For a lesson on the precarious intricacies of modern-day social umbrage, look no further than the CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly.” The Chuck Lorre-produced show about an overweight couple who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting is not typically known for stirring controversy, but on Feb. 25, one of its jokes did just that. During the episode, Mike’s mother, played by Rondi Reed, was asked if she was moving to Arizona.
“Arizona?” she replied. “Why would I go to Arizona? It’s nothing but a furnace full of drunk Indians.”
Almost immediately, the joke sparked the attention of Native Americans on social media, and not in a good way. American Indians are disproportionately affected by alcoholism, according to data from the American Journal of Public Health, and alcohol addiction has long been a serious problem on Indian reservations. So it’s not surprising that many Native Americans took offense to an off-handed slam -- uttered by an entitled white character -- at the expense of a disease that devastates Indian communities.
Mike Marlin, a member of the Mohawk Nation who lives in Kingston, Ontario, caught wind of the joke on Twitter the same night had it aired. He watched a clip of the scene online and couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“I’m not from Arizona. I’m Canadian,” he said. “But this felt like a slap to all First Nations and Aboriginal people. I found it amazing that they would air this after all the progress we’ve made.”
Later that night, Marlin contacted CBS via email and aired his grievances, but he said his protests earned him nothing more than an emailed response, sent from a nameless Do Not Reply account.
“They basically told me to get over it,” he said. “They gave me a line about how it’s a comedy show, and that the views of the show don’t necessarily reflect the network.” (Marlin did not respond to a later request to share the email with IBTimes.)
But Marlin didn’t get over it. He believed, as he still does, that CBS has a responsibility to apologize for the joke -- and acknowledge the hurt it caused. Last week, he started a Facebook group, “Boycott Mike & Molly on CBS Due to Racism,” through which he and other page administrators have begun contacting the show’s advertisers and asking them to pull their support until he gets his apology. As of Thursday, Marlin’s group had almost 400 members.
And they’re not alone. Native American tribes -- including the Navajo Nation, whose territory extends into Arizona -- have spoken out against the joke, calling on CBS to apologize. Ditto for the Native American Journalists Association, which condemned the joke on the grounds that it perpetuates an insidious stereotype of Native peoples. “Why a highly entertaining show like ‘Mike & Molly’ would need to resort to humor at the expense of the first peoples of Arizona, is inexplicable,” the group said in a statement.
CBS executives have so far been mum on the controversy. Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, a spokesperson for “Mike & Molly,” declined to comment. But their silence hasn’t quelled criticism of the show or calls for an apology. All week long, commenters have been condemning “Mike & Molly” on the show's official Facebook page, accusing it of being “racist” and vowing to never watch the program again. “How interesting,” wrote one commenter,” that a show that tries to promote acceptance of overweight people would promote negative and racially insensitive stereotypes of Native people!”
But amid the fury, a burgeoning counterargument has emerged. Supporters of the show, or at least of its right to offend viewers without fear of censorship, are taking to social media with near-equal force -- and many are echoing the “just get over it” sentiment of the email Marlin says he received from CBS. Wrote one commenter on the “Mike & Molly" Facebook page, “If we stopped doing jokes that had the potential to offend someone, then no one would have anything to talk about ... everything has the potential to offend someone.”
On Twitter, it was more of the same, with some tweeters who identified themselves as Native American also coming to the show’s defense:
@harveylevintmz I'm native American, I'm apache, I see nothing wrong with Mike and Molly the Navajo nation needs to take a joke
— JessicaCarter (@ljv223) March 5, 2013
For anyone who writes jokes for a living, the line between pushing the envelope and pushing people’s buttons has never been an easy one to walk. Lenny Bruce learned that lesson a half-century ago. But sociologists say that, in comparison to comedians working today, Bruce had a distinct advantage: He didn’t have to worry about his material finding a second life on social media -- where hasty judgments and knee-jerk commentary abounds, and observers often don’t stop to consider context.
“What’s happening now because of the Internet and Twitter is that people are becoming aware much faster,” said Salvatore Attardo, a leading humor researcher and dean of the College of Humanities Social Sciences and Arts at Texas A&M University-Commerce. “So you end up with these scandals that blow up really quickly.”
And those scandals are becoming more and more plentiful. Whether it’s a Bloomberg Businessweek magazine illustration using minority caricatures or Seth MacFarlane’s awkward lampoonery at last month’s Academy Awards ceremony, would-be hilarity is inflaming tempers across every nook and cranny of the Internet.
Businessweek found itself in hot water after its Feb. 25 issue was accused of playing up racial stereotypes. The issue's cartoonish cover illustration by Andres Guzman was meant to illustrate how a rebound in the housing market could bring about the same reckless lending practices that caused it to collapse. But the illustration -- which featured exaggerated minority caricatures clutching piles of money -- was seen as offensive. (As Slate magazine’s Matthew Yglesias put it: “Businessweek Warns That Minorities May Be Buying Houses Again.”) The cover went viral on Twitter, and the magazine’s editor, Josh Tyrangiel, ultimately apologized. In his defense, the artist explained in a statement that he was born in Peru and he drew the family that way because “those are the kinds of families I know.”
MacFarlane, likewise, was a topic of social media scorn in the days following his hosting gig at last month’s Academy Awards ceremony. His much-maligned “We Saw Your Boobs” sketch, in which he offered a musical recap of actresses who have appeared on screen shirtless, was blasted as misogynistic by prominent women including Lena Dunham, Jane Fonda, Geena Davis and Jamie Lee Curtis. Supporters of MacFarlane, including a female film executive who posted anonymously on Hollywood Reporter, said MacFarlane was not endorsing sexism, but merely pointing a mirror on the institutional sexism that continues to persist in Hollywood.
Then there was the recent incident involving Joan Rivers, whose remark about Heidi Klum’s Oscar dress sparked the ire of Twitter-dwellers: “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens,” Rivers said. While jokes about the Holocaust are almost universally thought of as being off limits, Rivers herself is Jewish, and her late husband lost his entire family during the Holocaust. The comedienne has so far refused to apologize for the joke, but that hasn’t quieted the criticism.
Attardo, who is also the editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal “Humor,” said having constant access to the things that offend us has magnified the social risks associated with comedy. It’s one of the reasons, he said, that society as a whole might seem as if it is becoming hypersensitive to offensive material.
“You can’t get away from it,” he said. “Ten years ago, if I didn’t watch the Oscars, I never would have heard about what Seth MacFarlane did. But now, because everyone is talking about it on Facebook, I feel informed enough to talk about it, even though I didn’t see his performance.”
You Can’t Say That (Or Can You)?
Of course, context has never been a black-and-white issue. Consider, for argument’s sake, a recent controversy that erupted over the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing.” The 1980s rock tune -- known for its pre-Pixar CGI video and repeated use of the “I want my MTV” jingle -- contains multiple instances of the word faggot. After a listener complained in early 2011 that the song was perpetuating homophobia, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council banned it from the Canadian airwaves. Broadcasters and music fans were perplexed, particularly as the lyrics were clearly meant as satire. Mark Knopfler, the Dire Straits vocalist, has said that he wrote the lyrics after watching a man in a hardware store making derogatory remarks about musicians in an MTV music video. Many critics of the council’s decision, as pointed out by Rolling Stone magazine, complained that the Canadian government simply didn’t understand the context.
And they apparently had a point. Eight months after the ban went into effect, the council mysteriously reversed its decision, admitting that “there may be circumstances in which even words designating unacceptably negative portrayal may be acceptable because of their contextual usage.”
That’s a notion that some free speech proponents believe is getting lost in modern-day discussions about offensive material. It was context, after all, that has allowed some 200 instances of the N-word to survive in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” despite the fact that many schools refuse to include it in their curricula and some publishers have even printed N-word-free versions. Likewise, context has allowed the Cure to go on singing their 1978 hit “Killing an Arab” -- a reference to Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” -- in spite of occasional criticism from listeners who take the lyrics literally.
In the case of “Mike & Molly,” contextual arguments have also surfaced. The objectionable “drunk Indians” line was spoken by a character who is extremely close-minded and bigoted. As such, supporters of the show say the joke was not meant to poke fun at American Indians but rather at bigotry itself. It’s an argument that even Mike Marlin admits has validity, but he said the fault resides in the execution, which in this case seemed more like a cheap shot than an “All in the Family”-type social commentary. More important, Marlin said, the joke simply wasn’t funny.
“I understand the concept of an Archie Bunker-like character,” he said. “This didn’t come off like that. Maybe it’s a failure on my part that I can’t see it that way, but to me it just seemed insulting and unnecessary.”
Silence Is Not Golden
With almost two weeks having gone by since the show’s airing, Marlin said he is stunned that CBS has still not addressed the concerns of the Native community. He said he’s not looking to have the show pulled off the air and he harbors no ill-will toward the “Mike & Molly” cast. He just thinks the original inhabitants of North America are entitled to a little more courtesy than a generic email.
“I would be very happy with an apology,” he said. “I would publicly thank them.”
Attardo agrees that it’s in CBS’s best interests to address the controversy -- and he said the clock is ticking. He cites the cautionary tale of Michael Richards, the former “Seinfeld” star who fell from comedic grace after he was videotaped shouting racial epithets to black hecklers at a Hollywood comedy club in 2006. Richards apologized on David Letterman’s late-night show four days later, but for many it was too little, too late.
“It damaged his career,” Attardo said. “It might not have been as bad if he dealt with it right away. I’m not a professional comedian, but if it were me, I would apologize. If I tell a joke and you’re offended, sure, I apologize. It doesn’t matter if I meant to offend you or not.”
As someone who has studied the psychology of humor for more than two decades, Attardo understands its unique power to both amuse and enrage. The real trick, he said, is learning to predict which of those two outcomes a joke will produce, which is why he said the best public-speaking advice he gives to his colleagues is simply to play it safe.
“I always tell teachers and lecturers, don’t try to be funny,” he said. “You might get a laugh, but there are always going to be some people who are offended. Comedy is a dangerous job.”