Comedians, at their best, expose the truth while making you laugh. But sometimes that truth can make people uncomfortable. In fact, some have been so outraged by the truth exposed it has led to angry backlashes and even the criminal prosecution of comedians.
We are currently seeing another example of that with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his new Showtime series, "Who is America?" The first three episodes of the show have sparked outrage by some who Cohen "duped" into sharing their bigoted views or in which he reminded us of their past misconduct. True, Cohen was disguised as different characters when he spoke to these people. But by hiding his identity, he simply made them feel comfortable to express their true feelings.
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For example, in the show's second episode, a disguised Cohen presented a faux plan to build a mega-mosque to a group of people in Kingman, a small town in Arizona. The attendees responded with comments such as: "I'm racist toward Muslims" and "He's saying there's black people in Kingman that aren't welcome there, either, but we tolerate them."
Did Cohen take advantage of them? Nope, Cohen, through his comedy, simply allowed them to show us who they are.
Kingman Mayor Monica Gates told CNN's Brooke Baldwin on Friday those comments don't represent the residents of her town. "We are a diverse, welcoming and embracing community," Gates said. "And to the extent that prejudice and racism does exist in every community, we will take strides to ensure that we educate and bring our community together."
On Sunday's episode, Alabama's Roy Moore, who lost his bid for the US Senate last December in part because of allegations of improper sexual misconduct with teenage girls, was outraged that an undercover Cohen highlighted those claims in a comedic segment. Moore, who stormed out mid-interview, slammed the comedian in a statement afterward, "As for Mr. Cohen, whose art is trickery, deception and dishonesty, Alabama does not respect cowards who exhibit such traits!" If Moore was so concerned about having those allegations being raised again, maybe he shouldn't be doing on-camera interviews — especially with people he doesn't know!
Comedians under fire
The reality is that the truth can hurt, even when wrapped in a punchline. There's no better example of that today than Donald J. Trump. Just a few weeks ago, the 45th President of the United States was so triggered by late-night comedians mocking him that he lashed out at three of them by name, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, at a campaign rally.
But Trump has done more than whine about comedians treating him "unfairly." He even took to Twitter just a month before the 2016 election demanding that "Saturday Night Live" be canceled because, as he put it, the show did a "hit job on me." In reality, the iconic late-night show had comedically (and accurately) depicted Trump's hypocrisy concerning the rash of sexual assault claims that had been leveled against him at the time. Alec Baldwin, as Trump, demanded the victims of Bill Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct "need to be respected and their voices need to be heard." But when asked about the women accusing him of sexual misconduct, "Trump" shot back: "They need to shut the hell up."
But Trump lashing out at comedians is nothing compared to what happened to comedy legend Lenny Bruce. Incredibly, Bruce was arrested not once but eight times for "obscene" jokes he told at nightclubs. Bruce's lawyer at the time argued rightly that the comedian was actually being prosecuted for his jokes mocking those in power, as well as ridiculing religion. But that didn't stop Bruce from being convicted in 1964 for violating New York's obscenity laws and being sentenced to hard labor.
Think about that for a moment: A comedian was sentenced to hard labor for telling jokes that upset those in power. As one of the New York district attorneys who prosecuted Bruce's case later candidly revealed, "We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him." Bruce tragically died of a morphine overdose while the appeal to this conviction was pending.
The 'Jon Stewart of Egypt'
And the fear that some in power have about comedians revealing the truth is not limited to the United States. Bassem Youssef, who is referred to as the "Jon Stewart of Egypt," found that out the hard way. In 2013, Youssef's jokes mocking then-President Mohamed Morsi led to his arrest. (I bet Trump wishes he could do that to American comedians!) Fortunately, Youssef was freed the same day and was able to continue to host his wildly popular "Daily Show"-esque comedy show on Egyptian television.
But after Morsi was replaced by current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014, it became clear that Youssef's brand of comedic truth-telling would no longer be permitted in Egypt. Consequently, Youssef was forced to flee his homeland for the safety of himself and his family and he now lives in exile in the United States. (Youssef recently joked to me that living in the United States under Trump is easy for him because he was raised in a dictatorship.)
Comedy is inherently subversive. It can reveal bigotry and challenge people in power. And comedy can reveal truths that some don't like. For those upset by the jokes, change the channel, or don't click on the videos.
Or better yet, stop whining and start laughing.
The reality is that they'll never be able to silence these rebels with a comedic cause who are armed to the teeth with punchlines — so they might as well enjoy a few laughs.