Why Justine Sacco isn’t funny (or maybe why Justine Sacco is funny)
Sacco created a huge fuss after sending a rather stupid tweet before boarding a flight to South Africa on Friday, joking: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Condemnation ensued, understandably. As jokes go, it’s not a terribly good one, and many people were swift to characterise it as racist.
This is the point where I stumble into talking about meaning and comedy, and probably cause myself an awful lot of trouble.
Is this a poor joke, based on certain societal assumptions about race? Yes. Is this a racist joke? Trickier. Is Sacco a racist? I doubt it. Or at least I doubt that Sacco views herself as racist, or set out to make a joke about black Africans and Aids.
Sacco’s intention, as suggested by her other tweets about, for example, having an erotic dream about an autistic child, appears to have been to tell the kind of joke that Sarah Silverman and others have been peddling for years. Perhaps even beyond that, her intention was to create the kind of persona that Silverman has inhabited for years.
The dissolute, cranky, self-absorbed and prejudiced comic persona is not necessarily a backlash against politically correct 21st century mores. WC Fields, Flann O’Brien, and others were all mining this seam in the first part of the last century. Viz Comic just about predated political correctness, but rode the wave in the mid 80s with glee. In the 21st Century, the style of humour has gone mainstream, with the rise of the likes of Silverman and what will be referred to by future cultural historians as the Apatow School of comedy.
It works either by taking reprehensible characters and watching nice characters respond to them, or getting ostensibly sweet people to do awful, awful things. Central to the comedy of Silverman, for example, is the juxtaposition of her doe-eyed appearance and apparent naivete with the terrible things that come out of her mouth. Apatow’s characters, such as, say, Ron Burgundy, tend to be weirdly innocent. They say and do awful things because they don’t know any better, not out of malice. Crucially, the joke is always, in the end, on the ignorant party. The jokes are about ignorance.
The problem Justine Sacco has, and the problem that has led to her losing her job, is that you and I really have no idea who she is, apart from the woman who makes bad jokes on Twitter.
It’s quite possible that in real life, she’s very nice. It’s even possible that she’s so nice that, to people who actually know her, the bad Twitter jokes are absolutely hilarious, as a juxtaposition to her everyday, puppy-rescuing self. Then again, it’s quite possible she isn’t.
Social media, particularly Twitter, invites us to create caricatures. It takes everyday criteria for success (in no particular order: be funny, be thought provoking, be sexy), and actually allows us to track how successful we are. I can currently kid myself that there are 4,970 people hanging on my every 140 character truth-bomb.
But Twitter is actually a terrible place to create a character in a way that a comic’s stand up routine can. Someone such as Rob Delaney may be said to have done it, but ultimately, he reverted to traditional stand up and memoir to tell his story.
Moreover, someone like Delaney has an interest in giving glimpses of a character on Twitter because his caricature is his job. Unfortunately for Sacco, and for the rest of us non-comics, our employers aren’t especially interested in trends in comedy or the characters we’re trying to create. For them, and increasingly for us, the ability to publish to the world in an instant brings not elation, but fear.