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What Samantha Bee Can Learn from Will Smith’s Grandma


Dear Willard, 

Truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are. 

Love, Gigi

These are the words that Will Smith’s grandmother wrote to her then 12-year-old grandson after finding his f-bomb-filled journal of rap lyrics.

Granted, hip hop purists may question the musical intelligence of the man behind Willennium, but Smith’s wikki-wikki wild, wild worst transgressions only underscore Grandma Gigi’s point. Smith never had the temperament to be Ice Cube, but he could have lazily embraced vulgarity and settled for being one of the late 80s countless, instantly forgettable gangsta rap artists. Instead, he instantly embraced his grandmother’s wisdom, swore off swearing in his music and began putting more thought and effort into his craft. A few years later, Smith introduced the world to his goofy, family friendly persona and then parlayed the Fresh Prince’s popularity into a career so monstrously successful that he could more or less print money any time he felt like phoning in the theme song to his latest summer blockbuster. And mock his squeaky-clean image all you want, but by choosing cleverness over profanity, Will Smith gave us the greatest summer track of the 1990s (go get a cynicism colonic if you can’t enjoy it), a classic TV show that still merits its syndication run, and a number of furiously entertaining films. He also gained a net worth of $275 million in the process. Not a bad reward for listening to Grandma.

Recently, Samantha Bee, host of TBS’s Full Frontal, went on a tirade against Ivanka Trump for tweeting this sweet family moment while reports of her father’s family-separating immigration policies filled the airwaves and the internet. Bee had this to say: “You know, Ivanka, that’s a beautiful photo of you and your child. But let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless c***! He listens to you! Put on something tight and low-cut and tell your father to f***ing stop it.” For those keeping score, as punishment for the crime of loving her son while related to a Republican, Bee assigned Ivanka one F5 level misogynistic slur and one incest insinuation.

Both Bee and TBS have since half-apologized (sorry for the “c” word, silent on the “go seduce your dad” bit), but unlike Trump supporter Roseanne Barr, who recently hurled a racist tweet at Valerie Jarrett, Bee appears to be in no immediate danger of losing her show (though sponsors are dropping). Conservatives took note of the inconsistency, citing it as evidence of the rampant liberal bias of TV networks. This is, of course, entirely true, but Bee’s tirade is also evidence of something deeper — namely that Will Smith’s grandmother was right about profanity, intelligence, and artistic self-expression.

Once upon a time, the primary purpose of art was to glorify God. Throughout much of western history, Christians were happy to commission works for this purpose, but true to their nature, artists eventually bit the hand that fed them and decided that their new purpose was to shock the moral sensibilities of the clerics and pious aristocrats who sang hymns and preached against the evils of gambling in between starting a couple skirmishes that killed seventy-eight million people. (For some odd reason, this struck them as hypocritical.)

As Henry Miller, Luis Buñuel, and others discovered, all branches of obscenity were useful for shocking their hypocritical overlords, and subsequent generations were happy to employ these tools against their self-righteous parents and neighbors, as evidenced by works like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV,” Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” and Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.”

Even if one grants the premise (and I don’t) that “scandalize the bourgeoisie” is a valuable form of artistic expression, it’s worth noting that mocking the values of your fellow citizens doesn’t really work if they no longer hold them. We are now a nation of vulgarians who take our six-year-olds to Deadpool 2 instead of church. We spend billions on pornographic films and make cultural icons of the women who appear in them. We grew bored with the restrained violence of men’s boxing and now cheer the pure barbarity of two women concussing each other in a UFC octagon. We choose presidents based on which accused sex offender/accused sex offender enabler demeans the people we hate. We have shed every supposedly puritanical norm that Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg mocked. The shocking vulgarity of the counter-culture has become the standard discourse of the common culture.

This brings us back to Samantha Bee. While her comments weren’t worse than Barr’s from a moral standpoint, they were worse from an artistic one. If taken at her word, Barr’s tweet was an Ambien-fueled rant. Bee’s insults, however were scripted, analyzed, performed before a live studio audience, filmed, edited, and broadcast. Her words were meant to be a form of entertainment, a bit of carefully considered self-expression.

But, as all the cool progressive kids like to say, it’s 2018. Calling someone the c-word is no longer brave (though it never was). It’s not daring. It’s not revolutionary. If it were, Bee’s audience would have gasped in giddy horror to hear her speak aloud the words that none dare utter. Instead, the crowd squealed with delight to hear the “Full Frontal” host parrot the same profane language respectable middle class people casually toss around over omelets and mimosas.

Likewise, as Bee’s implied incest insult shows, our culture has become so mephitic with hatred that it’s considered fair game to use a man’s creepy comments about his daughter against her as punishment for the sin of still loving him. So angrily encouraging Ivanka to dance like Salome for her lecherous father isn’t an example of challenging a self-righteous culture. It’s an example of preaching to a self-destructive one.

And as sermons go, it’s a pretty lazy one. Bee’s Ivanka “jokes” were obvious, predictable, pandering, safe, guaranteed to get an easy laugh from an already converted choir that wants to have its anger validated instead of having its worldview challenged. That might have been tolerable by itself, but like every other “I’m so mad I gotta get nasty” outburst from the Jon Stewart disciples, it’s the smug self-importance that makes the shtick insufferable. Anger might fuel artistic expression, but it doesn’t form it. Intelligence does. Thought does. Hard work does. If you want to be an artist of true intelligence and importance, if you want to be the highly-regarded court jester of #TheResistance, you have to spend more than five seconds writing a joke and you certainly can’t settle for a snarky insult that a thousand Twitter trolls have already spewed in Ivanka Trump’s direction. Otherwise you’ve become the late-night comedy equivalent of Huey Lewis and the News playing “The Heart of Rock and Roll Is in Cleveland” in Cleveland and praising themselves for their bravery.

I’ll take Samantha Bee at her word that she’s sorry for the vulgar comments she aimed at the first daughter. And if she wants to avoid such obscene, personal insults in the future, it might help her to learn at the feet of one of comedy’s greatest legends — Jerry Seinfeld.

In HBO’s “Talking Funny,” a conversation with Louis C.K, Ricky Gervais, and Chris Rock filmed in 2011, Seinfeld recounts removing the f-word from the punchline of a joke about Superman to see if it still got a laugh. The sanitized version of the joke bombed, which set Seinfeld on the path of eschewing profanity. “It bothered me that it didn’t work at all without the word,” he said. “It’s the anger [of the f-word] that made it funny, but I didn’t know how to supplant it with something else that would communicate the anger.”

In other words, Seinfeld learned exactly what Grandma Gigi taught Will Smith. Vulgarity isn’t the tool of brave artists. It’s the crutch of self-impressed hacks who are either too stupid or too lazy to find better, smarter, and more insightful ways to express themselves. And just as Will Smith wasn’t content to settle for being an NWA knockoff, Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t content to buy cheap laughs with jokes artificially enhanced through fan-favorite four letter words. He wanted to try harder, wanted to mine purer gold from the comedic hills of mundane human existence. That’s exactly what he did and we got to share in his reward — the greatest sitcom in television history.

Samantha Bee is obviously an intelligent person. I’m sure she has the potential for producing genuinely important and meaningful comedic art. If she wants to do that, she doesn’t need to have her job taken away or her reputation ruined. She just needs a Grandma Gigi to offer her these gentle words of wisdom:

Dear Samantha,

Truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.