So, About That Bill Cosby Joke at the Emmys

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  • The Emmys this year weren’t all cute Stranger Things kids and Leslie Jones shutting down haters. There’s also a darker, less tasteful side — a side we just can’t get behind.

    Famous comedians can’t seem to stop making Bill Cosby jokes, despite the fact that they’re almost impossible to pull off (and the scandal is now almost two years old). Here’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler doing it at the 2015 Golden Globes:

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  • And here’s Eddie Murphy doing it while receiving a Mark Twain Award last year:

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  • Comedy is subjective, and it’s hard to say categorically whether or not those jokes work. I think they do — all three comedians talk not about the victims but about the disconnect between Cosby’s cuddly public persona and his abhorrent private life. Fey and Poehler tackle the issue head-on, in a “why did we let him get away with this” type of way (in this case, “we” includes Fey), and Murphy deftly handles the fallout of Cosby’s actions rather than the actions themselves.

    Contrast those jokes with the one Jimmy Kimmel made at the Emmys Sunday:

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  • Just in case the video doesn’t work or gets taken down, the joke is this: the Emmys announcer introduces “four-time Emmy award winner Dr. Bill Cosby.” The audience sits in confused silence for a moment, then Kimmel walks on stage saying, “Don’t worry, he’s not really here, I just wanted to see what you guys would do.”

    In my mind at least, there’s not enough context there for the joke to land. Rather than diving into the scandal or maneuvering around it, Kimmel’s joke is basically “hey, remember that rapist?” By turning Cosby, a man who has assaulted literally dozens of women, into the punchline to a prank — rather than the punchline of a well-thought-out joke — Kimmel played more on fear than on comedy.

    The thing that makes jokes like this so popular is that they’re incredibly high-stakes: succeed, and you’re a comedy mastermind; fail, and you’ve trivialized the suffering of almost innumerable women. If there’s anything comedians love, it’s the rush of walking that tightrope.

    There’s a theory that laughter first evolved as a response to learning that something once thought to be dangerous no longer poses a threat. In that most primal sense, Kimmel got a laugh. People were frightened and then they weren’t, so they laughed nervously. I’m of the opinion that comedy should be more than that — that people feeling threatened isn’t funny, that pranks consisting of scaring or hurting people, then pulling back, aren’t pranks so much as they are cruelty.

    Kimmel’s joke is the natural successor to his long-running “tell your kids you ate all their Halloween candy” gag: make someone uncomfortable, then say you’re joking. While that segment doesn’t offend even my dainty liberal sensibilities, I bring it up now to remind us that we shouldn’t be surprised by insensitivity from the Kimmel crew. What else did we expect?

    What do you think? Was Kimmel’s joke insensitive, or are we being babies? Let us know in the comments below or @WhatsTrending on Twitter!

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