Why Lena Dunham should not have apologized
After just one short season of her HBO comedy series Girls, Lena Dunhamhas catapulted into an instant A-lister. Now, being an A-list comedy star isn’t easy. You need to be ‘on’ all the time and you need to maintain constant self-promotion. The way you accomplish both of these things is via Twitter.
Unfortunately for Dunham, some of her tweets have gotten her into a series of uncomfortable situations. There was the photo of herself in a headscarf which was widely seen as racist. Then there was the tweet to Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak about the three of them going for Halloween as Paul Bernardo, Karla Homolka, and Tammy Homolka, the serial-killer couple’s first victim and Karla’s sister.
Now, I agree that the tweet was tasteless and that the joke was terrible. I remember the Bernardo case. If you remember it, then you probably agree that it is not exactly fertile ground for comedy. In fact, joking about something so horrible just seems outright distasteful. Regardless, Lena Dunham should not have had to apologize for it. Comedians should never have to apologize for jokes.
One reason is that comedy is the result of a process and if you like jokes then you ought to be tolerant of the process. Nobody writes comedy at 100 per cent efficiency. Nobody. Most of the jokes that anybody writes will be terrible. A few will be good and, if we’re lucky, every now and then one will be truly brilliant. And how do we test them out? We tell them to other people, much like Dunham did on Twitter. It just happens that the joke was really bad.
What’s more, we already know that Dunham’s work is provocative. Admittedly, I struggle to find her work funny. Regardless, I am assured that it’s comedy. But what I do know is that she is one of those creative professionals who carves out a niche within very risky subject matter and that she garners extensive kudos for the quality of her work. Dunham, along with the likes of Jeff Ross, Amy Schumer, Gilbert Gottfried, and Lisa Lampanelli, occupies an area of the comedy world which is meant to elicit a strong reaction and to derive the comedy from that powerful, guttural response. It’s risky stuff. It can go terribly wrong very quickly. However, it is simply wrong to say in one breath that free expression extends to comedians and in the next breath to insist that they apologize whenever we are offended by their material.
However, this is what’s happening. It happened to Dunham. It happened to Gilbert Gottfried. Neither time was the offensive material very good. But that’s the way comedy works. Sometimes the joke stinks. But if you appreciate the value of comedy, you ought to respect its process. And respecting the process means letting the lame ones go. Don’t make a comedian apologize or strip them of an endorsement deal. This will result in something known as ‘chill’ where the sanction of one piece of speech sets a precedent which deters future speech. In other words, punish the bad jokes and you rob the world of future jokes, both good and bad.
Comedy is a fundamentally unique kind of speech. For example, Ann Coulter should absolutely have had to apologize for using the word “retard” in one of her tweets. Her job is not comedy, it’s political punditry. Using such an offensive term at all is deeply unprofessional, but using it in reference to the president is just childish. Not only should Coulter have apologized, but she should have been fired. Ann Coulter’s job is to be the subject of comedy, not its author. Lena Dunham, on the other hand, is in the comedy business.
Jokes are deeply important. Comedy is a cultural necessity. We need this stuff if we want to have any hope of dealing with all of the miserable realities of day-to-day life. In short, comedy allows us to cope with the world a little easier. And really, who doesn’t need that? I mean, there could be a Mormon in the White House next year. I mean, just let that sink in. Imagine how regressive the next four years would be. Imagine what Romney and Prime Minister Sweater Vest might be able to ruin by 2016. I mean, seriously, bring on the zombie apocalypse already. It’s either that or else just let the comedians tell their jokes.