The million dollar question: where’s the line between irony and perpetuating a damaging idea?
A proposed answer: substitute the word “ironic” with “lazy” in regards to almost anything and you’ll probably be a little closer to the truth.
This question comes to us by way of an interaction and the subsequent internet fallout of an exchange that took place at a Q&A session after the sold-out “Kyle Mooney Live” at Thalia Hall in Chicago this week. The part-live-part-video show was done in part to promote their upcoming movie Brigsby Bear and featured three fourths of YouTube-sketch-group-turned-mainstream-stars Good Neighbor (Kyle Mooney, Dave McGary and Nick Rutherford, with Beck Bennett missing from the lineup). Chicago comedian and Good Neighbor fan Lily Reed challenged Rutherford on an “ironically sexist” character he’d performed earlier in the night, and the rest is history.
Here’s a piece of her account, posted to Facebook the day after the Chicago show (full post available here):
Rutherford appears to have corroborated Reed’s account, which went on to detail a one-on-one interaction after the show, on Twitter and says to be “embarrassed” by the incident and “sickened by the way our fans treated her.” Reed’s question at the Q&A session was in response to a stand-up character bashing women Rutherford had played earlier in the night, deploying lines like:
“I wish I was a woman. If I was a woman, I’d put out so much, get so much free shit.”
“Remember in the old times when women would just walk up to a man and slap them across the face for no reason? Women, you should do that now!!”
“Women have it easy—they can wear whatever they want.”
By Reed’s own definition, and in a lot of other Good Neighbor characters (Mooney’s Bruce Chandling is an example), these lines are spoken with the understanding that their audience knows how reductive and stupid it is to say and don’t actually mean it. You can find similar displays every time a Silver Lake hipster wears a MAGA hat, or when I try to make my friends watch The Master of Disguise when I feel like I’m doing a bad job of having people over. The whole point of irony-laden routines like this is the understanding that the performer knows better than to insult women, and a good way to demonstrate that you are aware that this routine is ironic is to not insult a woman for challenging that. A good way to demonstrate that you’re benefitting from the status quo and using the invisibility cloak of irony to remain the “good guy” is to essentially tell that woman to go fuck herself, first in a packed theater and later in private.
Since Good Neighbor released regular videos between 2007 and 2012 on several different YouTube channels, a lot of ironic humor has fizzled out as more diverse voices slowly creep their way into the mainstream and policies at training centers are adjusted to be more inclusive and less of a space for privileged people to demonstrate how right they are about things. In terms of what you could get away with saying on the internet, it was a simpler time for all of us—scroll far down enough in anyone’s profile and you’ll probably find something that would not be okay to say now, exemplified by any “old tweets” story that surfaces every time a new cast member or host is hired for anything. Good Neighbor is no exception—videos like “is my roommate gay?” and “retarded but not” (released in 2007 and 2008 respectively) wouldn’t play with the kind of audience they want if they were released today, and the group probably realizes that. It’s when a member of this same group jokingly tells a female audience member to take her top off when she challenges him on something that the whole operation requires a second look.
Reed went on to describe a one-on-one interaction with Rutherford following the show where she was eventually dismissed with a “listen, I’d rather be hanging out with my friends.” Before that, Rutherford allegedly presented Reed with a question: “Can you not see the funny in you asking about ironic sexism followed by me saying something ironically sexist?”
The answer, of course, is no and please stop gaslighting me, I have read the books and will not fall for it again. While Rutherford’s comments are an isolated incident, it speaks to a larger issue taking place in a number of different cultural areas right now—what’s the difference between your character and how you think and act as an individual?
Consider Hulk Hogan/Terry Bollea, who flip-flopped between explaining comments he made “in character” as Hogan and his real feelings as Bollea during the extended court case about a leaked sex tape that ended up bankrupting Gawker. At a number of points in the trial, Bollea had to correct things he said in character and things he said as himself, usually discarding the more offensive or ridiculous comment (having a ten-inch penis, admiring his work in the sex tape versus being embarrassed by it) by accrediting it to his fictional character.
Consider a recent VidCon Q&A in which Anita Sarkeesian, the magnet of GamerGate rage for years after tackling sexism in popular videogames in her “Feminist Frequency” series, was met with a small battalion of male YouTubers who find Sarkeesian guilty of “smearing male gamers.” Gamer and YouTuber Carl Benjamin (who has racked up millions of views insulting Sarkeesian’s work) was frustrated that his question wasn’t taken at the panel, claiming he wanted to “engage” with the documentarian. Polygon reported that later that same day that one of Benjamin’s fellow anti-Sarkeesian YouTubers, Dave Cullen, said “it was such an adrenaline high to be there in the situation, to shit-post, in this trolling kind of way.”
Consider, and you saw this one coming, Donald Trump, who was a cartoonish personality working in business and entertainment for decades before we elected him to the highest office in the country and realized that whoops, he never actually said he didn’t think those things. Still, during the whole “grab them by the pussy” thing, Trump’s representatives tried to make the argument that this was an offensive statement said “in character” and therefore couldn’t be seen as a reflection of Trump the politician’s values.
So, which is it? If you’re intending to cast off an offensive comment onto a character you claim to be playing, you’d better have a track record of good character yourself. Yes, we all have our first amendment right to say whatever the fuck we want, but to exercise that right and then blame it on a fictional character is shady at best and unapologetically benefitting from the status quo at worst.
That’s not to say that a character can’t make pointed, ironic comments and have it work as comedy, but it’s only done successfully when the performer has demonstrated clearly that there’s a line between the bad person they’re playing and the not bad person they are in real life. Consider Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report versus the Stephen Colbert who funded every public school teacher in South Carolina’s crowdsourced wishlist and hosts The Late Show now. While the Report had its share of controversies during its nine year run, the difference between the right-wing pundit Colbert played on TV and the real-life husband-with-a-heart-of-gold was understood by his audience and became extremely successful. It’s worth pointing out that part of the reason this act was so effective is because there was well thought-out satire connected to it—famous segments like “Stephen Hawking is an A-Hole” and “People Who Are Destroying America: Johnny Cummings” provide Colbert’s character with a viable foil to demonstrate how wrong his character’s line of thinking is, and it’s critical to making the pieces work.
Before it inflames the comment section, I’m not suggesting that Rutherford, a comedian, is a Trump-caliber villain. What I’m suggesting is that, in a dystopian sociopolitical climate where the line between truth and fiction is extremely blurred, creatives need to take it upon themselves to think critically about what it is they’re saying, and who it’s directed at. Blurring the line between “am I a piece of shit or is this a funny joke” doesn’t play in a dystopian society any more than a video called “retarded but not” plays now. At some point, it’s the responsibility of the artist to represent themselves and their values as an individual.
So I guess this is general reminder to any creative using ironic anything in their work: if you’re punching down, you’d better have a spectacular point. If you’re challenged by the group you’re punching down to, don’t tell them to fuck off. If you can replace the word “ironic” with the word “lazy,” write a better joke. It’s 2017. We’ve got to try a little harder. Get a library card.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.