the one time it doesn’t work exponentially exceeds the praise received all the other times it did. This does not feel good.

Writers have to be especially careful with Twitter, as a potentially offensive standalone tweet just isn’t able to have the same context that same statement might have in a middle of a book or 30 minute comedy routine.

I’m not complaining, mind you. People who produce this type of content are aware of this dichotomy, and it’s just something you learn to deal with. It’s an inevitable occupational hazard that leaves you with two choices: Find something else to do, or get better and grow thicker skin.

4. I think I loved how quickly social media descended on the Onion’s tweet. Thousands of people—Black, White, and other—immediately called them out, eventually leading to the tweet being taken down and the Onion issuing a formal apology. Basically, the Onion stepped out of line, and a hundred thousand people responded, ultimately saying “Don’t worry, Quvenzhané. We got your back.”

But, as much as the emotive/visceral part of me loved to see that happen, I did feel some ambivalence. The outrage was supposed to protect Quvenzhane, but without it, I doubt she even finds out the tweet exists. Like millions of other controversial tweets, it would have been forgotten about in 10 minutes. Now, the reaction to the tweet is a bigger story than the tweet itself. And, while she might have come across this tweet before it became a story, there’s no doubt she will—and will probably be interviewed about it—now. Basically, while this was supposed to protect her, it places her in the line of fire.

Ultimately, the outrage was a positive. The tweet got deleted, and the Onion issued an apology. This would not have happened without that. It also served as a reminder that “free speech” doesn’t equal “accountability-less speech.”

Most importantly—well, most importantly to many—it was a very swift and public pushback to Black women and girls being disrespected in some form in the mass media, a too rare sign that people are in fact there to protect them.

All that considered, it still doesn’t sit completely right with me. It just seems like while the attention brought to the tweet about Quvenzhane helps Black women and girls in general, it didn’t help Quvenzhane specifically. I’m not sure what else could or should have been done to protect her though.

I expressed these views on Twitter yesterday, and—among other things—I was accused of being myopic. I actually don’t disagree with this. I realize my tendency to see certain things in very black/white absolutist terms leaves some blind spots. (While discussing this yesterday, Panama called me a robot. I am a human being, so naturally I disagreed.) It’s not that I ignore nuance and context. But, I do think that too much of it has a tendency to cloud the truth.

(For instance, in the Dorner case, I just can’t get past the fact that he likely killed that couple. There are no “Yeah, but’s” for me, no sympathy, no nothing. If he did that, nothing else he did as far as exposing corruption or fighting the power matters to me.)

Anyway, I’m bringing this up because although I feel how I feel about the effect of the outrage not sitting right with me, I also realize that I could very well be wrong. There may be something here I’m just not seeing, and perhaps what happened was both the best way to approach this issue and the best way to defend Quvenzhane.

5. I think the Onion’s tweet wasn’t even the most disturbing Quvenzhane-related thing I saw yesterday. Apparently, quite a few people feel she is quite full of herself, and the flexing she did whenever the camera was on her confirmed (to them) that she was a little asshole-in-training.

There are a thousand different things you can say about all of this—how confident Black people are still thought by many to be uppity/cocky, how she’s a freaking 9 YEAR OLD GIRL having the time of her life, etc—but three questions have to be asked:

Did these people not see the f*cking movie??? Don’t they realize she was just mimicking what her character (“Hushpuppy”) does in the movie’s most memorable scene??? Do they even know what “Beast it!!!” means???

6. I think our resident Obsidian brought up a good point yesterday. Everyone was rightly and justifiably angry about the Onion’s tweet. Yet, many of us—myself included—are very selective about who deserves our outrage. Often, this selection is determined by likability. Basically, wrong is wrong, even if you don’t agree with the politics held by a person a wrong is committed against.

7. I think Beasts is a spellbinding, captivating, enchanting, engaging, and completely unique movie. I’m not sure if it was good, though. While I was fascinated with it—and even may have even accidentally rubbed some salt in my eye that forced them to water a little—once I got out of my post-movie haze a couple hours later, I couldn’t help but think that I just watched a 100 minute long ode to child abuse.

Maybe P was right. I just might be a robot.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)