The ‘SNL’ Race Controversy: Why Leslie Jones Can Say What She Likes

Controversy has swirled since Saturday Night Live writer Leslie Jones joked about how her dating life would have been better in the days of slavery. People should stop criticizing her: anything, however uncomfortable, can be subject matter for comedy.


Putting it mildly, it probably hasn’t been the best three days for comic and writer Leslie Jones. On Saturday, she made her Weekend Update debut on Saturday Night Live, delivering an edgy bit about how at 6’0” with non-Hollywood approved looks, she has difficulty dating, but that perhaps she wouldn’t have been single had she been around during slavery. “Back in the slave days, my love life would have better. Master would’ve hooked me up with the best brotha on the plantation,” Jones joked.

And from there, S—t. Got. Rill. Not real, but rill. She continued by saying that not only would she have never been single, but she would be knocked up every nine months and giving birth to super babies like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. In short, she would’ve been the “#1 slave draft pick.”

Angry tweets and blog posts were written about Jones’ performance and I’m left wondering, why are we, as a society, are like a baby scanning a room with his/her eyes in that I-think-I should-be-crying-about-something-right-now kind of way? How did we become this culture of outrage?

While the answer to this question it has more layers to it than a ruffled dress at a Quinceañera, it seems we can certainly attribute some of the rise of the “I’m offended” culture to social media and the “me” attitude it propagates. This “me” attitude, which thrives thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, means that we’re much more preoccupied with how we think and feel about everything and believe those thoughts and feelings are important and for public consumption.

Consequently, we’ve become not only the old ladies who bring their wares from dusty attics to Antiques Roadshow, but we are also the Antiques Roadshow appraiser—minus the actual expertise, of course—placing an erroneously high valuation on the validity of our opinions. This then leads to the assumption that what we think, feel, want, and know is paramount to anything and anyone else. Sometimes this amounts to nothing more than pressuring friends into listening to a song we desperately love.

Other times, especially when we are displeased as some were with Jones’ bit, we end up throwing double middle fingers in the sky like they’re the Bat signal, in hopes getting others to co-sign our anger. Looking at the jokes Jones told that sparked the uproar, with this kind of take on a sensitive subject matter, is it surprising that some people reacted unfavorably and labeled her a “coon?” No. Is it disappointing? Absolutely. Because the vitriol she had to endure following her appearance on Update led to her impassioned Twitter diatribe, which has led to even more chaos.

This is not to say that I think she should’ve gone into hiding like she’s The Phantom chilling in the cellars of the Opera, feeling all Adele-type sad because he’s fugly, but her less than even-keeled response is contributing to the distraction from the three things I think we should be discussing.

Whether we want to accept it out not, this joke is rooted in a truth, her truth as evidenced by this tweet from her Twitter account: “I’m a comic, it is my job to take things and make them funny to make you think. Especially the painful things. Why are y’all so mad. This joke was written from the pain that one night I realized that black men don’t really f—k with me and why am I single. And that in slave days I would have always had a man cause of breeding.”

This complex issue surely could’ve benefited from her having more than the two minutes and fifty seconds she was allotted on Saturday. Still, I think it was clear what she was doing. Via satire, she’s dealing with the pain that permeates her dating life, the pain from society and its projection of the white standards of beauty, and the reality of how her body would have been viewed and used during slavery. The satire, in this case, being why does it take slavery for her to be seen as desirable or useful. Yes, the desirability lies in the ugly truth of her being used for breeding, but isn’t that what satire is about? Ugly truths?

Satire is defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues,” and I believe with Jones, she used it to shine a light on what it means to be a black woman and beautiful in America. From my personal experience, figuring that out can be a difficult road paved with colorism, the concept of “good hair,” and various other factors and I think it’s worth investigating and sometimes that investigation needs to happen in “mixed company” aka in front of black and white people.

Now, I get the hesitation some viewers felt about Jones doing this in front of a predominantly white SNL audience. Those feelings were akin to that of Dave Chappelle’s when he quit the Chappelle Show. He was unsure if the laughs from white people were with or at him. I’m sure anyone can every get the answer to that. But here’s the thing with Jones: even if some may not want the conversation about black beauty and slavery to happen in “mixed company,” but we live in “mixed company,” and I think it’s certainly time we discuss these things out in the open as opposed to behind closed doors and away from white people. It’s not going to be easy, but how is what’s going on now easy?

Further, the constant outrage often gets in the way of the actual things we should be upset over. This Jones situation reminds me of last month’s #CancelColbert firestorm after someone in his PR department unwisely tweeted a joke, from The Colbert Report’s account, out of context: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.—The Colbert Report (@ColbertReport) March 27, 2014.” The weekend of March 27 was chock full of people analyzing and over analyzing this situation until Colbert’s response the following Monday.

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I want to be clear, if I haven’t been already: no one has to think the comedy I’m discussing is funny. As we all know, humor is subjective. However, we don’t view outrage that way. Outrage appears to be treated as objective, so it only seemed right to those offended that an apology from Colbert was in order. As we saw above, he did not apologize for the joke because it was, you guessed it, satirical so as to mock the real problem: Washington Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder and his steadfast refusal to change the team name. Hmm, Colbert doing an over-the-top joke in order to get people to pay attention to Snyder’s actions is unconscionable; yet Snyder’s years-long defiance has resulted in no such similar social media movement.

Lastly, comedy should come with the in-built right to attempt to be funny and unfunny. The late and great Patrice O’Neal discussed this on Fox News years ago following the backlash satellite radio DJs Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia, better known as Opie and Anthony, received following their inflammatory remarks about assaulting Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The attempt to be funny is key with regards to Jones, Colbert, Opie and Anthony, and any comic for that matter. So much of comedy is trying and failing in order to find out what works. Saying awful things that will hopefully lead to the good stuff. That’s the only way to get to the funny, but it’s almost as if people only want comedians to attempt to be funny if they know for 1000% that the outcome will be amusing to everyone. Nope. Sorry, that’s not how comedy operates.

Sometimes, certain things will only be funny to a handful and not others and that’s OK because we live in a world where not everyone is going to like the same things. Sometimes what’s funny is also uncomfortable. Because life is uncomfortable. Because the truth can be uncomfortable. And there’s value in that discomfort because it can be a teachable moment if we allow it, if we can just force ourselves to push past a momentary blip of unease to get to the other side. So what’s on the other side of Leslie Jones’ Weekend Update segment? Only time will tell, but I’m hoping it’s something great like a new level of understanding ourselves and each other.