In recent years, the classic TV shows that remain in heavy syndication to this day have undergone a reevaluation. Stereotypes or certain language that may have been seen as acceptable decades ago has been flagged or removed; even several episodes of The Muppet Show were recently slapped with a disclaimer on Disney+, warning viewers that they “include negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.”
In many cases, the disclaimers are warranted; it’s important to acknowledge that comedy — and, truthfully, society as a whole — evolves over time and what was once considered funny is now recognized as offensive. But the latest example of this trend has taken it too far. Comedy Central has reportedly pulled the “Diversity Day” episode of The Office from its airwaves, skipping it over in a recent start-to-finish marathon of the series.
It’s true that “Diversity Day,” which originally aired on March 29, 2005, includes a lot of stereotypes and other cringey, insensitive material. But as anyone who has actually seen the episode can tell you, the whole point is to poke fun at those stereotypes and offensive behavior and the way corporate America clumsily tries to tackle them without taking a hard look at their own biases. In the episode, Michael Scott (Steve Carell) forces the employees at Dunder Mifflin to attend a diversity seminar. And while his intentions are good — sort of — he winds up playing into all the ugly stereotypes he’s trying to combat, reciting a snippet of a Chris Rock stand-up routine that no white person should feel comfortable reciting and doing an exaggerated Indian accent at one point that prompts Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling) to slap him and walk out.
That slap, along with the dozens of uncomfortable glances to the camera from the other Dunder Mifflin employees, should clue us in to the fact that the show is not endorsing Michael’s behavior. We’re clearly supposed to be laughing at him and how clueless he is, not with him. As Bobby Burack of The Outkick recently pointed out, “The brilliance of comedy is that it not only makes us laugh but it’s powerful. ‘Diversity Day’ doesn’t promote racism. Instead, it mocks the wrong-mindedness of racism.”
Context is important, and to pull any episode of television that contains racism without any consideration to how that racism is presented is foolish. We can’t pretend that we live in a world completely devoid of racists (or sexists, or homophobes), and to completely erase any material that reminds us of them only brushes it under the rug. We need to tackle these ugly beliefs head-on, but we can’t do that without shining a light on them. “Diversity Day” shouldn’t be lumped in with other examples of casual racism when it’s a thoughtful critique of said casual racism.
Of course, Comedy Central’s decision to pull the episode has led to many cries of “cancel culture” and political correctness run amok. And while the network’s choice to pull the episode is, in fact, a silly one, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between facing consequences for your actions (like say, if someone in real life were to lose their job for making some of the same racially insensitive jokes that Michael Scott did) and falling victim to “PC culture.” If anything, “Diversity Day” advocates for more “political correctness” in the workplace — all the more reason that yanking it makes no sense whatsoever.
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