“FUCK YOU!,” Hills began on his UK show, the Last Leg. “How dare you make fun of one of the best female role models on the planet for the way she looks? Adele is one of the very few women in pop music that I want my daughter too look up to, and you’re making jokes about the way she looks when you’re so insecure about your own face that you’ve spent more money on it than the producers of Life of Pi spent on that tiger?”
As we saw with Seth MacFarlane and The Onion, there’s a delicate balance between insult comedy and straight-up dickishness these days. The line is blurred, and in this overly political correct society, someone’s going to publicly call for your plastic head if you upset that balance with dreck.
Rivers’ schtick is insults. It’s her whole persona, and she practically helped invent the modern game. She’s paid to be mean. She’s paid to cut up celebrities. But as we saw on Letterman, maybe this era hasn’t been kind to Rivers because she’s lost a step or 12, and she’s failed to adapt to a modern world that understands the effects of shaming and bullying, appropriately and justifiably. You can’t just stick your arms out and make the international symbol for fat and call that a joke. That’s not comedy, that’s just a flat insult. Even Letterman pulled out his McKayla Maroney and was unimpressed.
Only, here’s the thing: It used to be that if you were funny — like, really truly funny — you could get away with anything you wanted. As long as the joke has depth and legs, as long as you make ’em laugh, the comedy trumps the insult. I’m not so sure that’s the case any more. That kind of comedy seems to only work at roasts, where it’s on the dinner menu characterized as such.
Take the departed Greg Giraldo’s joke about Kathy Griffin at the Joan Rovers roast: “What’s with all the surgery, Kathy? Lord. You’ve been stitched up thousands of times, but you’re still sad to look at. You’re like the AIDS quilt.”
That’s genius. THAT’S insult comedy. At the roast, it was a hit. But had Giraldo said that at the Oscars, or somewhere else with lots of cameras outside the confines of that safe space, you just know he’d be skewered for it. Blogs would go nuts, Twitter would explode, Giraldo might even apologize.
Rivers deserved that Hills rant, even though he might have been better off serving it up as return-fire insult comedy rather than a serious, heat-seeking tirade. But it’s not because she was mean. It’s because she wasn’t funny. At all. Everyone loves Adele, and to be made fun of by one of the last living legends of the genre is a sign of respect in many ways. Rivers’ target wasn’t so much Adele as it was everything, and nothing. She missed, badly.
This whole back-and-forth brings up an interesting question: It’s great that we’re so aware of hurting people’s feelings, of shaming our role models, of hating on people, of bullying, but where is it all headed? A society without the dark arts is not something that we’re going to enjoy.