One of the saddest moments in Tiger King—or at least one that has remained in my mind long after finishing the seven-part Netflix documentary—came after Kelci “Saff” Safferty, a trans man who works at Joe Exotic’s zoo, had his arm mauled by a tiger. The injury was horrifying, and so was Saff’s decision to have the arm amputated at the elbow rather than endure the years of surgery that would be necessary to render it functional again. But the real gut punch came when Saff returned to the zoo—just five days after the amputation—and told the cameras that his decision was based on a desire to publicly absolve Joe Exotic. “I knew if I stayed in that hospital, the media wins,” he said.
What Saff didn’t know, but viewers did, is that in the moments after the attack, before he’d even been rushed to the hospital, Exotic displayed none of that same loyalty. He looked distraught, of course, but when he returned to his office, cameras still rolling, he didn’t even try to hide his primary concern.
“I’m never going to recover financially from this,” he moaned.
I call this one of the “saddest” moments partly because it was a naked display of Joe Exotic’s sociopathic self-interest and a perfect symbol of the money-over-people mentality that pervades in late capitalism. But what really depressed me, on a human level, was Safferty’s misplaced loyalty. While the specific incident that cost him an arm may not have been Exotic’s fault directly, the owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park spent years exploiting workers like Safferty, paying them low wages, housing them in disgusting conditions, and generally treating safety as a secondhand priority at best. In a just world, Saff would have exacted a revenge on Exotic more savage than any tiger could dream. Instead, his first concern was for preserving the good name of a two-bit con artist.
I found myself wishing Saff had heard Joe’s lament while he writhed in pain, so he could react with the righteous fury that the universe demanded. And then I realized it wouldn’t matter—Exotic’s hold on his worker was stronger than a mere revelation of burning self-interest. In some ways, he’s a perfect analogue for Donald Trump, in that his ugly, unyielding narcissism, along with a blinding ambition and general apathy toward the welfare of even (especially?) the people closest to him, comes with an undeniable charisma. That magnetic power binds certain people to them, and those bonds are not easily broken—even when it becomes obvious beyond any reasonable doubt that the Exotic/Trump figure doesn’t give a shit about the people below them, and won’t return their loyalty beyond a few acts of lip service. Saff gave his arm to this man, and remained at his side without an ounce of bitterness, but we know in our guts that Exotic wouldn’t have cared one bit if Saff died. Not really. The difference between Exotic and Trump is one of legitimacy and scope—Trump can inspire loyalty among strangers who have never met him, while Exotic is limited to a smaller orbit—but at heart they’re the same unfeeling beast.
But then there’s this, and I’m not proud to write it: when Joe Exotic said those words, “I”m never going to recover financially from this,” I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. It was a shocked kind of laugh, a sort of stunned reaction to his total lack of filter. And even as Saff suffered, there was the blackest kind of comedy in seeing Exotic’s self-absorption laid bare. He was so far gone as a human being that he couldn’t hide it; his true nature so raw and unchangeable that he couldn’t even fake concern for his employee longer than a few seconds.
Why was this funny? Who knows, but it was, at least to me, and at least in that moment…ghoulish as it may seem now. Mel Brooks once said, “tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Translated into the mind of Joe Exotic, it would be something like, “indifference is when you have your arm ripped off by a tiger. Tragedy is when it costs me a few dollars.”
Of course, it’s no great shock to anyone that Joe Exotic is funny. He’s been memed practically to death since Tiger King was released on March 20, and he’s clearly struck a chord with an American public starved for content as we wait out the COVID-19 nightmare. Despite the fact he’s a legitimately terrible person who abuses employees, tried to have a woman killed, and seems to have spent a career hurting and even murdering animals, people revere Joe Exotic. Cardi B wants to start a GoFundMe to get him out of prison, and it only seems to have been semi-ironic. This man is a gay redneck who lived in a thruple with two men who were plainly heterosexual, he’s outspoken and shameless on every topic under the sun, and what he wants more than anything in life is agonizingly American: He wants to be famous. In the beam of his shameless gaze, we can’t look away.
He has achieved his goal, in 2020, because he is irresistible as a character, and so many of us are content to deal with him as exactly that, a character. We watch his act from a distance, shielded in our own minds from any ethical concerns. At the risk of beating the Trump analogy to death, the similarities are unavoidable. As much as we wring our hands trying to figure out the cultural and economic pathologies that led to our president’s election, the truth is obvious for anyone willing to cut through the bullshit : A lot of people loved the spectacle. The consequences mattered less to them than the show, and the same is true for Joe Exotic. Yes, okay, he hurts everyone who comes in contact with him, including his own mother, and he’s the kind of vicious, mean little shit who will square up a tiger in the crosshairs of his pistol and murder that beautiful animal without a second thought the minute it stops making him money, but…have you seen his mullet? What about that monologue about turning his straight boyfriends gay? Or the music video featuring a fake Carol…the woman he eventually tried to have killed, only failing because he was too much of a narcissitic coward to do it himself?
It’s all about the show, baby.
If anything, the comedy inherent to someone like Joe Exotic, or other sociopaths like the polygamist Doc Antle, disguises the true greatness of Tiger King as a revelatory documentary, and how truly essential, and how paradigmatic of America in 2020, the story it tells. This is a case study of cultural grotesquerie, of an empire in decline that inevitably finds itself in thrall, on small scales and large, to cheap grifters like Exotic. If that element has been lost beneath the relentless meme-ability of its characters, it’s not a commentary on the filmmakers, but on the viewers.
After I praised the show on Twitter, a friend of mine responded:
“There are a lot of folks enjoying it as if it’s real housewives or regular trash reality TV and I think that’s the fault of the filmmakers. They never quite grapple with the depth of awfulness in any of the people.”
It’s an insightful comment, but I disagree with the conclusion. I think the depth of awfulness is readily apparent for anyone with the eyes to see it, but I don’t think it’s the filmmakers’ job to beat us over the head with a moral truth. They laid out the story in a compelling—in fact transfixing—way, and if in some people’s minds the comedy overrides the sheer criminal monstrosity of men like Exotic, well, that’s because some people will never really get it. The artistic alternative would have been to create something overt and ham-fisted, and the product wouldn’t have been nearly as explosive or artistically robust. The directors, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, found one of the best and most illustrative stories I’ve ever encountered in real life, they told it thoroughly and well; the rest is up to the souls on the other side of the screen.
In fact, in some ways it’s another feather in their cap that Tiger King manages to reveal truths about its viewers. There’s the callow voyeurism, of course, but I’ve also heard well-meaning people depict Joe Exotic as some kind of gay icon, as if his vulgarity and greed should be praised because of his identity—he’s brash and bold, and he won’t hide his sexuality! The big joke about capital-L Liberals is that in their heart of hearts, they want diversity without structural change, so that the ultimate fulfillment of their political vision is not economic equality, or anything like it, but just greater demographic representation at the highest levels—more minorities on the board of Wal-Mart! More people of color sending us off to forever wars! And those Liberals have turned out for Tiger King, unable to resist Joe’s gayness as a symbol, and equally unable to see the hideous character beneath. They’re every bit as culpable as the insensate popcorn-poppers.
That’s a minor strain of critical response, though, and the comedy is the tougher element to grapple with. In a perfect world, we’d be able to admit that in the darkest circumstances, and in the ugliest backwaters of human behavior, comedy is inevitable. As much as we might want our supervillains to be humorless Darth Vaders, in the real world they tend to be hucksters who can, and do, inspire some level of devotion within a whirling circus. Even someone as grave as Hitler started out as a wild-eyed raving lunatic in the beer halls of Munich, delivering speeches that were attractions as much for their entertainment as their content. Whether he meant to be funny or not, that’s how some people saw him, right up until the moment when they had to take him very, very seriously. There are elements of Trump that are also funny, and the same is clearly true of Joe Exotic. In The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci mines this strange contrast in Soviet Russia—how the horrific and the comedic exist in the same space and time—to great effect. Our darkest chapters, like it or not, are full of uncomfortable laughs.
The question of how we filter these dueling elements, and how we regard the final product, is in Tiger King’s case one of reception, not presentation. If Goode and Chaiklin find that the epitomatic story they told has been diluted by comedy, or that their portrayal of the spiritual zeitgeist is compromised by the thoughtlessness of the consumer zeitgeist, that’s not on them. They’ve given us a terrific work of nonfiction that hits very close to home, and we should be smart enough to suss out the details that matter. If instead we revert to a collective defense mechanism of laughing to drown out the pain of recognition, well then … as always, we deserve what we get.
Shane Ryan is the former Paste Politics editor and author of Slaying the Tiger. Follow him on Twitter here.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.