More Thoughts About Entertainers Who Could Do So Much Better

by Neil H. Buchanan

The entertainment battlefront in the culture wars has been especially active lately, with conflicts emerging from seemingly every direction.  This past weekend, the manufactured outrage du jour was focused on the stand-up routine at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, with conservatives howling about their foe's supposed insensitivity and panicky journalists clutching their pearls.

Last week, I wrote a column in Verdict discussing the recent controversies surrounding "The Simpsons" and the reboot of "Roseanne."  Because there was more to say about both shows, I wrote a followup column here on Dorf on Law this past Friday.  Even after writing that column, I still had not covered the territory, so I ended by saying that "the deeper social issues raised by 'The Simpsons' and 'Roseanne' merit further discussion.  I will discuss the former here and return to the latter in my next Dorf on Law post on Wednesday (pending breaking news, of course)."

By "breaking news," I had in mind something that would completely change the conversation within the maelstrom of Donald Trump's Washington -- accusations that, say, Mike Pence had once been a bondage prostitute, or a proposal from Republicans to restore the Three-Fifths Compromise to the Constitution, or perhaps Stormy Daniels being nominated to be the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs.  Imagination is no match for reality in 2018.

By that standard, the right's mewling about a comedian's barbed jokes is pretty mild.  Michelle Wolf, a former secondary correspondent on "The Daily Show" (who was criminally underused on that show), delivered a blisteringly hilarious keynote address to the mainstream media's silly annual schmooze-fest.  This is the same event that catapulted Stephen Colbert's career when he smilingly mocked George W. Bush to his face in 2006, and it is also where Seth Meyers said in 2011 that Donald Trump would not run for president as a Republican or a Democrat but "as a joke."

Colbert has often commented that the response in the room that night was at best icy.  That is, although most people now remember his speech as a triumph, it in fact was met with uncomfortable tittering and plenty of groans.  To her credit, Wolf managed to elicit the same responses.  I cannot add much to Washington Post editor Molly Roberts' reaction, "Michelle Wolf Got It Just Right," which I recommend in its entirety.

For those who do not have the time to click over to another column, I will simply note that the people who are complaining about Wolf's impoliteness fall into two categories: Trump's enablers and the reporters who want to maintain good relations with the very people whose job it is to shamelessly lie to the press.

In short, both of Wolf's targets are upset about being targeted.  No surprise there.  What is somewhat surprising is that the press is coming to the defense of the Trumpists.  Roberts correctly notes that Wolf's criticisms were all spot-on, making it especially worrisome that the press still does not seem to understand that sucking up to people in power is not their job.

Wolf herself quickly knocked down one dishonest criticism from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who mischaracterized some of Wolf's jokes (including one about Sarah Huckabee Sanders using the ashes of "burned facts" as eye makeup) as an attack on women's looks: "Hey mags! All these jokes were about her despicable behavior.  Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though?"  (Haberman is a story unto herself, but that will have to await another day.)

In any event, this is one of those passing moments that gives conservatives the opportunity to revel in their self-victimhood and opine absurdly that "this is why Trump won," as they did the last time a liberal woman prominently called out right-wingers for their lies and hatefulness -- and for their attacks on the very same free press that is now comforting Sanders and distancing itself from Wolf.  Meryl Streep did not harm the Democrats' electoral chances, and neither will Michelle Wolf.

These passing events are thus interesting mostly in how predictable they are.  (I was going to call them kabuki theater, but it turns out that that metaphor is both overplayed and inaccurate.)  Every now and then, conservatives bully the press into agreeing with them that some liberal or another is being mean, hands are wrung with great concern, and life quickly gets back to normal.

If I am right about that -- which necessarily means that these temporary freakouts have no lingering or indirect effects on elections and policy -- is it possibly also true that these other cultural controversies are similarly ephemeral and ultimately meaningless?  Could it be true that Roseanne Barr is using her celebrity to push a pro-Trump viewpoint, and the creators of "The Simpsons" are inexplicably invoking supposed political correctness as a reason to continue the offensive "brownface" stereotype of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, but none of it matters?

I do think that those shows matter much more than political one-offs like the Wolf speech, mostly because TV shows can shape people's assumptions about the world in ways that an openly political event cannot.  The first "Harold and Kumar" movie brilliantly mocked racism against East and South Asians, and one of its best moments was when a group of skinheads bullies Kumar Patel, shouting "Thank you, have a nice day!" mimicking Apu's sing-songy delivery.  This was not made up out of whole cloth.  Plenty of kids -- and adults -- figure out what is OK to ridicule based on what they see on their screens, and Apu's presence on a beloved show gives them that permission.

As I noted in my columns last week, the most troubling thing about the stubborn non-response from "The Simpsons" is that the producers and writers are simply being lazy.  When Hank Azaria, the actor who voices Apu, is himself involved in another show ("Brockmire") that brilliantly satirizes bigotry (in particular anti-South Asian bigotry), it is especially difficult to understand how the creators of "The Simpsons" can be so obtuse.  Surely they know someone who could introduce them to the writers on "Brockmire," no?

I have no desire to write fanfic, but just as a starting point, could "The Simpsons" not have Apu suddenly stop speaking in his offensive accent and explain that he is tired of trying to be what he thinks Springfieldians think he should be?  That would allow them to drop Azaria (who wants to step aside) and bring in an Indian-American actor who could have fun mocking the "minstrel show" stereotyping that Apu currently represents.  Certainly, the creators of that show have proven over the years that they can make serious points in humorous ways.

Similarly, the "Roseanne" reboot could have been built around the Roseanne Conner character having fun dealing with MAGA-wearing idiots in her town, rather than having Laurie Metcalf (a fine actress who surely has better things to do with her career than to enable Barr) play a whiny pussy-hat wearing comic foil.  Of course, the barrier to that happening is not laziness but Barr herself, who simply decided at some point that she could redefine her character in a way that was utterly inconsistent with everything that had preceded it.

In the aftermath of the good news about Bill Cosby being convicted of three of the many, many crimes that he has committed, one critic noted that "Cliff Huxtable Was Bill Cosby’s Sickest Joke." because Cosby pretended to be a character who was everything that he is not.  It turns out that Barr either never was the blue-collar feminist that her character was, or fame and sheer orneriness have turned her into something else.  She is no Cosby, of course, but it is still depressing to see an entertainer turn out to be so problematic.

The good news is that I am possibly quite wrong about the impact of any of these shows on the ways that people think.  Even if I am right, however, the even better news is that there will be new people coming along with better shows and movies all the time, and most of them will not be closed-minded facilitators of bigotry.