Monday, February 25th, 2013

Can You Construct A Functional Joke About A 9-Year-Old At The Oscars?

So The Onion apologized today for one of their many, many Oscars jokes last night. Which one? The one that was nooooottttt good or okay. Nooo, the other one.

Yeah, not that one. (That one is actually maybe good satire, about when and how some things are okay.) Buoyed by the success of that joke, I would imagine, and also entering a sweary patch of the evening…

…they went for a now-infamous joke about 9-year-old nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. The apology was very straight, and not that great. ("No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.")

Actually? The apology was kind of terrible and dumb! It's almost impossible to do any explaining in an apology, but in this case, it seems worth it. "This joke was unsuccessful" is a weird thing to say, but that's the truth. "This joke didn't actually succeed in sending-up people's attitude about famous people" would just create more trouble. The apology read like the business department freaking out, instead of editorial saying, "Hey, we got together and really talked about this."

And then, you know, is no one going to say that this is a joke about Anne Hathaway??? (Related: "Hey, maybe calling Hathaway a ‘dirty slut whore bitch’ is horribly sexist.")

Speaking of: here's how not to deal with this event at all:


This particular kind of going afoul happens to lots of us, and by "lots of us" I mean at male-dominated outfits. (In 2002, The Onion had five writers, one woman and four men. Six of the 30 present and former staffers listed on the site's Wikipedia page are women. When The Onion relocated from New York a few years ago, all the women quit, because they're too smart to live in Chicago. (That's a "joke" too.))

Sidebar: there is also a case to be made for not making an apology! This—a fake apology "spoofing" the actual apology, from former employees—is not a good way to make that case.


In a similar but somewhat more successful vein, The Onion did a "Ha ha this seven-year-old is going to be a prostitute" Honey Boo Boo monologue piece last September:

In the worst-case scenario, my reckless behavior and destructive lifestyle will entangle dozens of people within an inner circle of handlers, publicists and hangers-on with whom I’m still able to surround myself due to appearances at nightclubs and adult magazines, which will pay just enough money to keep me from insolvency—that is, until I reach an age in which the public inevitably tires of me and I have to resort to pornography or prostitution.

They didn't get outrage, in part because the child in question actually is regularly talked about like this, but also because they had the length to elaborate on the conceit.

But really, the question is: is this a joke that can be saved? It's not impossible! EVERY JOKE DESERVES A CHANCE TO LIVE AND RUN FREE WITH OTHER FUN-LOVING JOKES. Can we?

A good start is taking out the c-word, which, guess what, doesn't play in the U.S., you might be shocked if you are FINDING THAT OUT FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER. I guess that was one of the "points."

Downgrading the cussing: does it help? Eh…. "Bitch" as a substitute doesn't really play either, though it might have resulted in not having to make an apology. Any kind of sexualizing—the whole "when she will be too old to date George Clooney" thing was just… no—is right out as well.

So: what's the point of the joke? There was a colloquial setup. ("Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but…") The point of the joke is that approximately one bazillion people are ranking actresses' outfits and talking about their impressions of who these people are, with a special focus on how terrible they might be. [MANSPLANATION ENDS HERE.] Extending this to a charming—and, it's relevant, African-American—nine-year-old is supposed to take the piss out of that.

The problem is, when you start applying adult-world stuff on a sweet nine-year-old, it comes out all wrong. You want to make a joke about her smoking up with Kristen Stewart? (Also, wow, was Kristen Stewart ever baked last night?) Congratulations, you are perhaps funny but (rather rightly) dead.

There are actually about 15 more ways to go wrong, it turns out, when trying to make a successful joke! (I mean, not as wrong as calling her the c-word? But.)

It's hard. Apparently I can't.

If you're really desperate, you can pull an Andy Borowitz, which is just combining two things in the news cycle so that it looks like a joke. To wit (as it were):

Ha ha, that is some classic Borowitz almost. Sigh.

It's easier just to go "weird Twitter" on it.

And with that, I submit there are no jokes to be had here. OR ARE THERE? Tell us in the comments… on The Onion's Facebook page, which is a cesspool of human suffering and sadness.

43 Comments / Post A Comment

Murgatroid (#2,904)

I'm just disappointed that there's still a "comedians prostrating themselves as free speech martyrs" stage of outrage every time this kind of bullshit happens.

@Murgatroid Tough. Comedians like Lenny Bruce suffered immensely for the free speech rights we now take for granted.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Jocelyn Plums@twitter white men died for our twitter rights, @murgatroid. Recognize

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

@Jocelyn Plums@twitter “Comedians like Lenny Bruce suffered immensely for the free speech rights we now take for granted.” Whenever I think about my freedom as a white man, I think of Lenny Bruce. Us white guys had it so hard back in the day.

Emily Morris (#14,069)

Whole series of Choire doing weird twitter bits please.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Emily Morris At least 11 of the likes on this comment are definitely from weird twitter people who flocked to this article at the very mention of the term. For a schizoid meme machine they are very on-point with these things

Matt (#26)

Anne Hathaway was good in Batman.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Matt I liked her in that movie that I always call Margot at the Wedding even though that's not it at all

ericdeamer (#945)

I think "Tiny child exposed to rambling four hour diatribe by scary old pervert" was perfect.

wb (#2,214)

The Dolby Theater is actually closer to Highland than La Brea, so . . .

Matt (#26)

Oh also I'll try: "So a nine-year-old who was at the Oscars walks into a bar and the bartender says, 'Hey! You're too young for this place!'"

Anna Paquin's diamond-studded Versace half-mask was a bold statement.

Christ those former Onion staffers mix a mighty fine self-pity with self-righteousness, don't they?

@Rebecca Schoenkopf Not sure how you got that from any of this.

They're just being forced to apologize for word choice. If they'd said "back-stabbing, spelling-bee cheat" the joke would have died quietly in our sleep and we could all be making fun of Italy right now.

The real punchline is Twitter.

deepomega (#1,720)

Choire, your Weird Twitter pastiche is really lacking. More of a youtube comment than a weird tweet. Please try again.

CaptBackslap (#10,313)

Honestly, it seems like the sort of thing that's going to happen sometimes when you try to do edgy satire in real time. Worth an apology, not worth the huge stink about it.

Also, why do people care so much about Anne Hathaway one way or the other?

Danzig! (#5,318)

@CaptBackslap she's a successful actress

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Remember when the controversies were over who won? Or when we rooted for one movie or another? Or when we tweeted during the movie about the movie… and not about another tweet?

Miranda K@twitter (#24,415)

I feel like an asshole for not understanding assholes, but what does Richard Lawson's tweet even mean?

@Miranda K@twitter Took me a minute, too. Does saying "See You Next Tuesday" help?

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

@Miranda K@twitter Say it out loud & think of each word as a letter of another word being spelled out phonetically. Yahtzee!

sajrocks (#2,067)

The obvious building blocks for a non sexist/anti-pedo joke at Quvenzhané's expense are the unusual name and her fierce natural talent and petite adorableness. In both cases one must be careful of racist pitfalls (no "La-ia" semantics or Gary Coleman/Emmanuel Lewis references).

For something a little more now-but-also-then, whip a little Willow Smith in the mix–some kind of reverse of Amy Pollard's "Dakota Fanning Show" SNL skit. But don't touch weave-snatching (see above).

How about the fact that she is nine fucking years old nominated for a role she did at six. Do you know what I was doing between 6 and 9? Neither do I, but there's got to be at least one decent joke in there. Look what I'm doing at 37.

Or take me out of the equation and insert other child stars–failed, fallen or otherwise. Did cutie Q-né grab a fag with Tatum O'Neil during commercial. Spotted in the bathroom during the (yawn) In Memorium sharing lip plumper with Macaulay Culkin. Wasn't she overheard getting career and relationship tips from Jodi Foster over champagne at Drew Barrymore's otherwise dry Oscar after party?

No gold there, just easy, winky child-friendly jibes so the bile can be better spent har-/lampooning someone more deserving. Like Kristen Stewart. Girl was so high.

I just hope, like me, Quvenzhane didn't understand most of what went on last night.

Don Hodge@facebook (#241,933)

The only Oscar Quvenzhane should give a fuck about is a dirty green muppet.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Choire, your assessment is pretty spot on. But you miss another issue: When the Onion uprooted from New York & consolidated operations in Chicago the only African American who has ever been on staff in any capacity in the publication’s 25+ years of existence: Baratunde Thurston

And not only was he the only African American on staff, he was also openly gay. And now he’s gone. And now he has weighed in on the Onion Twitter fiasco:

“on @theonion tweet: extremely high risk move; missed target by WIDE margin; unnecessary; feel bad for Wallis; glad they removed. #bad”

Really mull on that: The only black gay guy on staff agrees the tweet was bad. In contrast piles of male, white comedy writers—including ex-Onion staffers—are simply saying, “Get over it.”

jfruh (#713)

@Clip Arthur I'm pretty sure Baratunde is straight? I saw him on his "How to Be Black Tour" and he talked about being married to (and now divorced from) a white woman.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

@jfruh Hmmm. I dunno. My bad if I am wrong. But remove all my potentially gay references from my comment & he's still the first—and only—African American on staff in the publication's 25+ year history. Unless they found a new guy. The Onion is basically a staff of pudgy white male malcontents. Of course insulting a 9 year old African American girl for an incompetently executed joke would not fall on their radar.

Which basically is me saying: 25+ years of satire experience does not equate to this sheer stupidity of this tweet. It’s something you’d expect from someone who has no clue how to form a joke.

@Clip Arthur The people who were there for 25 years had nothing to do with this tweet. As noted above, they refused to go to Chicago. Some very few old hands remain but it's unlikely they are on Live Tweet Patrol. But also it was mostly the SAME people for 15-25 years who came over from Madison. When they did hire, which was rare, they did hire some women (at least one of whom was E-i-C) and at least one black dude but the main thing is they really didn't hire many people. Then they left and were replaced by the guy who wrote this tweet. Two different organizations not really comparable except insofaras the current incarnation is 1) leveraging the goodwill built up by their predecessors and 2) endangering that goodwill. They are, of course, all malcontents and I pray some day shame will bring them back to the righteous path and also anorexia.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

@My Number Is My Address “Two different organizations…” Hahaha! You really have no idea what you are talking about right? Many of the veteran writers who were from Madison & moved to NYC refused to move to Chicago. Many of the newer writers from NYC who were trained by the veteran writers are in Chicago doing this work right now. Writers who are still in NYC may not be on staff, but many are still writing on a freelance basis from NYC. So that whole narrative of “The Onion losing it’s soul.” with the Chicago move is horesfeathers.

Also, Scott Dikkers—founding editor & now a VP of something at the company—has been there on and off for 25+ years & has basically non-apologized for this whole fiasco if you watch his interview made just yesterday.

So claiming that “the new guys” screwed this up is ridiculous. Maybe the pressure of a daily deadline—instead of a weekly update—is what tripped them up this time. But the Twitter joke is badly executed & is receiving the derision it deserves.

Also here is Onion CEO Steve Hannah talking about how they are expanding into social media more & more. Boy oh boy are they ever!

@Clip Arthur You show me which Madisonian wrote or signed off specifically on this tweet (rather than semi-apologized for it after the fact). The very fact that we're talking about this indicates those that know how to strike the proper balance are no longer there. Duh.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

@My Number Is My Address Did you read what I wrote? I have no idea who wrote it, but Scott Dikkers—the founding editor of the publication & main creative force—is now VP of the publication & is publicly defending the joke. He is from Madison. He knows what the Onion “voice” is. There are other people from Madison who are still on the masthead despite the sturm und drang of the supposed “soul” of the paper leaving when the NYC offices were closed.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

So I hadn't actually seen the original tweet, but I assumed there was some sort of wordplay or SOMETHING else to it. But: nope.

Also I JUST got the Richard Lawson joke. That's more like what I was imagining The Onion had done.

redfox (#3,057)

@stuffisthings I think the deal was that in fact the show had already gone EXACTLY THERE, just coyly, by ending a line with "Helen Hunt" followed by something about how everyone can agree that Quvenzhané is a… dorable.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@redfox yeah I think as Pareene noted, the satirical intent of the tweet was probably directed at Perez Hilton-style actress bashing / making the nudge-wink misogyny of the MacFarlane hosting gig explicit, which is the sort of thing the Onion typically does in dark fashion. But popping it off in a tweet is sort of like a white comedian riffing and just cold dropping a racial slur out of nowhere. It becomes difficult to tell from where the joke was coming from, and thus it becomes artless / worthless.

redfox (#3,057)

@Danzig! Yup.

Why "And besides, the offensive joke isn't even funny" is a poor defense:

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@Kathy Shaidle@facebook Well thank god we had this titan of arts and letters to weigh in…

stuffisthings (#1,352)

In other news, traffic on the English Wikipedia page for É is through the roof today.

I Was There (#241,955)

Ha, ha, Clip Arthur. You're funny. Baratunde was not the first black employee ever at The Onion. Nor is he gay. You're thinking of the other guy.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

@I Was There Ha, ha! “I was there!” So was I! I was there as well. Four Star Video Heaven! Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry! The “Shirt Stop” on State Street in Madison selling tons of Jim’s Journal stuff while giving out free onions (the vegetable) with each purchase.

But back on topic.

My apologies for thinking that Baratunde is gay. I will now state it clearly: I am sorry to have thought that guy was gay. MEA CULPA! Now, name one other African American or non-white employee “The Onion” ever had.

Now if you don’t mind me I’m going to walk across the street to the “State Street Arcade.” Dildos don’t sell themselves!

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