Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: Who Can Say What?

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Posted on time.com this morning, my big fat story on the I-man’s I-plosion and its I-mplications, which will be the cover of the next print TIME magazine. I try to spin the story forward, as we say in the biz, by looking at the big picture of public and pop-culture discourse today. (“Discourse”! Yes, I was an English major! There’s a “signifier” and a “trope” in there too!) Here’s a taste:

The license to borrow terms other people have taken back can worry even edgy comics. A few months ago, I interviewed [Sarah] Silverman, who argued that her material was not racist but about racism (and I agree). But she added something that surprised me, coming from her: “I’m not saying ‘I can say nigger because I’m liberal.’ There is a certain aspect of that that I’m starting to get grossed out by. ‘Oh, we’re not racist. We can say it.'”

Comedians work through these danger zones in the presence of other comics. In a comedians’ get-together or a TV writers’ room, nothing is off-limits: without airing the joke that goes too far, you can never get to the joke that flies in front of an audience. Trouble might come if material meant for that smaller audience went public, as in 1993, when Ted Danson got in trouble after word got out of a Friars Club routine he did in blackface, though his jokes were defended—and reportedly written by—his then girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg.

Today, because of cable and YouTube, because of a media culture that rewards the fastest, least censoring mouth, we are all in the writers’ room. (Friars Club roasts are now televised on Comedy Central.) Punditry and gonzo comedy have become less and less distinguishable. (And I’m not talking here about The Daily Show, whose host Jon Stewart is, ironically, one of the most conservative defenders of the idea of sober, evenhanded news—see his 2004 tirade against Tucker Carlson.) Got something on your mind? Say it! Don’t think about it! If you don’t, the next guy in the green room will! C’mon, it’ll kill!

Anyway, have at it.

As you can tell, by the way, I’m not especially a fan of Imus, and I won’t miss his MSNBC simulcast, but in a way I’m disappointed it was cancelled. Ideally, I’d rather that he–or any broadcaster whose show I don’t like–were cancelled by the audience, through falling ratings and revenues, than by his bosses. Although with his show bleeding advertisers, you could say it was a little of both.

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