Edgy humor and presidential politics are usually pretty poor bedfellows.
To wit, it didn’t go so well when über-progressive New York Mayor Bill de Blasio used an ironic and racially-charged joke this weekend to add some levity to the fact that he took his sweet time to endorse the much-more-moderate Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Out of context, many will wince: Mayor de Blasio explained that he was “running on C.P. Time,” an expression still common in the black community, and which is short for “colored people time.” Not surprisingly, critics decried the joke as a “tragic gaffe” and a “cringeworthy racist joke.”
But during an election cycle in which complaints about “political correctness” have helped propel Donald Trump to front of the Republican race, the question has now briefly flipped to the other side of the political aisle – providing an intriguing mirror.
At a time when racial issues are tender, the reaction is understandable. At the heart of political correctness, many on the left say, is a desire to stand up for those who have been bullied and mistreated – and that's worth defending. Yet at the heart of the episode is a society losing the ability to put edgy jokes in context, some commentators suggest.
It matters that de Blasio is married to a black woman and is in many ways a part of the black community, they say.
It matters that the punchline came in a decades-old show that expressly encourages politicians to be edgy, they say.
And it matters that, in the right context, we all be able to poke a little fun at one another.
“To me, my test has always been the same,” says Dean Obeidallah, the Palestinian-American comedian now touring with the Jewish comic Scott Blakeman in their long-running “Stand Up for Peace” comedy tour. “I look at the intent of the person making the the joke. We’re adults. We know when people are being hateful, and we know when people are being playful.”
Yes, the line between a wince and a chuckle, or even a full-bellied laugh and a jaw-dropping sense of outrage, can often be a fine one, says Mr. Obeidallah.
“But I think that we live in a world of instant outrage over things that don’t demand such an outrage,” he says.
In context, Mayor de Blasio’s joke was not only appropriate, but really funny, says Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies and pop culture critic at Fordham University in New York. “And you don’t want to start cracking down on humor the way all these objections to C.P. Time have been going.”
The joke was made during the annual Inner Circle show, a New York tradition since 1922, in which journalists and politicians roast one another with politically satiric skits. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was legendary with his high-tech productions, often spoofing Broadway musical hits to make fun of the media.
In one of these skits, mimicking the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton,” de Blasio and Mrs. Clinton joked about the New York mayor's late-coming endorsement of Clinton.
“Thanks for the endorsement,” Clinton deadpanned on stage. “Took you long enough.”
“Sorry, Hillary. I was running on C.P. Time,” de Blasio replied, using the expression spoken by black characters in movies and shows such as "House Party," "30 Rock," and "Empire," among others.
The black actor Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” said: “That’s not – I don’t like jokes like that, Bill.”
Then Clinton completed the gag, telling him what de Blasio actually meant: “ ‘Cautious Politician Time.’ I’ve been there,” she said.
Social media erupted, of course, and commentators slammed the pair, mocking that “It’s only racist if Republicans do it.”
Why is de Blasio different?
But Professor Levinson says it has long been acceptable for insiders to engage in edgy humor, and that de Blasio is, in many ways, an insider in the black community. Clinton, too, enjoys wide support from the the black community.
Obeidallah, in fact, uses the expression as the inspiration for one of his bits on “Inshallah time” – a joke about how Muslims, like African Americans, are supposedly always late. The joke, which refers to the Arabic term for “God willing” and is a common expression among Muslims, is about “how we can say, ‘Talk to God,’ essentially, if we’re late in some way,” chuckles Obeidallah.
He notes how fellow comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have said the climate of political correctness on college campuses has made them avoid performing there. They might be right to worry about political correctness on college campuses, he adds, but he also thinks the sensitivity isn't always misplaced.
“I find students to just be caring and compassionate and sensitive,” Obeidallah says. “And they’re standing up for others when they’re ridiculed and demonized.”
“There’s going to be people who are truly and sincerely upset, and I get that,” the comic says. “But to crucify people for being playful, doing a joke about it when [Clinton and de Blasio] are both people with a great record within the black community, I think my view, respectfully, is that they should be entitled to leeway.”
“If we can’t joke around with each other, and it’s coming from a good place, then little by little it’s going to be an erosion of freedom of expression,” he says.
Levinson suggests the potential for an even deeper loss.
“There are things that we as human beings need in order to make our lives relaxed and enjoyable and able to cut through some of the tensions that are always floating around for personal or political reasons,” he says.
“Humor is one of the lubricants of our lives as human beings,” he continues. “Humor gets us through difficult situations, it diffuses tensions – someone makes a joke and everybody calms down.”