This Comedian Refused To Apologize. I Agree With Her.

On NBC’s New Year’s Eve with Carson Daly, a comedian named Natasha Leggero cracked a joke that offended many people.

The joke was about the social media uproar caused last month when SpaghettiOs tweeted a promotional photo of a noodle celebrating Pearl Harbor Day.

Here’s the video, and her joke:

“I mean it sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew.”

Many people whose opinions I respect thought that Leggero and/or NBC should apologize. I disagree.

No, her joke wasn’t tasteful. I wouldn’t make it, and I probably wouldn’t attend a comedy show if I knew the comic was going to use Pearl Harbor as fodder. But I don’t believe that Leggero’s intent was to diminish the tragedy of Pearl Harbor or its survivors (I would have been offended if it had been). Rather, her quip played to me like nothing more than a silly “old people gum their food” joke.

Still, many people voiced their displeasure on Facebook and Twitter, and Leggero decided to respond with a defiant statement. I thought she got the tone just right.

“I wish I could apologize, but do you really want another insincere apology that you know is just an attempt at damage control and not a real admission of guilt? Let me just try instead to be honest.

I’m not sorry. I don’t think the amazing courage of American veterans and specifically those who survived Pearl Harbor is in any way diminished by a comedian making a joke about dentures on television. Do we really believe that the people who fought and defended our freedom against Nazis and the Axis powers will find a joke about Spaghetti O’s too much to bear?”

“My own father lost his hearing in the Vietnam War so the issue is pretty close to me too. So rather than apologize, let me offer another perspective.

On the one hand you have me, making a joke about how old people can’t chew tough foods very well.

On the other hand you have Veterans who receive inadequate care upon their return from active duty, rampant sexual assault against female soldiers, staggering rates of suicide, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse and depression among soldiers and political gridlock that prevents these problems from getting solved quickly.

Where do you think your outrage and action would be better served?”

At the end of her statement, she encouraged her fans to donate to the Disabled American Veterans.

Natasha Leggero

The reason I agree with Leggero’s refusal to apologize is simple.

She’s a comedian.

Leggero is not a corporate brand. Comedians are granted far more license than the typical corporate spokesperson, and thank goodness for that. 

Could you imagine how dull comedy would become if it was sanitized to the point that no one was offended, ever? Would we really want to live in a world in which Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Dennis Miller and Chris Rock were never allowed to appear on television for fear that they might [gasp] say something unpopular?

There are, of course, limits to how far comics can go. Michael Richards (Seinfeld’s Kramer) went way over the line in a disturbing rant full of racial epithets. And Tracy Morgan went too far when he suggested that he would stab his son to death if he was gay.

As for NBC, I think we have to ask ourselves whether it’s reasonable to expect NBC (or any other network) to apologize for every spontaneous, unpopular joke made on its air by an unscripted comedian. Sometimes, that answer may be yes. But I’m not sure negative social media activity is the only metric to use in determining whether an apology should be offered. In some cases, a combination of evaluating the perceived offense and monitoring the social media activity may be enough.

This “crisis” passed quickly. And as happens with many of today’s social media “crises,” NBC’s has already become a distant memory.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons user 92YTribeca