Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Memo to Roseanne Barr: The Bad-Taste Joke Defense Doesn't Work

The NBA hall of famer and THR contributing editor asks if viewers are really better off with the hit ABC show being canceled.
Courtesy of ABC

At Hogwarts, student wizards make snails disappear by incanting “Evanesco!” In Hollywood, alt-right wizard Roseanne Barr incanted a racially insensitive and intellectually dumb tweet that made vanish her dignity and career, a high-rated TV show and the livelihoods of hundreds of people.

ABC quickly reacted to her post by cancelling Roseanne, to the praise of many. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, which owns the network, personally phoned former adviser to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, whom Roseanne had attacked in her insulting tweet, to assure her that there would be “zero tolerance” for these kinds of statements.

But, as much as I applaud when corporate America ignores the bottom line to fight racism, I can’t help but wonder when zero tolerance becomes intolerance. Jarrett described these events as a “teaching moment,” which means we need to figure out just what lesson we’re trying to teach and what the best way is to get that point across.

This is not in defense of Roseanne. There isn’t one. We give artists a lot of leeway when it comes to what some might deem offensive speech because that’s the point of free speech. She continues to have the right to say whatever she wants. But Disney and ABC are not obligated to suffer the consequences of popular outrage over her speech or offer tacit support of her dimwitted opinions by continuing to employ her.

In her original tweet, Roseanne said, “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” In her apology, Roseanne claimed she was making a bad joke: “I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me — my joke was in bad taste.”

The Bad-Taste Joke defense just doesn’t work in this case. You can’t have read a book or newspaper, watched a movie or a television show, or just lived in America for the past 200 years without knowing that any reference to an African-American and an ape is textbook racism. Also, her odd, inaccurate and deliberately inflammatory reference to the Muslim Brotherhood to her average Twitter follower will seem like a slam to all Muslims. Roseanne could claim ignorance of all this, but then her ignorance of facts, politics, news, history, art, social issues and pop culture would be so overwhelming as to render her intellectually comatose. This isn’t liberals curtailing free speech, it’s Americans rejecting hate speech.

Should the show have been canceled? I don’t know yet because I usually need some time to process information and think through all the consequences. My immediate reaction, like every person of color, is to punish her by taking away her show. Disney and ABC decided within hours of the tweet to cut off the rotting appendage before it infected the rest of the body.

On the other hand, Roseanne is a very good show. Ironically, it’s one of the most liberal shows on TV, with a clear agenda of tolerance and compassion. To punish Roseanne, we’ve removed the louder, smarter, more influential voice of the show itself. Roseanne’s tweets may give solace to other racists, but they have no real impact in changing minds. The show, which reaches millions, can affect people by showing tolerance and compassion on a weekly basis.

So, are we better off? Was there ever an option of firing Roseanne and continuing the show without her? There is precedent: Two and a Half Men; The Office; Laverne & Shirley; Cheers; and even Valerie, which continued after star Valerie Harper left.

Here’s another teaching moment. Recently, Jason Bateman apologized for "mansplaining” in defense of what Jessica Walter called Jeffrey Tambor’s verbal harassment during the making of Arrested Development. However, a few days later, Bateman appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to tell a funny story about a minor traffic crash he was in with Will Arnett. During the entirety of telling the story, he continued to refer to Arnett as a woman because Arnett acted frightened and weak after the accident. Bateman was clearly joking and meant no harm, but there is harm when your idea of insulting someone is to say they are weak like women.

That perpetuates a negative stereotype to millions of viewers. Most women would feel demeaned by the joke and if they weren’t, it’s because of a lifetime of similar jokes. It baffles me, though, that there wasn’t a peep about it from zero-tolerance Hollywood. Should Bateman be fired? Should the show be canceled? No. Everyone makes boneheaded comments they regret during interviews, myself included. Bateman is one of my favorite performers. I’ve seen most his movies and I’ve written glowingly about his Netflix series Ozark being one of my favorite shows. His comments to Colbert are a teaching moment for him to be more sensitive and a learning moment for the rest of us to think before we glibly joke in a way that enforces harmful stereotypes.

In professional sports, when players egregiously break the rules, they are fined a dollar amount equal to their infraction. The entire team is not disbanded. Perhaps Hollywood needs a similar system. They could establish an advisory board of respected men and women in the business that examines charges of racism or sexual misconduct and makes a recommendation to whatever entertainment organization that is appropriate. The organization would be under no obligation to follow the board’s recommendations. Monetary fines could be donated to support groups that were attacked or offended. This way the punishment is less blunt object and more surgical. It is also more consistent and flexible in determining the difference between zero tolerance and intolerance.

The past year has been a lesson in Greek tragedy as arrogance and hubris have destroyed so many powerful and even a few beloved celebrities. Roseanne is the latest but probably not the last to choke on her own bile. But it is also a lesson in how we react to such people. We have to make sure our righteous swift sword enforces justice rather than wounds it. “Evanesco!” to Roseanne Barr but not necessarily to Roseanne.