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Okay, so I really wasn’t planning on having anything in-depth to say about this, but… A.) I do, B.) It’s in my wheelhouse and C.) The questions of comedy and its limits (or lack thereof) is endlessly interesting – to me anyway. So, alright, let’s talk about The Onion.

Unless it’s already left the news forefront, you’re probably aware that in the wake of last Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast, the official Twitter of news-satire website The Onion fired off a tweet (since deleted), the crux of which was declaring Quvenzhané Wallis – the 9 year-old Best Actress nominee for Beasts of The Southern Wild – to be “kind of a c**t.”

NOTE: For my international readers, in the U.S. “the C word” (which I understand to be common to the point of casual use in the UK) is for whatever reason considered to be just about the worst anti-female insult one can utter.

The reaction from the rest of Twitter, and then the rest of the media, was swift and damning outrage, followed by the equally-predictable backlash of folks “defending” The Onion – some of them with rational arguments regarding free speech, others from the more reflexive place of the un-self-conscious privileged screeching about “feminists” (because Wallis is a girl) and “The P.C. Police” (because she is also black) not being able to “take a joke.” By the following morning, The Onion had issued a rare apology in an attempt to stem the rising tide of anger.

I am conflicted about this. And then conflicted about my being conflicted. On the one hand, I’m very much on the “actions have consequences” side of the free speech issue. Say whatever you like, but if what you say is hurtful or leads to actual harm be prepared for repercussions, be they legal or (preferably) in the form of shame and societal shunning by your peers. On the other hand, this was clearly intended as satire, not as a personal attack on young Ms. Wallis – quite the opposite, in fact. But, on the other other hand, it was badly executed satire that didn’t work. In fact, from where I sit, it blew up in its own face and wound up becoming what it was trying to make fun of.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s the thing: Yes, obviously, it is not okay to call a 9 year-old girl a c**t. “Why” shouldn’t have to be explained (it’s a sexualized/gendered insult, reducing a person to their genitals and then shaming them for what said genitals are, this kid is nine freaking years old, etc.,). BUT – and I boldface because this is a big, big, BUT – while what The Onion did was in fact call her that word, they also didn’t “really” do so. It’s a weird distinction, I’ll grant, but this is what satire is made of.

Let me preface this by saying that this is the reason why I don’t think the joke works at all, but to get why this wasn’t intended as mean or even an attack on the actress in question requires the context of what The Onion is and how it operates. They are a news parody outfit, but not of The Daily Show variety where the humor is mainly based on holding up actual examples of idiocy in the media for public mockery by Jon Stewart and his audience. Instead, The Onion takes the form of a “real” news site and runs fake headlines (and entire fake news stories) that mock the worst excesses of the “real” media by exaggeration. Sample joke: “Study Concludes: Babies Are Stupid.”

In this context (and, once again, the fact that context is needed and needs further clarification is why this is a bad joke), it’s pretty clear that the intent here was not to attack Wallis – or any actress, for that matter – but rather to, through exaggeration and parody, shame those who would. The punchline is not “This little girl is a C-word,” it’s “The way the entertainment press treats female celebrities during Awards season is one step away from calling a little girl the C-word.” The only reason Wallis’ name/persona are used at all is because, for the gag to theoretically work, it requires a central figure who virtually everyone agrees is not “that word.”

So yes, I get the joke. But I also get why it failed so spectacularly. First and foremost, it failed to properly distinguish itself as a thing apart from what it was mocking – mostly because it came in the limited, anonymous form of a tweet, but also because the very thing it’s mocking is already vile to the point of self parody (more on that in just a bit). It also fails to take into account collateral damage (i.e. “Will the 9-year-old girl in question understand that the joke is making fun of the idea of making fun of her and not just actually making fun of her?), which in my opinion is a factor in crafting good versions of this kind of satire.

Yes, “crafting.” As in the careful, deliberate construction of something – even a joke. Crafting. Something that’s hard to do in the Twitter of age of comedy at the speed of light.

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Whenever these issues come up, one of the first things that always happens is that those defending the (allegedly) offending humor in question raise the specter of George Carlin, the late lamented comedy icon who is effectively god to those who would dabble in the realms of humor where aggressive language and pitch-dark themes are used to deliver hyperintelligent, deeply literate points about society and the world at large.

On the surface, invoking Carlin’s Ghost is a good argument. George Carlin told jokes about violence. George Carlin told jokes about race. George Carlin told jokes about rape, and most importantly, George Carlin did so as part of stand-up monologues that were not only praised for their hilarity and linguistic genius but also often took the form of impassioned declarations of their own legitimacy and necessity. If George Carlin jokes could be said to have punchlines, those punchlines would always take the form of: “Yes, I just said that. Here’s why I said that, and here’s why it’s good that I said that.”

But here’s why Carlin’s Ghost rarely works as a defense for anyone else’s work but that of Carlin himself: Only George Carlin was George Carlin.

That probably sounds like a cop-out, and I don’t mean to suggest that Carlin held some special immunity from criticism. His immunity wasn’t special, it was the result of long, hard, difficult work. Like all the great stand-up talents, Carlin made his routines look effortless, but in truth he spent years upon years of hard work crafting his material, refining jokes, getting references right, mastering the nuances of both the English language and its myriad slang and colloquial variations. He did this not to show off, or to disguise relatively simplistic content with million-dollar words (that would be Dennis Miller – rimshot!) but to make sure that he delivered exactly the joke he wanted to with the exact intent made as clear as humanly possible. He swung his arm with strength sufficient for a sledgehammer, but he was always holding a scalpel.

That used to be how all non-improvisational comedy, not just stand-up, was made. But today’s world of light-speed information demands light-speed response, and while many have adapted to the form, the fact is it’s hard to be at once biting, topical and well prepared when you are expected to sum up the humor in a given event or situation moments after it happens or, in the realm of “live-tweeting,” as it’s happening. Quick, go turn on the news, watch whatever is happening, immediately discern something insightfully funny about it, phrase it in a short, amusing way and disperse it to the web – you have 15 seconds. It’s hard to do this well.

And so people cheat.

The “cheat” in question is generally called “live-snarking” in the parlance of the web. In lieu of joke construction or punchlines, one simply watches what’s happening and says the meanest thing they can think of alongside some funny words and passes it off as a joke. Naturally, it’s found a comfortable home in the odious world of Celebrity Reporting, which has always been about taking catty shots at public figures presumed to be wealthier, prettier and more comfortable than a readership presumed to be equal parts fascinated by and envious of them (Oh, and before anyone brings it up, yes, I’m guilty of shades of this myself. I’m no George Carlin, either).

Female celebrities, as ever, get it worst of all. Her dress is ugly. Her makeup is bad. She’s gained weight. She’s too skinny. She’s too tall. She’s too short. Her boyfriend is too old for her. Her boyfriend is too young for her. Her boyfriend is too hot for her. Her boyfriend isn’t hot enough for her. Her “boyfriend” isn’t really her boyfriend, wink wink! Ooh! Kristen Stewart showed up on crutches (and limped visibly when walking without them, apparently she’d injured her foot a day earlier)! Quick! Break out your “Bella Swan masochism” jokes – bonus points if you can be the first one to tie-in Chris Brown or Fifty Shades of Gray!

This is the toxic slurry of journalism that The Onion was trying to parody. And maybe that’s why they failed. I can imagine versions of the joke that would make sense – perhaps as part of a mock-up of an imaginary “mean” version of sycophantic Entertainment Weekly, or as delivered by a comedian doing a parody of an unctuous Red Carpet reporter. But as a tweet, it looked all but indistinguishable from the other “funny” media tweets it was trying to take down a peg. Above all else, satire requires a subject that is either taken seriously or wishes to be taken seriously. The indignation of a pie in the face is only funny if the face belongs to someone with dignity, and dignity left the world of Celebrity Reporting a long, long time ago.

Am I saying The Onion shouldn’t have told the joke? Yes … and no. I’m saying they should’ve put some thought into their tweeting – and if so, I suspect they’d have realized that joke wasn’t worth telling in the first place.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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