Online comedy: Redrawing punchlines?

After Jen Kirkman tweeted a joke in support of Hillary Clinton, her choice of words resulted in accusations of insensitivity towards civilians in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Comedian Jen Kirkman has been a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton, but to some a recent tweet about the candidate went too far.

Updated Aug 17, 2016

For much of her career, Jen Kirkman has eschewed the label of “political comedian.”

Instead, she has chosen to mine her own life — divorce, turning 40 and a personal aversion to motherhood — for material.

Politics has always been the basis for brilliant comedy. Tina Fey’s run as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, Dr Bassem Youssef’s fearless takes on Mohamed Morsi and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt or The Simpsons’ parody of the Kennedy family through the character of Mayor Quimby have all made their way into the public psyche as examples of searing political satire.

Still, when it came to her comedy, Kirkman has favoured the personal over the political. Even the headline to a 2014 profile in The New York Post labelled Kirkman’s stand-up “intensely personal”. 

Kirkman may shun politics in comedy, but she has made her personal politics known. In the course of the US presidential election, Kirkman has been an open supporter of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Kirkman has even used her humour to take aim at supporters of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s former election rival, whom she herself once backed.

On August 3, the comedian’s simultaneous support of Clinton and her insistence that her comedy is not political was put to a major test.

“I LIKE that Hillary has murdered a lot of people,” she posted on Twitter that day. The tweet went on to garner more than 1,200 “likes”.

But it also became a point of controversy, as angry commenters accused the comedian of posting a tone-deaf display of her privilege. Critics felt the joke was meant as a not so subtle reference to civilians killed in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

To thousands of users (at Kirkman's own admittance) the joke became about the United States' military activities in the Middle East and Asia, including during Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State.

Subsequent tweets, like: “Afghans who have died can’t see the joke so to justify it would be weird. I’m not gonna talk to a corpse,” only furthered the outrage. Twitter users blasted the comic for what they took as making light of the thousands of deaths.

Jen Kirkman's August 3 tweet led to an intense debate of privilege, race, and sexism [Twitter/@benjaminnorton].

Within 48 hours, Kirkman posted an explanation of the tweets — which have since been deleted — saying it was all merely a “stupid joke” that was misconstrued. 

According to the comic, the original quip was meant to poke fun at conspiracy theories implicating Clinton in the 1993 suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster.

But it was too late, the damage had already been done.

Rather than quieting her detractors, the explanation further invigorated both her boosters and critics.

The controversial tweet led to an — at times hostile — examination of white privilege, sexism, the US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and what limits, if any, there are in comedy. 

Kirkman’s detractors accused her of being a “spoiled brat” on a “racist tantrum” who is exhibiting an “intolerance” that shows “brown people dying doesn’t matter to her.”

Some took it much further, employing misogynistic put-downs and saying they hoped for her death.

Online articles written in support of the comic labeled her critics everything from “Humorless A-Holes” to bullies.

Even after Kirkman said she would cease all non-promotional activity on the micro-blogging platform, the debate continued.

It was a debate that led to questions about the limits of comedy online. The extent of these limits is further complicated by social media platforms, which feed anonymity and can inhibit the ability to interact directly with a specific audience.

Audience engagement

To Zahra Noorbakhsh, comedian and co-host of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast, Kirkman's choice of medium left her even more susceptible to abuse and misunderstandings.

Many comics — Kirkman and Noorbakhsh included — have turned to Twitter as a testing ground for material that may eventually incorporate into their stand-up routines. However, the nature of Twitter, with its 140 character limit, spread across millions of users, can often strip a message of its tone.

This inability to convey tone can easily lead to sarcasm being mistaken for seriousness and vice versa.

Further, a medium like Twitter — where Kirkman has more than 180,000 followers — also makes gauging the audience reaction more difficult for a comic.

“Sometimes [the audience] draws the line and it’s my job to push them. Sometimes, I can feel a tension in the room and it’s mine to take into consideration and I’m the one who needs pushing,” Noorbakhsh said of the crucial give-and-take between a comic and their audience.

Interpretations by the audience, in this case, tens of thousands of people across the world (as opposed to hundreds in a crowded theatre), undoubtedly played a role in the backlash Kirkman faced.

Last March, Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho found herself at the centre of controversy when a series of jokes about rape and racism led to anger and physical violence in the audience, forcing Cho to abruptly end her set.

Cho later returned to the same New Jersey comedy club, with mentor Jerry Seinfeld in tow. In that second appearance, she led a discussion about the jokes in question and performed a make-up set for the crowd.

Place of privilege

Without a physical audience to address directly, Kirkman was left only with Twitter and other online platforms to try and contextualise jokes she says were misinterpreted on Twitter.

But many commenters kept returning to Kirkman’s position — a famous white woman backing another, even more famous, white woman who is running for president of the United States — as a source of their anger.

Hundreds of commenters referred to a joke Kirkman had made more than a year ago as an example of what they believe to be a flippant attitude towards the human toll of US military actions around the world.

“I think it would be fun to go to war with Iran. We always go to Iraq. Try something new for once,” the year-old joke read.

Noorbakhsh, who identifies as a “Feminist Muslim, Iranian-American comedian,” has in fact made a joke very similar to Kirkman’s.

When [Hillary] said Iran is her #1 enemy, I called up my grandma and said, 'GRANDMA! You're gonna get murdered gain!' She said, 'Again?!'  I said, 'Yeah! But this time a woman is gonna do it.' And she said, "Mashallah!" 

The difference in the reaction to the jokes, said Noorbakhsh, is likely a matter of proximity to the subject itself. “It’s because of my position. I am at risk of losing my grandmother because of Hillary Clinton’s pro-war stance.”

Kirkman, on the other hand, was accused of “using dead people of colour as a punchline.”

Her response to that claim (in another now-deleted tweet) was delivered in the form of a quip: “Yes. I said I am glad HRC killed so many people of colour.”

In her explanation post, published days after the initial tweets, Kirkman would go on to claim the joke from 2015 was in fact meant as a criticism of the United States' policy on the use of drones, an issue which both Clinton and US President Barack Obama have been criticised for.

To Lexi Alexander, an Arab-German filmmaker, the joke, and its defenders, went a long way towards exposing what she thinks of as a Hollywood double standard.

Some subjects, said Alexander, have been deemed largely untouchable.

“How would people have reacted if the tweet had read: ‘I like that radical Islamists killed so many New Yorkers on 9/11'?”

Other issues, however, are seen as fair game.

“Unless you don’t have a soul or somehow don’t think of brown people as human, this is no joking matter,” Alexander said.

Noorbakhsh dismisses the notion that: “Nothing is sacred in comedy” as an “antiquated” mindset.

To Noorbakhsh, the increasing numbers of comics coming from different (and at times multiple) ethnic, religious and sexual backgrounds means the intersectionality of those identities must be taken into account when judging their comedy.

As a famous white woman stumping for another famous white woman, Kirkman, it seems, failed to see how her thousands of followers — and their followers — may interpret her jokes.

For many, the offensiveness of the joke was also tied to its political nature, especially for a comedian who is actively endorsing a woman who stands a 50 per cent chance at the White House.

Alexander sees Hollywood’s embrace of Clinton as an example of a sense of disavowal which permeates through the industry.

To her, there is a resistance within Hollywood to either acknowledge or hold Clinton accountable for her “very conservative, aggressive stance on military intervention.”

In 2002, Clinton famously voted in favour of the US occupation of Iraq during her tenure as a New York Senator. She would later go on to say that vote was a mistake.

The nature of the election, which will see Clinton campaign against former reality TV star and real estate magnate Donald Trump, for the presidency, has made it so “critical thinking and healthy discussion have gone out the window,” said Alexander.

Sexist standards

In their place, said Alexander, are “hyperbole and an almost cult-like narrative”.

Sami Shah, a Pakistani-comedian based in Australia, however, sees the backlash as the result of hypersensitivity and sexism.

“To assume Jen Kirkman is in some way actually in favour of dead brown children is even more grotesque than anything any comedian has ever suggested on Twitter.”

Shah, who believes comedy should have no limits, reminds Kirkman’s critics “free speech means allowing the things you don’t like more than the things you do.”

To Shah, the criticism Kirkman has faced has more to do with her gender than her race.

“If Jen had been a man, she’d be lauded as a ‘dark comic’ who ‘tells it like it is’ […] Because she’s a woman it’s easier to call her a bitch and tell her you want to kill her.”

Kirkman does see sexism in the response, but pointed out that women also attacked her.

"While strands of misogyny may exist, this has been happening to me equally from men and women," Kirman wrote in her explanation post.

Shah says the uproar only furthered his respect for Kirkman and her comedy.

“I’ve been accused of crossing the line. I hope I am in the future. It means my comedy means something. But doing so is much easier as I’m not a woman. Which is why I remain in awe of Jen Kirkman.”

Author: Ali M Latifi