In case you missed it, Bill Maher appeared on The View yesterday to promote his recently released book, The New New Rules. He didn’t talk about his book much, though, instead spending the bulk of his time with the ladies defending his choice to mock View host Elisabeth Hasselbeck on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher.
Back in February, Maher used as comedy fodder the brutal assault endured by CBS reporter Lara Logan in Egypt, joking that in exchange for Logan’s safe return, “we will send Elisabeth Hasselbeck.”
Hasselbeck claims she wasn’t personally offended by the joke, but that she thinks it’s an affront to women. She might be right.
Maher says the one-liner was not aimed at Hasselbeck as an individual, but argues that Hasselbeck is a “public figure” who is “out there as fodder for comedians to make comments on.” When Hasselbeck insinuated that the joke was in poor taste, Maher maintained his stance, suggesting that he must “live on the line” of good taste to appease his audience.
Hasselbeck’s co-host, comedian and CNN “fundit” Joy Behar – who often vehemently disagrees with Hasselbeck on air – defended Maher, saying, “We walk the ledge, you know, it’s not easy. You make a joke, sometimes people’s feelings get hurt.” Maher added, “Somebody has to be out on the edge to know where the edge is,” to which Hasselbeck responded sarcastically, “Thanks for being the hero.”
View creator Barbara Walters miraculously managed to lighten the mood by telling Hasselbeck, “I went through years of Barbara Wawa, I survived.” Hasselbeck agreed to move on, but not before telling Maher:
“Well, you can talk about me or you can talk to me. I think accountability is sometimes important in life. That’s what I teach my kids.”
Aaaaaaaand that’s where she got me. Because she may not be totally right that the Logan/Hasselbeck joke is offensive to all women, but she is right about accountability.
I’ve worked with a comedian named Melvin George twice now. Melvin is a road vet, a headliner, and his act is clean from top to bottom. Not one curse, nary a sexual reference. And he’s funny. A bit too sweet for some, I’m sure, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s got a closer that is so good it reminds me of some of the best Victor Borge bits (if that gives you a sense of his style). He told me the first time we met, “It doesn’t matter what you say on stage. But you have to know that you’re responsible for everything you say.”
I thought about that a lot that weekend, and I think about that a lot in general. Behar is right, as comedians – even friendly ones like Behar – we offend people. Being a comedian isn’t about protecting people, it’s about making them laugh, and ideally illuminating some kind of truth. And if during the course of that endeavor someone is hurt by something you say, you have to deal with it. You don’t necessarily have to stop saying it, but you must be able to explain yourself.
I wrote a post for the website Splitsider back in March that asked, Should “Retarded” be Retired from the Comedic Lexicon? I hadn’t really thought much about “the r word” as it’s called – especially by parents of children with special needs – until one day when I used it off-handedly in a set. This was a few years ago now, and a woman came up to me after the show (as I detail in the Splitsider post) and told me she was offended that I’d used the word. I didn’t even realize I’d done it. I told her I was sorry, and that was that. To this day I’m not sure how I feel about the word, but I can’t recall having used it lately. Knowing how mothers like Ellen Seidman feel about its use has certainly been illuminating to me. And – as Conan-opener (and my friend) Reggie Watts pointed out this summer, “It doesn’t mean anything anymore.” Perhaps a vain reason for a comedian to stop using what many see as an offensive slur, but an effective one nonetheless.
Several well-known comedians have stirred controversy by using colorful and offensive language or cracking jokes deemed inappropriate. From Lenny Bruce to George Carlin, Bill Hicks to Sarah Silverman and Tracy Morgan to Katt Williams, comedians are constantly being called out for pushing the envelope in terms of what’s acceptable to say into a microphone. Did Maher’s joke about Hasselbeck cross the line? I guess that depends on how you feel about Elisabeth Hasselbeck. If you find her annoying and outspoken yet undereducated, then you probably think the joke was hilarious. There’s a sense of satisfaction in the notion of Hasselbeck getting raped. Getting what she deserves.
Oh, wait? Is that what we’re laughing at? Cuz that’s the point of the joke, really, if you think about it. When Lara Logan gets back from Egypt, we’ll send Elisabeth Hasselbeck over there to be attacked. That annoying bitch, right? Ha.
I didn’t see Maher’s show when he said it (I don’t have HBO), but if I had been watching, I’m sure I would have laughed. Heck, even audience members at The View laughed when Hasselbeck repeated the joke in a reporter’s voice! It’s punchy. It’s funny. Perfect, perky and persnickety little Elisabeth Hassselbeck is the butt of the joke, so we laugh without thinking about the deeper implications. It’s a throw-away line. Like Hasselbeck, who is herself a throwaway, an afterthought.
I don’t like the idea that women are interchangeable (or that we can be traded, to use Hasselbeck’s terminology), and if I really sit with the notion, I’m disgusted at the thought of sending someone off to be raped simply because she’s irritating. But you know what? I’ve said horrible things about strangers who’ve rubbed me the wrong way, and part of what comedy does is allow us to collectively blow off steam. So is the joke entirely unfair? Maybe not. But maybe it is.
There’s an E.B. White quote that goes, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I first became aware of the saying when I started reading the aptly named comedy blog, Dead Frog. If comedians overthought every joke before it was said, mime would be a much more popular art form. But that doesn’t mean comedians shouldn’t be held accountable for what they say in instances where someone is hurt. As Hasselbeck said, we would never let our children run around saying whatever they wanted without any consequence, why should we let adults do the same?
Here’s the clip of the entire four minute interaction between Maher and Hasselbeck. Watch it and let me know what you think. Does she have a point? Or is she overreacting?
UPDATE: My friend Elizabeth McQuern pointed out via Twitter that Maher told the Logan joke days before the details of her gang rape were released, which does change things a bit. It wasn’t a “let’s rape Hasselbeck” joke at the time, it was a “let’s send Hasselbeck overseas to be detained” joke. (Still mean, still questionable, still just a brief dig, not an anti-woman diatribe.) That fact sheds new light on Hasselbeck’s performance on The View more than anything, because she’s the one who brought Logan’s attack into play during the confrontation with Maher. (I’m shocked he didn’t take an opportunity to clarify that he told the joke before he knew the extent of Logan’s suffering. Which says to me he had some idea that as a detainee she was suffering in some way and meant to imply he’d like to see Hasselbeck tortured a bit. But who knows?!) Anyway, that leads me to believe that what my friend James Wolfe just said is true: “I think she was personally offended and was taking the high ground to rub his nose in it.” What say you?