When Comedy Becomes Horror

By Micah Rate

Earlier this week, comedian (using the term generously) Kathy Griffin posted a picture of herself holding up a severed and bloody model of President Donald Trump’s head to Twitter. As the story quickly went viral, Griffin was condemned in a largely bipartisan manner, and rightly so. Griffin soon offered an insincere apology, saying she had “crossed a line.”

On Friday, Griffin and her attorney, Lisa Bloom, held a press conference in which Griffin stated she is the real victim because she has been “bullied” by President Trump and his family.

“I’ve had everybody turn on me, and I just want to make people laugh,” Griffin said. Griffin, through tears, cried, “he broke me… I don’t know if I’m going to get arrested today… I don’t know.” She also proclaimed defiantly, “this president, of all people, is going to come after me. He picked the wrong redhead.” If she wants to make people laugh, someone in her circle of friends ought to tell her that having a photoshoot with what was to represent the president’s decapitated head is not the way to go.

Griffin’s previous apology is now meaningless. In video footage shown by TMZ, Griffin knew she was going to receive backlash from the beginning, and she is now milking this for all it is worth. Rather than issuing her apology and taking a hiatus, she adds more fuel to the fire by holding a press conference in which she promises to deride President Trump even more. Griffin is paradigmatic of what is wrong with comedy in today’s America.

Today, for many comedians, it is no longer enough to crack clever jokes. To be funny or rile up one’s fan base, a comedian has to be borderline malicious. No longer is it about poking fun at a public figure because of their mannerisms or their blunders, but rather the objective is to be as vulgar, demeaning, and spiteful as their fellow comedians, in order to see who can get the best “hit.” Jokes are meant to be just that jokes. They may be offensive, but they are not intended to be serious.

When a comedian delivers jokes to their audience, most people understand that the individual making the jokes may be offensive and inconsiderate of someone else’s or a particular group’s feelings, but there is, generally speaking, no ill will behind the punch line. In today’s world of comedy, these attempts at humor appear to express real animus and, because they occur in the name of comedic acts, stand up, or late night entertainment, are usually given a pass.

There are comedians in the business who act with class, however. Two that come to mind are Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The former has faced recent criticism for not following in the footsteps of other late night hosts like Stephen Colbert who openly mock the President. Fallon, however, feels like he can make clean jokes and keep his base without stooping to new lows.

The segment that was considered to be controversial for Fallon was when then-candidate Trump appeared as a guest on the show. During the segment, Fallon asked the question everyone has wanted to ask at one time or another: Could he touch Trump’s hair? Fallon was not looking to make a joke to inflict pain on Trump’s soul or make a joke about Trump’s mouth being a holster for a particular organ. All it took to instill outrage was ruffling Trump’s blonde locks.

In the world of politics, no one is safe from being the subject of a joke or an offensive comment. Over the years, presidents have been mocked by both sides of the aisle. One may argue that comedians been more offensive to one political party than the other, but this is not about pointing fingers. People cannot discuss this by engaging in “whataboutism.”

As a First Amendment issue, nothing is prohibiting a joke from being told because of its intent. Rather than asking the question of whether or not comedians and other celebrities have the right to be outrageous and vile, Americans must ask themselves what kind of society they want to be a part of. Do Americans want to be a nation that uses their First Amendment right to sow discord and further the existing divide between the political right and left? Or do they want to make jokes, yet come to the table, shake hands, behave cordially, and debate the issues? Real discourse can only occur via the latter.