The PC police came for Artie Lange last week. That, or the foul-mouthed comic crossed a line and was held to account. Either way, Lange threw a big juicy steak into the Internet Controversy Machine when he tweeted a slavery-era sex fantasy about ESPN’s Cari Champion, and he definitely got himself chewed out as a result.
To recap: Artie Lange was engaging in an act of self-love while watching ESPN and decided to occupy a free hand tweeting the details of his fantasy. He cast himself as Thomas Jefferson, and cast “First Take” host Cari Champion as his slave, and described his defeat and humiliation at her hands. In the end, Champion frees herself, and Lange makes Skip Bayless his slave as reparations. This was a happy ending, perhaps for Lange alone.
His tweets sparked criticism and outrage online, and he was subsequently disinvited from the Comedy Central show “@midnight.”
Other well-known comedians chimed on the controversy. Kurt Metzger rushed to Artie’s defense, saying “Getting offended is how the mediocre empower themselves.” Marc Maron agreed that “it is on the artist to take responsibility for what they put out there,” but warned that the fear of being destroyed by the internet mob mentality “might just stifle public conversation entirely.”
Just not funny
What I wonder is, where does public conversation end and an individual’s right to not be dragged into some random slob’s slavery fantasy begin? Does a public figure like a television host forfeit their right to not be discussed in that way, as part of the cost of doing business? What if it had been a fantasy without the racial component? Would that be more acceptable? Does canceling Lange’s appearance on @midnight send the right message about respecting women, or the wrong message that free expression is under attack?
From my personal perspective, Artie’s tweets were unfunny and gross, and it was at the very least rude to bring someone into his very public sex daydreams without their consent. But in my life as a stand-up comic, I am also guilty of engaging in my own version of Lange’s tweets: Fairly often, I hit on people in the audience from the stage. Why? Talking about sexuality in blunt terms is funny. Sexuality is a big part of life, and yet we have all these hangups about how we talk about it. That creates a certain kind of tension, and good comedy releases that tension. Finding out where to draw the line in creating and resolving that tension is the tricky part.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you can get away with anything if it’s funny, but Lange’s tweets didn’t make me laugh.
A comedian’s perspective
Of course, I don’t speak for all stand-up comedians. I asked some other Philadelphia area comics for their thoughts on the Artie Lange story, and I got a range of responses.
“Obviously not the nicest thing anyone’s ever said but it’s pretty obvious to me he’s just kidding around. People need to start differentiating between racial/sexist jokes and remarks made out of hatred. This was just a guy f—ing around on twitter. People need to chill out.”—Matt McCusker, winner, Philly’s Phunniest
“I don’t know where he was going with that material. I’d save the blue stuff for the stage where people paid to see him. It’s a borderline call cause only his fans would subscribe to his feed. Honestly, as a comic, I’m not viscerally offended. I’m just not into the material. It was a setup with no punchline.”—Oliver Yu, semi-finalist, Philly’s Phunniest
“I feel like we have to be careful when we combine a comedian’s mind and any type of social media outlet. The Internet has changed how people feel about hearing someone else’s thoughts, and comedians are unique because we say a lot of what we think, even when it’s disgusting.
“There’s no disputing that the thoughts were ignorant, but people tweet ignorant things all the time. People who have never even heard of him are looking him up to find out who he is, just so they can be angry about this — as if he has a responsibility, as an entertainer, to exercise better judgment online. It feels like wasted energy to me. I can’t imagine how many other men had thoughts about sexual/racial fantasies today, but luckily for them, they didn’t tweet it directly to someone and they aren’t employed comedians.”—Chanel Ali, semi-finalist, Philly’s Phunniest
“Artie Lange had the worst catcall of 2014. Jokes that are offensive have to be funnier than they are offensive to work. He would’ve been better off leaving that unsaid, let alone un-tweeted. That said, the funniest thing I’ve read in months was the whole ‘making Skip Bayless my slave’ thing.”—Eddie Finn, host, The Tinder Show
“I think that it’s f—ing weird when any white dude who is that established has to resort to such a low blow. You can call it comedy, but everyone knows it was really just getting attention carelessly, at the expense of a person who already deals with sexist racist bullsh– on a regular basis, and still manages to fight her way through it gracefully. Cause you know she (Champion) goes through that sh–. She’s a beautiful woman of color working in a male-dominated field. It’s like: Damn, you just couldn’t let her have that. You just had to be heard, even though everyone hears you all the time.”—Rachel Fogletto, host, Comedy-Gasm
“This is basically how America gets credit for addressing social issues without actually addressing any real issues. The only ‘isms’ I feel like he was guilty of are inappropriate-ism and questionable funniness-ism. But without comedians to attack like this, some people would never have a chance to pretend they’re on the right side of history, so I guess it’s healthy that way.”—Sidney Gantt, host, The Captain Action Comedy Show
“The original comments were obviously disgusting, and I think the outrage that people had when they read them is justified. There are people who are trying to turn this into a ‘free speech’ issue, which to me is absurd because nobody is saying that he can’t legally say those things. Obviously he can say whatever he wants, but the public has a right to say, ‘No, that is disgusting, and I will not let that go without comment.’
“Lange said he’s operating in a different market now than the one he came up in, and that’s absolutely true. Old white men can’t say whatever they want without fear of ramifications anymore, and that’s a good thing. Kurt Metzger came out in defense of Lange and said that he ‘turns his nose down’ at anybody who gets offended, which to me is a classic case of somebody in a position of privilege trying to make marginalized voices sound unnecessary, unimportant, absurd.
“As a comedian, I’m not going to tell somebody that they can’t make a joke, but I have no problem telling that person the joke is disgusting and offensive.”—Nikki Black, host, House of Black at the Philly Improv Theater
The reactions I got from other comics reflect the variety of perspectives and degrees of passion a person can bring to a situation like this, more than enough for a spirited good-faith debate, and maybe it is good to have these sorts of conversations in public.
For his part, Artie Lange’s last word on the matter seems conciliatory, but with a heavy sense of resignation: “I’m sorry to whoever was hurt by the tweets. I will keep some jokes to myself. It’s a different world.”
I think we can all agree on that last part.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Chanel Ali’s comments were not available at the time this article was published. They were added after publication.
Alejandro Morales is a stand-up comedian with a BFA. He cohosts the Laughs On Fairmount weekly open mic and directs the webseries “Dates,” which can be seen at thedatesshow.com.
Artie Lange performs at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, Nov. 15.