Roseanne Barr, Samantha Bee and the limits of humor

Israeli politicians regularly denounce satirical TV shows – but should we be drawing red lines in comedy?

Actress Roseanne Barr reacts as she arrives at the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., January 7, 2018.  (photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
Actress Roseanne Barr reacts as she arrives at the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., January 7, 2018.
Over the past week, the US media has roiled with two back-to-back “scandals” – that is, female comedians saying offensive things and people calling for them to be fired.
The two recent cases – of Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee – were two disparate situations that played out quite differently.
But both instances raise the question about the boundaries of humor and satire, and the appropriate responses to such depictions. Should comedians be fired for offensive utterances? What exactly is deemed offensive anyway? And how much should politicians be rushing to condemn?
For those who don’t spend much time on social media, Barr was fired from her hit ABC TV show last week after she wrote on Twitter that Valerie Jarrett, a black former Obama aide, was the love child of the “Muslim Brotherhood & Planet of the Apes.” Barr offered an apology and a variety of excuses – including that she was on sleeping pills at the time and that she didn’t know Jarrett was black.
Just a day later, on her TBS show Full Frontal, comedian Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser, “a feckless c*nt” for not addressing immigration policies. A day later Bee said the remark was “inappropriate and inexcusable. I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it.” TBS also apologized and said it regretted airing the comment, but offered no indication it would cancel the show.
Roseanne Barr at the 7th Annual Jpost Conference (JBS TV)
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The proximity of the scandals and the comments has drawn innumerable comparisons between the two, and between a wide range of other offensive and questionable statements by comedians and satirists over the years. And Israel is no stranger to such scandals itself, with politicians regularly criticizing the country’s many satirical shows.
Just a few weeks ago, several Israeli politicians – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – slammed Eretz Nehederet, the most watched Israeli satire program, for a skit involving tefillin. After the Second Authority for Television and Radio told the station, Keshet, that it had received hundreds of complaints, Keshet apologized for offending viewers.
Eretz Nehederet is often denounced by politicians for edgy jokes, as is Gav Hauma, one of the other popular political comedy shows in Israel. Bayit Yehudi leader Natfali Bennett and Gav Hauma host Lior Schleien are in a seemingly perpetual war of words. And right-wing commentator Erel Segal found himself in hot water two years ago after a mocking impression of MK Stav Shaffir on his show, The Patriots, which some claimed was sexist. The Israeli government made an official complaint against a Dutch TV show last month for depicting Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai in front of footage of violence in Gaza.
But despite official Israeli outrage at such shows, politicians rarely call for specific comedians to be fired, unlike the recent American scandals. Israeli indignation tends to be aimed at demanding an apology – and at commanding media attention.
But are questionable jokes firing offenses? And how can we judge when humor goes too far?
BRITISH COMEDIAN Jimmy Carr, who will be performing in Tel Aviv in August, has regularly been criticized for his edgy jokes. In a recent interview, Carr told me that he never draws red lines for humor: “I think everything is fair game,” he said, “but it has to be funny.”
It’s a rule we should all keep in mind. Intent and context matter.
Bee – however crass and inadvisable – was speaking about Trump in the context of immigration policy while showing a photo she had shared online of her and her son. Barr, however much Ambien was involved, was having a nonsensical Twitter discussion about a former White House official, without any attempt at humor.
The question of whether somebody should be fired for their speech isn’t exactly a public debate. Whatever the level of outrage, the decision is ultimately made by their employer. ABC decided almost immediately (although they certainly had many warnings from her past behavior) to fire Barr, while TBS has so far stood behind Bee. And in Israel, few comedians have ever been fired for their public commentary. 
In 2014, comedian Orna Banai said in an interview she was “ashamed” of Israel and the IDF and its conduct in Gaza. After those comments, Banai was fired as a spokeswoman for a cruise line, but continued working on Gav Hauma (which was then called Matzav Hauma).
Where are the lines for satire? The truth is, there aren’t any. If satire hasn’t offended somebody, then you can hardly call it satire at all. But if it isn’t particularly funny either, then the same ruling applies.
Whether it’s not funny or whether it’s offensive or whether it criticizes or attacks or insults a particular person, satire is and has been crucial to society for hundreds of years, at least. Barring incitement against any group or person, comedy – which is designed to break taboos, to shatter boundaries and to make a point – should not be policed.
And when politicians react to such comedy with anger, righteous indignation and condemnation, they’re giving satirists exactly what they want.
Politicians in just about every country should have better things to do with their time than take aim at comedians. The imbalance of power at play is quite clear; politicians make laws, set the public agenda and have a direct impact on the lives of citizens. Comedians make jokes.
Let’s not blur those lines.