CNN Commentator Decries 'War on Comedy,' Defends Bill Maher's 'Unfettered Right' to Crude Insults

CNN commentator Dean Obeidallah has some advice for politicians who are offended by gross and vile insults from comedians: "change the channel."

Comedians like Bill Maher and Louis C.K. must have an "unfettered right" to spew their vitriol at politicians like Sarah Palin, insisted Obeidallah in a CNN.com op-ed. Such insults "come with the territory" of running for office, he told CNN host Brooke Baldwin on Thursday afternoon's Newsroom.

Obeidallah believes there is a "war on comedy" stemming from outrage over crude and vile insults made by comedians like Bill Maher and Louis C.K. Concerned for the safety of America's "proud tradition" of political satire, Obeidallah pleaded on CNN that "political comedy must be protected like political speech. It's that important."

However, in his column he trashed conservative Rush Limbaugh for attacking law student Sandra Fluke. So there should be a double-standard for entertainers who attack women politicians and those who attack regular women?

"Political comedians must be afforded the unfettered right to satirize our politicians – even if their jokes include crude words such as the ones that Maher and C.K. used about Sarah Palin," wrote Obeidallah in his column titled "Stop the War on Comedy."

"When you're attacking a public figure, someone in politics, someone like Sarah Palin who would run to be a heartbeat away from the leader of the free world, you know what? It comes with the territory," he stated on CNN Newsroom Thursday.

 


A transcript of the segment, which aired on March 22 on Newsroom at 2:43 p.m. EDT, is as follows:

BROOKE BALDWIN: Some conservatives think Robert DeNiro should just stick to the drama after a joke he told at an Obama campaign fundraiser attended by the First Lady. Here's what he said, (Unintelligible), quote, "Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white First Lady?"

Supposedly, the joke went over pretty well in the room, but others weren't laughing so much when they found out about it. The Obama campaign called DeNiro's comments, and I'm quoting, "inappropriate," and the actor issued this statement, quote:

"My remarks, although spoken with satirical jest, were not meant to offend or embarrass anyone – especially the First Lady."

But that's not good enough for Newt Gingrich.

(Video Clip)

NEWT GINGRICH, Republican presidential candidate: What DeNiro said last night was inexcusable, and the President should apologize for him. It was at an Obama fundraiser. It is exactly wrong, it divides the country –

(End Video Clip)

BALDWIN: And here is Robert DeNiro's response.

(Video Clip)

ROBERT DENIRO, playing Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver": You talking to me? You talking to me?

(End Video Clip)

BALDWIN: Te-hee. Sorry. That was actually a clip from "Taxi Driver." Anyway, look, it doesn't seem like the Romneys are taking offense here. Here's what Ann Romney told Piers Morgan.

(Video Clip)

ANN ROMNEY: I laughed. You know what? I took it for what it was, a joke. And you know, again, we take everything so seriously. We have to be so correct, and everyone's got to apologize. And I can say you know what? I can laugh at it. That's just – let's take it for what it is. We're all overreacting to so many things and making things so difficult, which means we have to watch every single word that comes out of our mouth.

(End Video Clip)

BALDWIN: So guess who agrees with Ann Romney? Who's laughing about it as well? Bill Maher, of all people. He's got this op-ed in today's New York Times. The title is "Please Stop Apologizing." Let me just read you part of it. He says, quote, let's have an amnesty – from the left and the right – on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight, and affront. If you see or hear something you don't like in the media, just go on with your life."

I want to bring in another political comedian Dean Obeidallah. And Dean, I'm assuming you're agreeing with Mr. Maher here. Yes?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: I agree with him in principle, I mean there is this war on comedy going on and I think that's a war we have to get out of much sooner than years and years later. It's not helpful, and especially when it comes to political comedy, and political figures, you know what? We have a great tradition in America of using comedy to raise issues, to challenge the status quo, challenge people in power, and I'm afraid that this kind of war on comedy is going to stifle that. So overall I agree with Bill there are – I have a different opinion, though, on some of the subtleties what Bill said in his article today.

BALDWIN: Well I'm going to ask you about if you've had to issue a mea culpa in the past. But let me just flip the script and just say look, what if the roles were reversed? Would the media go after an actor who joked about a black First Lady?

OBEIDALLAH: I think they probably would, to be honest with you. And it really depends on the tone and how they said it. But I think, and I'm going to be honest, Brooke, I think most Americans know the difference between someone being playful and someone being demonizing and hateful. And playful should be protected, we know that. So I think there could be something with the black – it was a joke about a black First Lady, and it was mocking her. Rush Limbaugh has made fun of the First Lady, others have. There have been some pushback against that. But you know what? The joke was funny. He didn't mean anything. He was flipping the whole thing from four years ago, is America ready for a black president? It was just funny. I mean –

BALDWIN: And that's all it was. That's all it was, you say.

OBEIDALLAH: It was funny. And we know the difference is not hateful. I mean, come on, let's be honest, was he being hateful? Newt Gingrich? A man desperate to get in the media, as his campaign is falling apart, his own party's rejecting him. He's coming to the rest of us, like – no, this is why his own party's rejecting him. He's out of step. He's just wrong on this. Newt Gingrich is completely wrong on this issue.

BALDWIN: But let me bring this back to Bill Maher, because you have this two page op-ed, it's a great read whether you agree with him or not. But isn't it a little bit self-serving – certainly of all people Bill Maher's being called on to apologize for many, many things. Many, many offensive things, need I remind you what he said about Sarah Palin, which I will not repeat. You know?

OBEIDALLAH: Right. Absolutely. And I wrote an op-ed for CNN called "Stop the War on Terror" just earlier this week defending Bill Maher's right to say that. When you're attacking a public figure, someone in politics, someone like Sarah Palin who would run to be a heartbeat away from the leader of the free world, you know what? It comes with the territory. We have to have that freedom to mock our elected officials even with words I might not use or we don't like. That's life. Turn the channel, just like Bill Maher says. But when you're demonizing private citizens or making homophobic, racist remarks? Then you have to answer for that. That's life.

(...)

OBEIDALLAH: Political comedy must be protected like political speech. It's that important.

(...)

OBEIDALLAH: There's gotta – sometimes, you've got to allow some insulting things, things you might not like to hear, for the good of freedom of expression. That's what we need to protect in America.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014