Serious Question: Can We Just Let Leslie Jones Be Funny?

November 7, 2014  |  

Can a black person just go about doing their job and living their lives without having to represent the entire black community all the time?

Specifically, can Leslie Jones just be funny without having to worry that black folks will be mad at her?

According to author, commentator and former MSNBC political analyst Goldie Taylor, the answer is nah.

In a piece for Salon entitled, Leslie Jones’ frustrating “SNL” performance: Why I’m afraid she wasn’t the right choice for the show, Taylor writes about her disappointment with the newly minted “Saturday Night Live” cast member’s performance thus far and ruminates about why she can’t be excited about Jones’ recent promotion from writer to full cast member for the NBC sketch comedy series.

In particular, she writes:

My guess is they (and by “they” I mean Lorne Michaels) expected us (and by “us” I really mean me) to be excited when comedienne Leslie Jones made the leap from the “SNL” writing room to the full-time cast. Maybe I should have been. Jones joins Sasheer Zamata as one of only two African-American women who are among the show’s featured players this season. Both owe their jobs not only to their enormous talent, but also to a cacophony of voices that pressed the show, now in its 40th season, to diversify its cast.

After all, it was Keenan Thompson — an “SNL” regular who has been delighting us with his lackluster-greatest-potential-missed performances since 2003 — who told us that black women weren’t ready. He was as wrong as a three-sided nickel about that. But that’s another story for another day.

To its credit, and after a bit of pushback from their publicity team, “SNL” honchos went about the work of auditioning new talent. They conceivably searched high and low. But after this past Saturday night’s performance, I honestly fear that Jones is proving Thompson right.

Taylor then goes on to talk about “watching in sheer terror” during her first introduction to Jones, which for her came by way of the now infamous Weekend Update skit, in which Jones contrasted the lack of attention she gets from the brothers today with the forced mating between black women and men during enslavement. And while Taylor is happy that “more opportunities open up — albeit slowly ” and that more roles are going to women of color, she also believes that the stakes are too high for Jones to be messing up in front of white people.

And by messing up in front of white people, I mean flubbing her lines. More particularly, Taylor writes:

My lesser angel wanted to laugh as Jones dropped line after scripted line last Saturday night. Then too, given her brief tenure on the show, the worst in me struggled to feel some pain when at one point, in the presence of one of the best comedians in the game, she stared blankly offstage unable to stay in character. The best in me screamed, “Baby, show them what you’re really working with!”

Without a doubt, I want nothing but success for Jones, and for every black woman who invests the full of herself in her gifts and is selfless with her creativity. That takes guts. It takes a level of devotion to an art that most of us will never know. But the truth is, in spite of and because of the history at stake here, we cannot — even for one moment — fail to deliver when we’re on-screen.

The truth is Jones inhabits both an enviable and unenviable space. Unlike her white colleagues, her performances will either pave the way for more black women who hope to one day see their name on the marquee or she will dim that light. It isn’t fair, but what under this sun truly is? Jones has the power to make us forget that past, one laugh at a time.

If the first rule is to be funny, then the second rule is to be ready.

And the third rule is to not be a black woman because nobody will cut you any slack, not even other black women.

Seriously, this is a lot of investment into a show, for which Taylor admits she only tuned in for because both Chris Rock and Prince happened to be performing that night – two men, who I might add, who have flubbed a line or made a professional mistake over the years as well. And it is also a heavy burden to put on a woman, for whom Taylor admittedly has basically written off after being offended by one of her jokes. We’re basically telling Jones to represent us right, even as the “us” has no intentions of supporting her. Therefore, it just doesn’t seem fair to hold Jones accountable to someone else’s personal anxieties. In particular, over something as unimportant as “Saturday Night Live.”

I have written previously in support of the public outcry for black comediennes to be included on the show, but my desire to see this happen wasn’t so we could force black women into the precarious and subjugating nature of representing us all. Instead, I wanted to see a black comedienne grace the stage of the longest running sketch comedy series in history because there really was no reason for her not to. In spite of Lorne Michaels’ (as well as Keenan Thompson’s) statements at the time about the difficulty to find a black woman to measure up, the reality is that “SNL” hasn’t been funny since…well, since forever. So there wasn’t any real justification for “SNL” producers to not hire a black woman or two to be un-funny with the rest of the gang.

In some respects, I get it: The joke was admittedly uncomfortable as much as it was raw (and funny, I personally felt) in mixed company. I’m certain that folks who were uncomfortable with Jones’ slave reference also felt some kind of way when Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and a whole host of other black comedians made similar jokes (except I don’t recall as much as a public peep being made about them). But holding her responsible for how the white gaze chooses to define and interact with her and the theme, is beyond just being unfair. It is extremely counterproductive.

The end goal here is to be able to access our full humanity in this society. As such, some of us don’t want to be subjected to the fear of what white people think for all our lives. And some of us know that regardless of what we do, and how we talk and behave out in this world, those white people, who think racist and other messed up things about black folks, will continue to think them. Look at Obama. He is damn near perfect. And yet, crazy white folks still make up reasons to call him the N-word in roundabout ways and claim he isn’t a U.S. citizen. Therefore, it is useless to carry the burden of respectability and acting right when it is not us here, who need a change of heart and thinking.

Not to mention that she is not the only cast member as of late – or ever for that matter – to flub a line in the history of the show. Hell, she is not even the only unfunny black woman on the show currently. And this is not a dig at Sasheer Zamata, or even an attempt to hold her in contrast to Jones, which would be unfair. I actually can see her being very funny. With age and time to develop her skills more, she could be a superb sketch comedy artist. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that she has performed some pretty stereotypical images of black womanhood as well on the series. So I do find myself wondering how much of her soft and feminine demure and cute-as-a-button aesthetic shields her from facing the same scrutiny and questions about how she’s representing us, which have been aimed at Jones? Not speaking specifically of Taylor here, but some of the criticism around Jones – particularly when folks make note of her physical appearance in relation – makes me wonder if we are more ashamed of Jones than we are actually concerned about the “stakes”?

And what exactly is at stake here? It’s “Saturday Night Live,” not something significant like the job as POTUS. If Michaels decides tomorrow that Jones’ poor performance in one sketch was enough to never hire a single black woman again, I’m sure we will survive. Like I said, not too many of us are regular watchers anymore anyway.

During the original debate around the question of whether or not “SNL” should hire a black comedienne or not, I fiercely defended against that allegation that there aren’t funny black women, arguing that the funny black women don’t often get platforms. However, the more I see how people are viscerally responding to what has to be the second funniest black woman to grace the stage of “SNL” in a long while (only second to Maya Rudolph), the more I see why black women have such an unfunny reputation: We just can’t take a joke. Or even be given enough space to even make one.

Black womens’ bodies are probably the most restricted and policed bodies in America. And unfortunately for us, the gatekeepers and sheriffs are often other black women. But if we are ever going to get serious about freeing black women specifically from unfair categorizations and stereotypes, then we have to be brave and live freely, no matter what somebody else might think. And that’s just it.

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