Summer Series #4: The Seth Meyers Approach to Cracking Jokes and Respectful Discourse

By Nick Abbot (Harvard College Undergraduate)

One of my favorite recurring segments on TV takes place on Late Night with Seth Meyers. The bit, named “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” operates on a simple premise; while it may not be appropriate for Seth—a straight white man—to tell certain distasteful jokes, it would not be offensive for someone from the potentially offended group to tell that joke. Thus, in this segment, Seth recites the set up and two of his writers—“one gay, one black, both women,” as they say each time—take turns delivering the punch lines.

This fairly innocuous but consistently funny bit is a litmus test of sorts for all sides of the college campus free speech debate. On the one hand, this awkward taboo could be a satire of so-called “PC culture,” ridiculing the arbitrariness of perceived norms regarding what sorts of people are entitled to say certain things. On the other, this sketch could represent a good faith effort to reckon with one’s privilege and the impact of that privilege on one’s expression, albeit in a lighthearted manner.

Regardless of one’s interpretation, this sketch offers instructive lessons for all parties to the free speech debate. While there is an element of satire involved here, Seth does appear to genuinely agree that it would be inappropriate for him to deliver some jokes, while it may be appropriate for a gay or black woman to deliver those same jokes. This is not a chilling effect at work here, stifling a comedian’s creative expression; rather, Seth and his staff are able to consider how race, gender, and sexual orientation factor into the comedian’s positionality, and how that calculation affects the shape, impact, and appropriateness of a certain joke.

In the hypothetical case that the writer’s room came up with a joke Seth was uncomfortable delivering, they could have easily discarded it, and I’m sure the world would be no worse off. Instead, however, Seth and company devised a creative way to share jokes that otherwise couldn’t make it on the air. And at the same time, he was able to elevate two otherwise anonymous writers to prominent positions on camera in videos that have each been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. In short, the show:

(1) Thought about how the position of its mouthpiece (Seth) might affect the suitability of his expression;

(2) Rethought how to channel that expression more constructively and appropriately; and

(3) Used that act of expression to empower diverse voices.

Admittedly, this model is limited in its generalizability and is not perfectly congruous to certain debates about free speech on college campus. Some things—namely, harassment, hate speech, and derogatory comments about disadvantaged groups—are best left unsaid, while some others—particularly those directly tied to academic research—ought to be stated as directly as possible.

But in general, Seth Meyers sets an example that we as college students should strive to follow. First, think about what is being said and how one’s experience might color the knowledge or opinion being stated. Second, think about how best to communicate that knowledge or opinion in a manner such that it contributes positively to discourse rather than mocking or degrading certain groups or individuals. This sort of critical thinking and thoughtful consideration does much more to contribute to a robust academic debate than a speech from Martin Shkreli or Milo Yiannopoulis; in the words of BridgeUSA cofounder Pranav Jandhyala, “Creating an environment where you’re willing to listen to all different perspectives … and also be willing to engage in discussion with the people that you disagree with … That is the driving purpose of free speech.”

Rather than get bogged down in bickering about which speakers—who, if particularly objectionable, should perhaps be ignored rather than protested—should or should not be allowed on campus, debates around free speech on college campuses should be centered around this driving purpose, the proactive engagement in rigorous debate in which participants reflect honestly on the effect of their experience on their perspective. In my three years as an undergraduate, I’ve seen guest speakers of all kinds with impressive resumes: presidents, prime ministers, Cabinet secretaries, Pulitzer winners, governors, and more tenured professors than I can count. And yet I can say without the slightest exaggeration that I have learned and developed much more from the intellectual discussions I have had with peers late into the night over a game of pool and mozzarella sticks than I have from any of the aforementioned luminaries.

This fact is a testament to the power of free expression and the importance of open debate. But it is also a testament to the paramount importance of mutual respect and a shared good faith among all parties. Consciousness about issues of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability status and more plays a part in developing that good faith, not just between friends but within classrooms and across campus. If students are to share in the benefits that free speech promises—ones that I firmly believe in—then they must also commit to putting in the difficult reflection and critical thinking needed for free expression to have its intended effects of increased understanding and the advancement of truth.

In each installment of “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” the happy arrangement—Seth giving the setup, a gay or black writer delivering the punchline—falls apart. Seth gets too comfortable and tells a joke that crosses a line, drawing outrage from his writers and unfailingly leading him to declare, “Lesbians and black women are liars!” Indeed, as the repeated unraveling of this setup reveals, having productive conversations about touchy subjects is a difficult task—doubly so for those infused with humor.

Nevertheless, it is important to have these conversations. And while a steadfast commitment to free expression is a necessary component for these conversations to happen, it is not a sufficient one. Rather, in order for students to engage with one another on difficult subjects, they must enter into such discussions with a keen awareness of their privileges—which may defy simple demography—and how those might affect the means by which they present their ideas.