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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Should comedians ever apologize for their jokes, even the bad ones?

I just came across the most in-depth and comprehensive analysis of the Letterman-Palin brouhaha, by Randy Cohen at The New York Times. His analysis is long and cogent, but here’s the gist:

Letterman’s version had three targets — Alex Rodriguez for his sexual shenanigans, Sarah Palin for her abstinence-only politics and Bristol Palin for personifying the futility of that advocacy. All three are fair game, including Bristol, who, unlike, say, the Obama kids, is now over 18 and chose to be a public figure as a 17-year-old by participating in the presidential campaign and promoting teenage abstinence. Audiences enjoy irony. Comics mock hypocrites.

Whether you agree with Cohen’s breakdown of the joke, this is another issue:

In that wry, self-mocking and often astute clarification, Letterman dismissed the entire kerfuffle by saying of his material, “They’re just jokes.” This is not so astute. Every joke is an assertion about the world — sometimes indirect, sometimes ironic, always open to interpretation. Neither Sarah Palin nor I must endorse Letterman’s every (or any) assertion, but he must. Otherwise, he would be an unprincipled hack, saying what he does not believe.

Was Letterman right to apologize? If he had any objection to the joke — or if he truly believed that what the joke was saying was not what he wanted to assert — shouldn’t he have stricken the joke before the show was taped? Did he take the dishontest way out by apologizing?

Should comedians ever apologize for their jokes, even the bad ones?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)



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  • Robert McCoy

    The problem with the Letterman joke was that it wasn’t funny. If anyone is familiar w/ comediens like Lewis CK and Dave Attell (or, hell, George Carlin) you must understand that there is no topic that is off limits. It’s the quality of the joke that has the ability to offend.

  • JoshDM

    No.

    Google Chelsea Clinton / Mike Myers / Waynes World.

  • i don’t say a comedian, commentator or colunist should “never” apologize for mocking public figures and certainly not for mocking hypocrisy but it would have to be under extraordinary circumstances — and these weren’t them.

    i think letterman has long-ago lost whatever edge or originality he had, and is now a network hack, terrified of losing his cushy, safe, late-night, middle of the road job. he’s been in the business long enough to 1) know what sort of material he will or will not do, 2) khow what sort of material his writers come up with for *his* audience and 3) be a professional enough to take whatever abuse *he* gets dealt as a public figure. i didn’t have much respect for letterman before, now i have none.

  • James

    I don’t know that comedians should need to apologize for jokes. However, I feel that they should take time to consider potential ramifications in advance. They almost always know they’re going to day, and that they’re going to have an audience when they say it.

    In this case, however, the facts behind the joke were wrong where it was Willow and not Bristol that was at the game. Letterman or the joke-writer could probably have found this out with a quick search before approving it. Willow has not chosen to be a public figure unlike the others mentioned in the excerpt, and, like any child really should be, should be kept out of the line of fire.

    So despite my saying above that jokes should not be apologized for, in this case the apology should have been made to admit they erred in advance fact-checking.

  • misterb

    Yes, David Letterman should have apologized. As he said, it’s just a joke. There is no reason for him to feel that he must take a principled stand to defend a couple of words when he’s been uttering in public for thirty years. It’s only our ridiculously over-politicized media that could make such a typhoon in a teacup.
    I must say that I liked his first apology (the funny one) better than his second.

    There’s a saying in poker – if you look around the table, and you don’t see the sucker – the sucker is you. In comedy, it goes like this: if you look around the audience, and everybody is laughing but you – you have no sense of humor.

  • Bill

    I don’t know what joke Letterman told that ruffled Palin’s feathers, but if he felt regret or had a change of heart regarding what he was poking fun at, then an apology seems like the way to go. There’s obviously nothing wrong with stepping back and saying “whoa – my bad. i was out of line.” I suppose politics cloud things up and bring motive into question and of course the sincerity of any public figure is always an unknown. But what’r ya gonna do? An absolute refusal to ever issue an apology for a joke seems like the misguided, petty, and adolescent act of a fragile ego.

  • Althea

    I agree with several of these points, especially Bronxbee’s (but not his/her opinion of Dave.) You’re right, B, these were not extraordinary circumstances – until, that is, Palin herself made such a stink. Nobody would have assumed that Dave was talking about her younger daughter. If she’d just kept her mouth shut it would have gone by in a day, but noooo….. And her husband started throwing the word “rape” around, as if female + baseball player + pregnancy = rape, and that’s a joke. As if DAVID LETTERMAN, host of a popular TV show, more popular than his wife will ever be, is so venous that he actually told his audience that a famous baseball player SHOULD rape his little girl? On what planet would he get that out of it?

    So, should we suppose this is only because Palin or her handlers want to keep her face out there? Poor Dave has definitely lost points, having been obliged by somebody (network?) to hang out this apology for no reason, and I wish he’d left it alone. But, mama, does Palin look stupid.

  • David_in_EH

    Althea: “I agree with several of these points, especially Bronxbee’s (but not his/her opinion of Dave.) You’re right, B, these were not extraordinary circumstances – until, that is, Palin herself made such a stink. Nobody would have assumed that Dave was talking about her younger daughter.”

    As there was only *one* daughter with her on the NY trip, to paraphrase the words of Travis Bickle, “Then who the hell else was Dave talking about… the fourteen year old was the only one there. ”

    Dave stepped in it. First, he targeted a kid. He and his staff of crack writers didn’t even check to see *which* daughter was in town and which wasn’t. Reality bites, sometimes it bites you in the ass.

    And then, with his kack-handed first apology, he tracked it into the house. Nothing quite like shooting one’s self in the *OTHER* foot.

  • Althea

    David_in_EH: See, that’s the POINT. Virtually nobody who heard the joke in the first place would have thought that Dave was talking about the 14-year-old. She’s not in the public eye. And if any infinitesimal percentage of viewers did know different, he/she would have thought that Dave, or Dave’s writers, were in error, and thought nothing of it, making the obvious assumption that he meant the other girl, since that would have made some sense as a joke. (Remember, she’s the one who’s already been knocked up? See the connection?) Who among us is paying attention to who Palin brings to &*$!%!$@ baseball games with her? Or cares?

    And, please, David, take a deep breath. Dave wasn’t “targeting” any 14 year old. He wasn’t targeting any 18 year old either. He was targeting their MOTHER, remember? Who among us thinks David Letterman would be making a joke at the expense of a nearly unknown teenage girl, for heaven’s sake? Do you? Really?

  • Dave_in_EH

    Althea: “Virtually nobody who heard the joke in the first place would have thought that Dave was talking about the 14-year-old. She’s not in the public eye.”

    Not the point — as soon as Dave decided he wanted to take a few shots at Palin, as sure as night follows day, someone would squawk. You know it, I know it and the comedy brain-trust as Dave’s show sure as heck should have known it. I’m not saying Dave did it one purpose, I’m saying he stepped in it.

    Althea: “And if any infinitesimal percentage of viewers did know different, he/she would have thought that Dave, or Dave’s writers, were in error, and thought nothing of it, making the obvious assumption that he meant the other girl, since that would have made some sense as a joke.”

    Neither here nor there — Dave and his writers *HANDED* Palin a legitimate axe to grind. Throw in that it A) wasn’t funny, since it could *only* be applicable to the fourteen year old and B) Dave made a hash of matter once he realized the faux pas and C) Given Dave’s own spawning out of wedlock, he created a witches’ brew of hypocrisy and lack of humor. His idiotic first apology only served to make him look even more boorish.

    Althea: “Dave wasn’t “targeting” any 14 year old. ”

    Not deliberately, mayhap, but she’s the one at the game.

    Althea: “He wasn’t targeting any 18 year old either. He was targeting their MOTHER, remember?”

    Dave and his writers dragged the daughter into the routine, Althea, or weren’t you paying attention? They did so of their own free will and with malice aforethought. They tried to use the daughter as a club against the mother, plain and simple and botched it. Their choice, their responsibility.

    Gravy for a good is gravy for a gander. If the Clinton era joke of “what do you get when you cross a crooked lawyer with a dishonest politician” was worthy of mock-outrage, this deserves equal billing.

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