NBC’s Saturday Night Live has become something of an American institution, which is why the show still persists after myriad periods of being unfunny and even unwatchable. Yet, there has been a new kind of attention on the show because SNL very publicly hired three new black artists, including writer and comedian Leslie Jones.
On Saturday, Jones appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment and caused controversy with jokes that referenced the forced breeding of slaves. The segment came in response to People Magazine naming Lupita Nyong’o “The Most Beautiful Person.” Nyong’o has achieved fame because of her portrayal of Patsey in 12 Years A Slave.
What set off people’s outrage—although, at this point, who even knows what sets people off anymore—was that Jones compared forced breeding to being a “better” love life than she currently has, saying she’s not “beautiful” but “useful.”
Jones responded to her critics on Twitter, pointing out that she is not the first person to reference this bit for comedy (as pointed out by The Washington Post) and blames the backlash on sexism. “I’m betting if Chris Rock or Dave [Chappelle] did that joke or [Jay-Z] or [Kanye] put it in a rap they would be called brilliant,” Jones said in multiple tweets, continuing, “Just cause it came from a strong black woman ain’t afraid to be real, y’all mad.” She promised to go “even harder and deeper” in her future work for SNL.
All humor is subjective. I personally found the bit very funny, partly because of the cheery and charismatic way Jones delivered the jokes. I remain unsure if the horror associated with the idea of forced breeding was supposed to stand as kind of an absurdist contrast to what she was saying or if she was being ironic in light of Cliven Bundy’s recent racist remarks. Or perhaps the original intent was lost amidst all the meanings the audience ascribed to it.
Yet, it is irrelevant whether or not individuals found the bit funny. What is more important is why it seems that culturally the only place we focus outrage against racism is at comedians or people’s statements. Donald Sterling had a long history of racial bias, but it was a recording of whining to his girlfriend that may cost him his business.
Comedy, like any art, can be mined for true social commentary and even philosophical insight. Yet, that is secondary to its primary purpose: to get laughs. I am not sure if Jones was going for a larger message or just for laughs “in the room,” but part of the business of comedy is to mine the horror for humor. Don’t blame the comic if you’re not ready to laugh at it yet.
Photo via NBC screengrab