There’s a difference between “thought-provoking” and just… provoking. You can see it in Ricky Gervais’ latest comedy special.
As recently as last year, Gervais was still making jokes about Michael Jackson, and However, his recently released comedy special was number one on Netflix. this week. The tires on my 2002 Grand Am had fresher treads than a moonwalk joke has today. And yet, a large number of Americans turn to this comedian hoping that he will serve as a mirror to society as good comedy does. Instead, they get old punchlines.
LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports, and living life in America.
No wonder our culture is stuck repeating old arguments.
In the entertainment industry and in politics, it is possible to make a living by saying nasty things that others won’t say. Perhaps early in Gervais’s career, his controversial comments seemed poignant, as if they were intended to make people think and move society forward. But eventually voices like Gervais’s discover that it’s better to keep saying things others can’t, even if they’re the same things over and over again, including racist or at least racist-adjacent jokes.
You can repeat jokes about white men aggrieved for being “woke” or even tell moonwalking jokes from 30 years ago, as long as you continue to provide a refuge for those with unsavory views on race. Netflix may sell the special as “Armageddon,” but we all know Gervais isn’t pushing any boundaries or trying to advance society. He is a comic yacht: familiar and confident.
That’s the sweet spot a pair of Republican presidential contenders are trying to inhabit by being provocative enough not to inspire thought.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who trails former President Trump in the polls, recently answered a question about the causes of the Civil War without mentioning slavery. She was widely mocked. Her rival Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who is even further behind Trump, drew attention by criticizing/defending Haley. He said she avoided mentioning slavery because she “isn’t willing to offend anyone by telling the truth.”
Gov. Chris Sununu, R-New Hampshire, offered his opinion, saying Haley’s decision to ignore slavery was “an absolutely irrelevant issue.”
This group of Republicans is simply doing what Gervais is doing: providing safe haven for racism.
It’s not like Haley I couldn’t Explain what started the American Civil War. She was the governor of the first state to secede. She had the Confederate flag removed from the state Capitol in response to a hate crime in 2015. Her refusal to talk about slavery wasn’t a brain freeze, and it wasn’t that she skipped the “easy part.” It was a political calculation eloquently explained by Christie, who said Haley doesn’t have “a racist bone in her body.”
He also apparently doesn’t have an anti-racist bone in his body, or he would have mentioned slavery as one of the causes of the war. And that lukewarm thinking is the reason we are stuck.
Compared to Trump, Haley is considered one of the most level-headed. Compared to the former president, Christie and Sununu are said to be the brave anti-MAGA ones, representing the moderate wing of the Republican Party, all that. And yet, none of them go further or give us anything to think about.
At least Gervais has figured out how to maintain a career by being a false prophet. Haley and Christie have yet to reach double digits in any major political poll. Yet they remain committed to covering up racism because they are convinced that doing so “carefully” makes them look better than Trump.
It is not flamethrowers like Trump who prevent us from moving forward. It is the people who find Gervais’ complaints provocative. It’s the people who see the resignation of Harvard’s first black president as a victory against affirmative action. It is the presidential candidates who court the racists.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are sitting on the couch wondering why we keep hearing jokes about the moonwalk in 2024 and ambiguities about what started the Civil War. Being provocative may make you popular, but change does not come from those who defend the status quo. No matter how eloquently done.