All the way through elementary school I attended the Chaos B. Mayhem Progressive School in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. That wasn’t its actual name, but it was the ‘70s and it may as well have been. Our math teacher was growing pot in the class terrarium and four grades were thrown together in one “quad.” Homework was optional and we learned yoga from a hippie named Thatcher.
We had all sorts of unique activities billed as real-world learning. Instead of grammar, we went camping or bowling. We had field trips to the local public library. Returning to school, our teacher would drive us through residential neighborhoods, swing open the door of our lumbering, coughing bus and allow the boys to sprint out like young cheetahs, ring doorbells and before anyone could answer, hightail it back to the bus as if pursued by death itself. The bus doors would swallow them back up and snap shut as our teacher peeled out in a cloud of unregulated ‘70s gas emissions. No one seemed to care that Chaos B. Mayhem was emblazoned on the side of the bus making us as identifiable as the fire department.
If you’ve ever noticed that I have no clue how to use commas, now you know why. But I sure as hell am versed in “ding dong ditch.”
But this is all a long way, my usual too-long way, of saying that Saturday Night Live needs to bring back comedian and Chicagoan Katie Rich, a Weekend Update writer since 2013, and SNL needs to bring her back now. She was suspended from the show late last week after tweeting about Donald Trump’s 10 year-old son, “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter.”
I don’t condone online bullying or attacks on a president’s minor children and neither does Katie Rich who three hours later deleted the tweet and tweeted her sincere regrets and apology. But it brings me back to some of my earliest school memories.
Real life lessons actually learned at Chaos B. Mayhem were the value of critical thinking even when it approaches anarchy, of questioning authority and “the way things are always done” and a love of creativity. Why are these things good? Because they expand the notion of self, reveal new insight, free you to speak truth and to respect the truth of others and provide the tools to fight prejudice and dangerous, embedded ways of thinking and ...
I see your eyes… what the heck, my eyes, glazing over. Enough with the preaching.
Oh yes, and the more specific reason I brought up elementary school was that in 6th Grade, our teacher showed us the R-rated film Lenny about the pioneering ‘60s comedian Lenny Bruce. Wow, did it earn that R-rating. If you ever want to see a classroom of 6th graders wide-eyed and agog …
But more on point, it was an unforgettable lesson about comedy and free speech. Lenny Bruce was one of the first American comedians to use free-form profanity, observations about race, gender, sex, and government failings in his act. He was fired from clubs, blacklisted from television, arrested multiple times and ultimately convicted in 1964 on “obscenity” charges.
Back then, he was labeled a “sick comedian.” But look at his legacy now. He was a pivotal figure in opening the doors to hardcore truth in comedy. A 2012 Rolling Stone article quotes journalist Paul Krassner (who edited Bruce’s memoirs) as saying, “When he was called a 'sick' comic, he was really trying to reflect the implications of a sick society. And the critics blamed the messenger." Another comedian, Rob Riggle, makes the point that Lenny Bruce’s mission was to “call out hypocrisy” and that “it’s usually the first guy through the breach that takes all the bullets.”
We need to let comedians do their job. That job includes all of the values and benefits I mentioned – benefits to us as individuals, citizens and society. We need to think very carefully before we censor or censure a comedian taking a closer look, pointing out a flaw in our collective thinking and taking a perspective that sheds new light and loosens the grip of a rigid, potentially paralyzing situation.
You may think that Katie Rich’s joke was wrong in that kids should never be targets, but I also think that point of view misses the point of the joke which wasn’t about Barron himself. At least to me it wasn't. To me, it was about the sterile and toxic environment likely to prevail at the Trump White House. And as the most original humor does, it also paints a picture that's both absurd and plausible. What the fuck, can I just say I laughed?
In a Chicago Tribune interview, she said that as a Weekend Update writer, she crafts over 200 topical jokes a week. I read that and know that some of those jokes will hit and be part of the show, and many will not. Some jokes will miss. Some will shout "hell no, we can’t say that" and might slip through anyway. It’s how good television comedy writing works.
If we’re shutting that door with fear and threats, we’re shutting the door on comedians’ ability to blaze the path of truth-telling. If they’re wrong, well, respect it when they concede it and move on and let them continue to do their job and not forget how it benefits us all. If you don’t like their humor, you have the freedom to tell them. No one is forcing you to agree, listen, watch or follow.
I also wonder whether Katie Rich would have been treated as harshly if she were a guy. The response to her tweet was a change.org petition demanding her firing. In the space of a few days, it had nearly 122,000 signatures. She was suspended when it had about 80,000. At first, I thought yes. This has to do with gender.
I am quite sure there is a double standard in comedy. Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer are examples of comedians met with aversion for being as frank as men about sex, drinking and human pitfalls. Women comedians who talk about “the difference between men and women” are often seen as pitiable hacks (at least by men) while men on the same topic are viewed as refreshing and approachable. I could go on and on, but in this case, I’m no longer sure it applies.
Also last week, comedian Stephen Spinola tweeted “Barron Trump looks like a very handsome date- rapist-to-be.” He followed up with this tweet: “I don’t want my Mom to get raped, but if she does I hope it’s by Barron Trump – small pp would be painless & we’d win lots of money in court.” The backlash was a 100,000 signature petition calling for his firing from Comedy Central with the snag being that he doesn’t work for Comedy Central (he was a contributor at one point, but never an employee).
So I’m less sure that this is about what men are allowed to say/what women are allowed to say even though if Katie Rich said what Stephen Spinola said, she would have already been deported.
But more than gender, this incident is about fear of power and money. I believe that if it were about sincere outrage at targeting a child, then Katie Rich’s heartfelt apology and thoughtful track record should have been enough. That leaves me with fear as the catalyst. Fear is the antithesis of comedy.
When a comedian goes too far and acknowledges it, allow them like anyone else to move on. When as punishment you severe their livelihood, the message is that we all better be afraid. There are big, unforgiving people who will harm us if we speak our minds and dare to turn our observations into jokes.
So what happened to my classmates at Chaos B. Mayhem? Did the emphasis on free speech, humor and bucking authority lead to death and prison, treachery and treason? In our small class of sixteen, most eventually learned to use commas. Many became writers. Two became editors at major national magazines. One became the award-winning food critic for one of the nation’s most respected newspapers. Our classmate with perhaps the most recognizable name is Henry Garfield, known as Henry Rollins, lead singer of Black Flag, pioneer of punk rock, famed seeker and questioner.
I don’t completely agree with the way our school got us here. We benefited from those years and will never doubt the value of free thinking, but we also had to recover.
I don’t agree that any social media post or communication targeting a child or bullying anyone in any way is okay.
I also am completely grossed out and disillusioned that one person can tweet like a literal banshee and become president while a very funny, talented, established comedian makes one twitter misstep and is ostracized by the show founded as a standard bearer of outspoken comedy.
I also don’t claim to speak for anyone else but myself. But I hope I speak for more.
Andrew Alexander, Second City's Executive Producer and CEO personally tweeted
She has apologized this lady who has a heart of gold does not deserve the nasty pile of hatred directed her way a class act #keepkatierich
— andrew alexander (@TheAAlexander) January 24, 2017
Second City, where Katie Rich is an alum, tweeted
— The Second City (@TheSecondCity) January 24, 2017
When it comes to truth, comedians are literally and figuratively our first responders. Shouldn’t we all have their backs?