Comedians should enjoy hard-earned backlash. They should revel in making enemies of the humorless. If a good, defensible joke touches some public nerve, it’s cause for celebration. We need comedians to push the right boundaries, whether or not we always know it.
The Dina Hashem case study presents us with a disappointing benchmark. Hashem performed a pretty decent joke about rapper XXXTentacion’s 2018 death on an episode of “This Week at the Comedy Cellar.” Comedy Central shared a clip of the bit on Twitter. The video upset some of the rapper’s fans. Hashem’s joke went like this:
Is anyone still mourning XXXTentacion? He’s a rapper, who was murdered, he’s dead now. He was shot, he was on his way to buy a car with $50,000 in cash and somebody shot him and took the money. Which is very tragic, but I also think it would be a very good Venmo commercial. That’s the first thing I thought when I heard that. Like, ‘I don’t have Venmo, I should get Venmo.’
It’s fine. The punchline is about the rapper’s cash, not his character. If you disagree with this admittedly subjective assessment, that’s alright.
It should be alright with Hashem too, but that’s where this controversy becomes a sad barometer: Both the comedian and Comedy Central backed down. Hashem posted a brief statement to Instagram about how she “wasn’t trying to hurt anyone’s feelings” that sounded like something a politician would write.
“It was taken down and won’t air on TV,” Hashem concluded in the post. If true, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, it means Comedy Central pulled the joke as well.
This did not go unnoticed by Colin Quinn, who jabbed the network for its lack of loyalty to comedians.
— Colin Quinn (@iamcolinquinn) July 20, 2019
If anyone should be defending good, edgy comedy—especially in times of hypersensitivity—it’s comedians and the one television network dedicated to promoting their work. In this case, both the comedian and network caved. (Remember when they aired Amy Schumer’s brutal joke about a recently deceased Ryan Dunn in 2011?) Fortunately, some in the industry defended the joke, but that wasn’t enough to bolster Hashem or Comedy Central amid the pressures of social media backlash.
If both parties were confident in the joke—and it was a good one–they should be laughing off their detractors right now rather than issuing corporate-style apologies and scrubbing funny bits from television. It’s telling that they aren’t.