Ricky Gervais, Rob Schneider, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele on Mocking Prejudices

All eyes will be on Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes tonight given his celebrity-skewering last year. But in his appearance at the Television Critics Association Press tour on Friday, I was most struck by how he discussed a theme that came up again and again across panels and networks; the challenges of targeting your jokes so you lampoon people’s prejudices and assumptions rather than the people themselves.

“I think some people confuse the target of a joke with the subject of a joke. You can have jokes about race without being racist,” he said at the panel for Life’s Too Short, the HBO show he’s doing with Warwick Davis. “And I think sometimes people flinch too soon. And very often the target is people’s prejudices or stupidity…We’re not trying to be outrageous for outrageousness’s sake. It’s churlish…I think the job of a comedian isn’t just to make you laugh, it’s to make you think as well. I have to be able to justify myself.”

The question of whether you can justify yourself is hard. I thought Gervais was funny but not always a particularly profound truth-teller in last year’s Globes—making fun of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s pandering is a worthwhile thing to say in public, while suggesting that Tom Cruise is gay is less so. We’ll see how he does tonight.

Rob Schneider, in however limited a fashion, did pull off his promise on the first episode of Rob. At the CBS session on Wednesday, he told the audience “There are still race problems in America…If anything bad happens, it’s mostly to my character.” And at least in the scene between Rob and his new father-in-law, that’s true. I don’t necessarily trust Rob to do this, but I think it’s critical for somebody to be pointing out that our race problems in the United States are problems caused by folks who are unfamiliar with or hateful of people of different races, ethnicities, and cultures, not by members of minority groups.

And finally, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in a wonderful session promoting their very promising new Comedy Central sketch-and-standup show, Key & Peele (which premieres on January 31 at 10:30PM) said that they thought if people were merely offended, they weren’t doing their jobs. And they suggested it was important to trust the audience to see what they were doing.

“Why be offensive for no reason? And I never got a comedian who went ‘well, if you didn’t get it, whatever’ Maybe you weren’t funny,” Key said. “We’ll try to make a grand, thematic point in a scene, a social point. But our hope is that the audience is astute enough to say ‘this scene is about this even though it’s in this frame.’ And I’m sure sometimes people are going to be offended by the frame and not get what we’re going for in the scene.” Peele added “If we feel we have to go somewhere extreme, we will force ourselves to bakc it up with the comedy.”

The sketches they showed us, including one with Key out on a date who wants him to act blacker (both comedians are biracial) and be more aggressive with a rude waiter, and Peele doing his (very good) Obama impression with Key acting as “his anger translator, Luther,” demonstrate the challenge of what they’re trying to do. There’s no point in creating a space that’s safe for frank conversation if you’re not going to do it. And as Don Cheadle suggested on Friday, sometimes you can achieve more in opening up conversations about race by coming at them sideways with comedy. Even if the quality varies, it’s nice to see so many comics trying to come at the problem of how to create those spaces and what to say once you’re there from so many different perspectives.