Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kathleen Parker: Tweeters fail to see the humor in Sean Penn’s joke

Denizens of social media were rankled during last Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast when actor Sean Penn made a crack about Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and green cards.

Or so we are told by the minders of buzz.

Penn, just before announcing Inarritu’s award for Best Picture, the director’s third Oscar of the evening, quipped:

“Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”

Cue the sound of tweeters gasping.

But of course it was a quip. Do people really think it was xenophobic? Indeed, many – with the notable exception of Inarritu – were offended.

I won’t explain the joke, since this would render it absolutely un-funny. Not that Penn’s joke was a knee-slapper, but it was obvious (at least to me and apparently to Inarritu) that it was a joke, not a slur. Inarritu, who says he and Penn have had a “tough” joke friendship dating back to 2003’s “21 Grams,” a film they worked on together, said he thought it was “hilarious.” It certainly didn’t inhibit his acceptance remarks, which included his prayer that his fellow Mexicans “can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible, i mmigrant nation.” His emphasis.

One might even view Penn’s comment as a backhanded compliment. As in, this director is so amazing, who let him come in here to make the rest of us feel like chopped liver? There, I went and explained the joke, anyway.

I’ll concede that Penn’s delivery had all the warmth of a basilisk’s gaze. Then again, what would one expect from Penn? He has mastered the expression of one who would rather be anywhere else. His default countenance is of a man trapped between existential angst and disgust – or rather like someone who knows what’s really going on.

Had almost any comedian – Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart – delivered the same line, the effect would have been much different and doubtless found inoffensive if not charming.

It’s all in the delivery.

Must everyone always be happy? And more concerning, will our uber-sensitivity eventually render us humorless robots uttering pre-approved giblets of meaningless verbiage?

Any attempt at humor that relies as its basis on race, sex or any other distinction to which an -ist may be added is verboten. This is commendable on its face, but there are fine lines and shades of gray between funny and offensive. Often, a good joke is both. Oversensitivity, meanwhile, can have a stifling effect not just on humor but on public discourse and free expression.

A non-Twitter example is the recent decision at Mt. Holyoke College to cancel its annual production of the “Vagina Monologues.” Any reason would do as far as I’m concerned, except perhaps for this one: The Eve Ensler creation isn’t inclusive enough (even at an all-women’s college) because, stand back, it excludes women who are “trans.” That is, those who may not (yet) have vaginas.

This is stupefyingly funny in a strange way, but it’s not a joke.

The underlying principle of such extreme sensitivity, whether on social media or college campuses, is the idea that no one should ever be offended. This is a noble goal (I guess), but where does such absolutism fit into a free society? And whither goest humor, which relies on irreverence and the formerly justified assumption that God shared his sense of humor with his most perplexing creation – human beings?

Kidding aside. Social media, especially Twitter, have appropriated the role of national conscience. When Tweety Bird is upset, the whole world is upset – or at least that portion of the world that pays attention to such things. As of 2014, only 23 percent of online adults (18 and older) use Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center.

But the broader media pay attention to and report on buzz as though these online snippets were the last word on public opinion. But buzz, like all gossip through time, is meaningless without contextual analysis. Buzz, in other words, doesn’t necessarily suggest a conclusion, such as Americans have lost their sense of humor and we have become mind-numbingly politically correct.

This may be our future, heaven forbid. But meanwhile, we can find some comfort in the following: Many Americans couldn’t care less about the Oscars, what Penn said, or what Twitter buzzed about it. Only 36.6 million watched the Academy Awards this year, down 16 percent from last year, according to Nielsen ratings.

Context is, as always, everything. But we’ll see what Twitter has to say about that.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post. Her email address is