Silverman and media watchdog Aoki face off
By Sam Chu Lin
Silverman on the July 11 episode of Late Night with Conan OBrien.
My friend is like, why dont you write something inappropriate on the form like, I hate chinks
I just filled out the form and I wrote I love chinks and who doesnt?
So joked comedian Sarah Silverman in her routine about trying to get out of jury duty. The gag, first televised on Late Night with Conan OBrien in July, was repeated Tuesday on Politically Incorrect at the request of host Bill Maher.
Silvermans fans applauded; others hissed their disapproval.
Said panelist Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA): When Sarah went on the Conan OBrien Show about a month ago, she said she didnt really think the term chink hurt anyone, that it was a way of getting attention for herself. I dont think she thinks the word chink is offensive. Thats the crux of the whole thing.
Sarah Silverman, Anne-Marie Johnson, Bill Maher, Guy Aoki and David Spade.
Silverman, Aoki, along with actors Anne-Marie Johnson and David Spade faced off in one of the most frank discussions about stereotypes and racism to appear on mainstream television. After introducing his guests, Maher looked directly at the camera and cautioned ABCs censors that this program was going to be filled with words such as chink, jap, and nigger. He also cautioned them from reacting too quickly.
After the broadcast, he explained his actions.
Ive never done this before, he said. I made an on-air appeal to our censors. In the context to what were doing, please let the discussion flow. Since its about racism and words that have been considered racial slurs, if you start bleeping, theres nothing going to be left of the conversation.
During the televised confrontation, Silverman defended her appearance on Late Night with Conan OBrien and her refusal to apologize. Soon after the airing of the show, MANAA criticized the comedian. The organization, which is dedicated to fighting racial stereotyping of Asian Pacific Islander Americans, censures public figures who use racial slurs.
Actress Anne-Marie Johnson, national chair of the ethnic opportunity committee for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), supported Aokis position. Comedian David Spade of the sitcom Just Shoot Me joined ranks with Silverman and stated this debate was about freedom of speech. He said that it is all right to use racial slurs to talk about racism. He wasnt, however, a very vocal ally and refused to be interviewed after the broadcast.
Throughout the show, Silverman and Aoki, like two heavyweight fighters, took aim at each other and let loose with a volley of verbal blows.
Acting like a shock jock, Silverman, told Aoki, I dont like two people, and youre one of them. P*ss in my coke! Another time she declared, Youre a douche bag!
Aoki responded, saying he didnt think her jokes were funny.
Its one thing if you want to make fun of your own group, the Jewish people, go ahead with it, he said. But when youre casting aspersions to groups outside that community, then its a different dynamic. We can say, What do you really understand about us? Are you making fun of us? Are you putting us down?
Following the broadcast as she walked out of the studio, Silverman pointed out that this was not a black and white issue.
I thought that Mr. Aoki was so closed minded, she said. I have a huge Asian fan base. Ive gotten nothing but great support from them except for some people Guy Aoki has given my personal email address to.
Johnson, who is African American, told the audience she wants to devote her time to developing her acting career, but that she still has to deal with racism. She also talked about the looks of suspicion she gets when she goes shopping, and when she is stopped and questioned by police.
She said jokes like Silvermans dont help.
The joke was successful for her on one level, Johnson said. It also means on another level people are offended and dont appreciate it
There is a reason why words like chink should not be used. Im sure she could find another word, another joke. Im not happy with it. Im tired of it.
The only way I think we can stop this type of behavior, this type of language is for us people of color to step up and say, I dont think thats funny, that type of behavior leads to violence against me and others.
Both Johnson and Aoki cited the recent murder of 17-year-old Kenneth Chu of Laguna Hills, Calif., who was found stabbed to death and the racial slur chink scratched on his nearby automobile.
Executive producer Marilyn Wilson appreciated the liveliness of the debate.
We knew this was an incident that happened on another show, and there was some negative feedback on it, she said. We thought this was a subject that was right up our alley. We hoped we could at least raise an awareness of proper or improper behavior.
After the show wrapped, Maher said he thought the broadcast was interesting, funny and enlightening. The former comedian did feel some disappointment, though.
As awful as racism is, he said, there are other considerations. Were talking about a comedian who was making a joke. In her view, it was illuminating racism and not propagating it. I do think its important to keep things in perspective. Racism is bad. Its not worse than squashing free speech, however.
I dont think racism is going away because of censorship, he continued on. The problem is not going to be solved because people come out and say, You have to shut up! If there is true racism, and I dont think anyone on this panel is a racist, it will have to be eliminated through time and attrition
You can prosecute people for crimes that they commit against other people, but you cannot outlaw thoughts in the mind.
Aoki responded: Yes, comedians should be free to speak and tell their jokes. I know they dont want to be censored, but I dont think comedians are the best people to ask about responsibility.
You talk about freedom of speech, you cant shout Fire! in a crowded theater, he added. There is also responsibility with freedom of speech. A lot of people who cry about freedom of speech are exercising ignorant speech.
Maher said with a chuckle: Ive always loved Asian Americans. I would say Sarah does, too. I understand why she has a problem with Guy because as much as he feels that she is attacking him, he is attacking her livelihood. And I think when it comes to First Amendment rights and comedians and making jokes and being able to have free speech, you know, Im sorry, thats going to be No. 1 with me, too.