It was hardly a surprise that NBC suspended Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich indefinitely for tweeting: ’Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter’ during Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
Joking about politicians’ families is a delicate matter, particularly if the joke is not intended in a friendly way, which it’s fair to say Rich’s was not. The edgier it is, the more difficult it will be to defend; even more so if it involves children. Rich’s tweet ticked all the boxes.
From a purely technical standpoint, it’s a pretty good joke: concise, and not spelling out the point being made (which is what might have triggered such ire – it’s possible to read Rich’s tweet and think it was a joke at ten-year-old Barron Trump’s expense, which it was not). As legitimate satire, it is more vulnerable to criticism.
Of course, the target of the joke, so to speak, was not Barron, even though he was named – it was his parents, or one of them in particular. And Donald Trump’s family life, or a certain perceived version of it, have been considered fair game for a long time. Hence the number of jokes during the campaign based on Melania’s desperate search for a way to escape her marriage. Similarly, Rich was making a comment on Trump’s parenting skills, and more generally on what life must be like in his long and oppressive shadow.
But the fact that the butt of the joke was Trump himself does not necessarily make it OK. Trump is a public figure and as such will have to live with satirical jibes, not all of them fair or even funny; and as someone who has had plenty of classless things to say about others, it is hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for him.
But insofar as he is a valid satirical target, his parental abilities are not at issue (nor, for that matter, are Melania’s). Furthermore, the joke doesn’t just suggest that Barron will turn out a failure – it’s hard to imagine such a furore had Rich tweeted something about, say, Barron following his old man’s footsteps and racking up serial bankruptcies, or even practicing a spot of adultery. The joke was predicated on him turning into a monster.
The fact that it was obviously a joke isn’t the point – the point is that it was a joke about an area of politicians’ lives which, for better or for worse, is usually thought of as off-limits.
Should Rich be fired? No. The right-wing press in America is already drawing comparisons between Rich’s tweet and what happened to Elizabeth Lauten, a Republican congressional aide who was forced to resign over her Facebook comments criticising Barak Obama’s daughters.
It is true that what Rich said is far harsher than Lauten’s comments (‘Dear Sasha and Malia, I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. Rise to the occasion. Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.’) But Lauten was playing a political role, albeit a relatively minor one, and it’s surely legitimate to set the bar for public comments by congressional aides higher than that for comedy writers.
Whether NBC will be able to bring Rich back to Saturday Night Live in the current atmosphere is difficult to say. There is a good chance that Rich will be another victim of online polarisation and outright hysteria. Sadly, she may also be a victim of her own errant satirical aim.
Published: 25 Jan 2017