Years ago, I wrote a joke about Anne Frank.
Wait. Let me start again.
Years ago, in a show I was producing for a large American television network, in a way that was totally not making fun of Anne Frank or the Holocaust or genocide in general, I allowed one character to make a passing, slightly whimsical reference to the famous teenage diarist.
The next day, I received a fax (yes, it was that long ago) from an executive at the network who had read the script. That was her job: read all the scripts and flag all offensive material. She felt it necessary to remind me that Anne Frank is a symbol of heroism and courage to millions of people and should therefore not be the punchline in a joke in a sitcom.
Some things, in other words, just aren’t funny. Your audience doesn’t want to laugh at something it doesn’t want to laugh at. I had failed, as comedians put it, to accurately ‘read the room’.
I sent her a reply (also by fax) in which I apologised and agreed to replace the joke. Not because I agreed with her — most things, I’ve always thought, are funny in their own way — but because I didn’t want to argue.
But in a way, I did agree with the executive. The Holocaust is a sensitive topic, so why court controversy? There are a million jokes and a million ways to end a scene with a laugh. There’s no reason to engage in the high-wire act of seeing how far you can push an audience’s sensibility. Some topics are cordoned off by an invisible rope. Some things are out of bounds. You have to know how to read the room.
Since then, as we’ve all noticed, the invisible rope has encircled ever more topics. Sex, gender, race, national origin, accent, body mass, height, religion — all of these are treacherous grounds upon which to build a joke. And for some reason, I still have a difficult time reading the room.
Last month I published the slimmest of joke books. It’s entitled Bigly: Donald Trump in Verse, and what I did was this: I combed through the collected speeches, interviews and tweets of Donald Trump — both before his political career and during — and I copied them down on the page as if they were a form of modern poetry. My rule was, I wouldn’t add a word or subtract a word or re-arrange anything — it was all on the page just as it cascaded out of the mouth of Donald J. Trump, but arranged artfully in poetic form. The book retails for about $12, which seems like a fair price if you don’t know how quickly I slammed it all together.
The reaction to the book has been a curious mixture of condemnation and cautious acceptance, and it’s proof once again that I am out of step with what’s within the acceptable bounds of humour. My goal all along — for financial reasons if none other — was to position the book carefully to appeal to those fans of Donald J. Trump who chuckle amiably over his nutty syntax and baffling expressions and also to attract the (much larger) number of Trump detractors — the ‘haters and losers’, to use Trump’s label — who might see the book as a merry spoof on the idiocy of the Chief Executive.
I succeeded at neither. The Trump partisans circled the book with wary curiosity. I did radio and print interviews with media outlets sympathetic to the Make America Great Again cause, and in each instance I was asked: ‘Hey, this is good-natured, right?’ In a couple of cases I am pretty certain the interviewer thought I was really suggesting that Trump is an important literary figure, and cheered me on with enthusiastic agreement. ‘He really is quite gifted, don’t you think?’ I was asked. And because I am better now at reading the room, I answered: ‘Yes. Yes he is.’
The left didn’t like it one bit. Rebecca Mead, who reviewed the collection for the New Yorker, found it all in bad taste. Trump, like the Holocaust and the transgendered, is out of bounds. He’s just too evil for a little lighthearted jape of a book, even one that’s barely $12. I was guilty, she claimed, of treating President Donald J. Trump with something she called ‘jocular sanctioning’, which means (I think) I went too easy on him.
He’s a tyrant, she wrote, and by taking his zany utterances and arranging them on the page like poetry, I had ‘normalised’ his tyranny. I may have been funny, but it was the wrong kind of funny.
(And I’m sure that using the word ‘zany’ above, with its shrugging, almost affectionate acceptance just perpetuates my crime.)
Trump’s followers and his detractors are almost equally unreceptive to any attempt at satire or parody or fun-poking of any kind, so it’s daunting to try to read the room. The room, it turns out, is pretty small.