Tina Fey takes an unapologetic stance on comedy.
Occasionally, a celebrity will actually say something provocative while promoting an entertainment project.
This happened recently to Tina Fey in an interview with Net-a-Porter. Peddling the film Sisters, in which she stars with Amy Poehler, Fey opened up about the criticism focused on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Netflix comedy she produces. The controversy involves a plot in which Jacqueline—the rich, blond socialite played by Jane Krakowski—is revealed to be a Native American woman hiding her true ethnicity. This incited a debate over whether the message here is that you must “escape” Native culture to get somewhere in life.
“Steer clear of the internet and you’ll live forever. We did an [Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt] episode and the internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist,’ but my new goal is not to explain jokes. I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
Now there’s been a backlash to this statement, with some condemning Fey as irresponsible for not addressing the criticism and “opting out.”
The focus may be on one particular line in the show. Krakowksi’s character tells her parents—played by Native American actors Gil Birmingham (Comanche) and Sheri Foster (Cherokee)—that she’s no longer going to be Native because “if you want to get anywhere, you need to be blond and white.”
Some don’t view the show’s portrayal as offensive. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, journalist Johnnie Jae, co-editor of Native Max, said he supports the show’s depictions, and sees power in the comedic situation.
“Natives come in various shades of brown,” Jae said. “So many Native people hear that: ‘You’re Native American? Hmm, you don’t look like it.’ The show is also addressing the white privilege afforded to those same white-passing Natives. It’s not trivializing these issues, it’s bringing them out in the open… Some of us deal with this feeling every day.”
It’s understandable that Native Americans may feel sensitive about representations in the media. With an egregious lack of major Native American storylines on TV (besides Sundance’s The Red Road), the criticisms seem to highlight the lack of rounded, whole, human Native American portrayals on TV in general.
But this also highlights the slippery state of comedy, and how it’s impossible to control. Comedy pushes boundaries, presses buttons, and doesn’t always land, but it almost always stirs up discussion, even when it fails miserably. The late Joan Rivers, who was often considered offensive, said it’s impossible to explain what’s funny, because that makes it not funny. What’s funny is funny. But what’s funny also changes and reflects the culture. In a video component for the same article, Fey put it this way: “Comedy is truth plus time, multiplied by monkeys, divided by one fart.”