TV | April 16, 2021 10:48 am

John Cleese Is Waging a Very Dumb War on “Woke Jokes”

The comedian called out Hank Azaria for apologizing for his Apu character on "The Simpsons"

John Cleese
John Cleese in 2014.
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Earlier this week, Hank Azaria apologized for voicing controversial Simpsons character Apu, saying that he feels like he needs to “go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize.” It’s hard to argue with that, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying. Enter John Cleese.

On Tuesday, the British comedian mocked Azaria’s apology on Twitter, writing, “Not wishing to be left behind by Hank Azaria, I would like to apologize on behalf of Monty Python for all the many sketches we did making fun of white English people. We’re sorry for any distress we may have caused.”

Of course, making fun of a minority that has endured years of oppression and hate by using racist stereotypes is not at all the same thing as poking fun at white people who benefited from their country’s centuries of colonialism by doing silly walks. Anyone who argues otherwise is being intentionally obtuse. But Cleese has been outspoken in the past about “political correctness” and “wokeness,” claiming that they’re stifling to comedy.

“PC people simply don’t understand this business about context because they tend to be very literal-minded,” he said. “I would love to debate this with a ‘woke’. The first question I would say is, ‘Can you tell me a woke joke?’ I don’t know what a woke joke would be like other than very, very nice people being kind to each other. It might be heart-warming but it’s not going to be very funny.”

There’s a lot to unpack there. For one, what Cleese describes as “wokeness” is actually just “not spewing racism, sexism or other hate speech and passing it off as a punchline,” and there are plenty of ways to tell a funny joke without doing that. If you’re incapable of doing so, you’re not edgy; you’re just lazy. But furthermore, the Azaria situation isn’t a matter of “wokeness.” It’s about compassion.

Azaria mentioned in his apology that one of the incidents that convinced him he was in the wrong involved an Indian high-school student who approached him “with tears in his eyes.”

“I was speaking at my son’s school, I was talking to the Indian kids there because I wanted to get their input,” he said. “A 17-year-old … he’s never even seen The Simpsons but knows what Apu means. It’s practically a slur at this point. All he knows is that is how his people are thought of and represented to many people in this country.”

How can anyone possibly begrudge Azaria for being moved by that? When approached by a crying teen who explains how harmful the character has been to him and his people, he’s just supposed to say, “Hmm, tough shit,” or, “Sorry, but I don’t think this is offensive to you,” and continue on? Absolutely not. Apologizing for Apu and stepping away from the character isn’t “caving to the woke mob”; it’s just being a decent human being and displaying the bare minimum amount of empathy. Sorry for any distress that may cause John Cleese and other aging, out-of-touch white guys.