Michelle Wolf and the Debbie Downer Police

By Bill Mefford

Though it was over a week ago, I was struck by the backlash against comedian Michelle Wolf for her remarks of the White House Correspondents Dinner. Wolf was unsparing in her jokes about members of the trump administration and the backlash was equally unsparing of Wolf. Several things, however, seemed to be forgotten about that evening.

One is that Wolf, like any good comedian, included herself in her jokes. She also went after CNN and the Democrats in addition to the current administration. Further, no one seems to bring up the fact that during the event, several awards were given to journalists for their excellent work in reporting on such things as the Russia probe - it was, after all, a night to celebrate free speech and the important role journalism plays. However, when these awards were given out Sarah Sanders, the Press Secretary and the object of some of Wolf's jokes, refused to stand with the rest of the crowd to honor the award-winning journalists. She didn't even applaud. 

So adversarial to transparency or anything resembling the truth is this administration that they cannot even applaud the success of those whose job is to ensure transparency and truth.

I think it is also worth noting that so much of the backlash fueled against Wolf was for her remarks on Sanders and I believe this was due to the fact Sanders was sitting just ten feet away from her on the stage. Wolf made far harsher remarks on others, but that did not seem to bother the many people who poured critique on Wolf. It was the remarks made about Sanders as she sat stone-faced. I am convinced that much of the hubbub has more to do with peoples' inability to deal with conflict in a healthy way than it was really for her remarks. 

Not surprisingly, I found her performance to be funny. Not side-splitting funny, but I certainly laughed. And I thought she was bold; refusing to be cowed into meaningless banter that ultimately serves to heighten the stature of those that such light-hearted banter patronizes. Wolf refused to be intimidated. Indeed, her delivery never faltered and she never skipped a beat. That is indeed difficult to do when the object of your jokes sits stone-faced just feet away. But rarely was Wolf's boldness mentioned by the Debbie Downers of the world who raced to ensure the rest of us that humor should be used only in ways that maintain their high-maintenanced comfort levels. 

I said it then and I say it here: bravo to Michelle Wolf!

But the backlash got me thinking. It seems that funny people in this world are given an impossible task: make us laugh, but please make sure you read the encyclopedia of rules for laughter - all of the don't's (there are no do's) that the Debbie Downer Police have created to stifle and suppress the greatest of all efforts that we can ever hope to engage in: fun.

Let's not mistake who the Debbie Downer Police are. They are not just prudes who shake their fingers at risque jokes or ribald humor. And I am not talking about "political correctness" which is just the thing that racists love to bring up when they do not feel free to be....well....openly racist. 

I am talking people who are so in favor of maintaining the status quo, who are so opposed to institutional transparency and honesty that they will do everything they can to squash cutting or sarcastic humor. Indeed, it has always been a sarcastic sense of humor that has exposed darkness and has shed light on systemic injustice or marginalization. I am talking about humor that makes us laugh while also creating a space for liberating new perspectives.

These are the funny people who critique the current structures and the social, political, and economic orders, and they mock those in positions of power. Now, it is a fact that not everyone likes darkness to be exposed, or light to shine, or liberating perspectives to be offered. Funny people (like our prophets, who are often funny people as well) are usually not welcome by people in positions of power. They are threatened by funny people. 

But what has always been intriguing to me is that it is not just those in the highest positions of institutional power who dislike funny people. The Debbie Downer Police are often times the very people who in some way suffer under economic or political or religious oppression. I can remember multiple times in my life being told by bosses that my humor was not appreciated. That is not surprising, but what was surprising is how many suck-up's and sycophants that exist in most or all institutions that do the bidding of those who sit in the highest positions of powerful institutions, including denominations. 

We don't like humor that is too cutting, that makes us squirm. We don't want to rethink our institutions, our denominations, and we resent those who would force us to do so. It is better to stifle the funny people in our midst just as it was the best thing for the people in Jesus' hometown to try and throw him off the cliff. Entertain us with humor that is detached from reality; not the sarcasm that points to our support of social and ecclesial systems that continue oppression. We want to escape from truth rather than be faced with it. People would have loved Michelle Wolf's performance if only she would have ignored much of what is happening in the country and in the world. She just would have to sacrifice her voice to make others feel more secured. 

And she would not have been funny, because to be funny we must first be true. 

Yes, there are times when it is good to be able to have light-hearted humor. But it is also necessary to take advantage of the opportunity to remind members of this administration - including Sarah Sanders when she is sitting ten feet away - that their work is oppressive and a betrayal of the truth. 

It's ok not to laugh at what you honestly do not find funny, but so much of the critique of Michelle Wolf's performance had little to nothing to do with whether she was funny or not. Most of what I have read and seen had to do with us not wanting to be discomforted or deal with conflict honestly. 

I think it is time we deal with conflict and remember that both our prophets and our funny people like Michelle Wolf, or Samantha Bee or John Oliver or Trevor Noah or John Fugelsang, or whoever, all have important roles to play: to expose darkness, shed light, and provide new perspectives with the possibility of creating space for liberation. When we ignore them, or worse, silence their voices, it is our own liberation we are missing out on. Maybe our institutions, including our denominations, need a little more humor. 

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