Patton Oswalt's epic Twitter rant about Trevor Noah, and the fair weather ally

Patton Oswalt (Reuters/Stephen Chernin)


Patton Oswalt (Reuters/Stephen Chernin)

Depending on who you ask, comedian Patton Oswalt either had a brilliant comedic monologue or a meltdown across a set of 53 tweets last night.

As quickly became clear, the tweets were meant to support new Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who has been getting flak recently for some jokes he posted to Twitter a few years ago. Noah's tweets are available here. They range from hacky to offensive.

Oswalt started with a simple joke and then proceeded to add caveat after caveat to ensure no one was “offended.”

After continuing along those lines for a while, he finally he added:

Oswalt is mocking political correctness run amok—the kind he apparently thinks is ruining comedy. And I actually agree with some of his goals. While I find a few of the Noah tweets in bad taste, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t represent his full character or that his comic sensitivity has changed since 2011, as it has for many people. I’m all for bringing some perspective into the Noah conversation and encouraging people not to rush to either condemn or defend him with no room for nuance.

But in those 53 tweets, Oswalt isn’t encouraging nuance. Instead he's arguing that those who are offended by Noah using Jewish people or fat girls as punchlines should lighten up and stop ruining the comedic process. He isn’t defending Noah as a person, he’s defending his jokes. Jokes we can probably all agree aren’t worth defending.

And while I've seen far worse critiques of "PC culture," what really shocked me is that this petulant rant came from someone who’s previously written a beautiful essay about his evolving view on rape jokes.

The longform piece charts Oswalt’s recognition that a comedian’s ability to tell a rape joke isn’t more important than the goal of ending rape culture. In that essay, he ultimately sides with the so-called PC crowd. He writes:

And just because I find rape disgusting, and have never had that impulse, doesn’t mean I can make a leap into the minds of women and dismiss how they feel day to day, moment to moment, in ways both blatant and subtle, from other men, and the way the media represents the world they live in, and from what they hear in songs, see in movies, and witness on stage in a comedy club.

There is a collective consciousness that can detect the presence (and approach) of something good or bad, in society or the world, before any hard “evidence” exists. It’s happening now with the concept of “rape culture.” Which, by the way, isn’t a concept. It’s a reality. I’m just not the one who’s going to bring it into focus. But I’ve read enough viewpoints, and spoken to enough of my female friends (comedians and non-comedians) to know it isn’t some vaporous hysteria, some false meme or convenient catch-phrase.

I’m a comedian. I value and love what I do. And I value and love the fact that this sort of furious debate is going on about the art form I’ve decided to spend my life pursuing. If it wasn’t, it would mean all of the joke thief defenders and heckler supporters are right, that stand-up comedy is some low, disposable form of carnival distraction, a party trick anyone can do. It’s obviously not. This debate proves it. And I don’t want to be on the side of the debate that only argues from its own limited experience. And I don’t need the sense memory of an actor, or a degree from Columbia, or a moody, desert god to tell me that.

I’m a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change.

That essay was a big deal for me. It was truly incredible to see a mainstream comedian call for empathy while not letting himself off the hook, establishing a positive way forward, and encouraging others to do the same. It was the perfect example of a man being a feminist ally.

And then last night Oswalt tweeted in a sarcastic voice:

While his essay acknowledges that social criticism should be important to comedians (and had a big impact on his own comedy), his tweet implies it's fine to ignore critics because not all comedy has to be for everyone.

But where would Oswalt have stood if Noah had tweeted a rape joke years ago? Does he consider himself the sole arbiter of what is and isn't offensive in comedy? Why was Oswalt so willing to admit he changed his mind on rape jokes yet so certain he will never change his mind about fat girl jokes? Social justice discussions are ultimately about figuring out where to draw the line when it comes to comedy. Oswalt embraced that process in his essay, but now he's mocking it on Twitter.

In fact those 53 tweets—though inoffensive in and of themselves—make me wonder if I had given Oswalt too much credit for his rape joke essay. I had lauded him as a feminist ally, but now his activism seems less about personal commitment and more about positive press. After all, his essay received a ton of accolades, and from what I can tell, his Twitter rant about those who dare critique comedy has received similarly positive responses.

Oswalt has the luxury (I’d say privilege, but then I’d be playing right into his hand, wouldn’t I?) of switching sides when it suits him. He can be the poster boy for progressive thought in one essay and the bastion of comedic freedom in the next tweet. Must be nice.

I write all this not to condemn Oswalt. Like I said, I agree with his point that we could use a lot less leaping to accuse people of being either angels or demons. And I can even have some sympathy for his point of view too: Fighting for social justice is hard. It makes people mad. It’s not a glamorous nor a fun lifestyle, and, yes, it often forces you into the role of “party pooper” who points out that maybe an anti-Semitic joke isn’t the best use of Twitter. Critiquing the “PC crowd” was an easy win for Oswalt, and I understand why he took it.

But I am disappointed. Not because I was “triggered” or “offended” or felt that Oswalt didn’t “check his privilege.” Merely because I thought he was on my team for the long haul. Now I’m not so sure where he stands.


Editor's note: Patton Oswalt responds to this opinion piece:

Notable Replies

  1. As far as George Carlin's rape jokes are concerned, I don't think it's unfair to expect men to show more caution when joking about it than a woman would have. If you take rape, murder, gender, race etc. seriously, then you're more likely to hit the right note if/when it comes to joking about it. If you don't respect women much, then your jokes about women may give people the impression that you're punching down.

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