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Leslie Jones and 'SNL' firestorm: There's history here

Leslie Jones arrives at the premiere of Warner

Leslie Jones arrives at the premiere of Warner Bros.' "Lottery Ticket" at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California on Aug. 12, 2010. Credit: Getty Images / Alberto E. Rodriguez

"Saturday Night Live" writer Leslie Jones continued to be kicked around the Internet Tuesday morning in the wake of her performance on "Weekend Update" -- the "in-house image expert" who (umm) explained how "the way we view black beauty" has changed since slavery.

If the current standard for success on TV is defined by Twitter "conversations," retweets, online musings (aka blogs), and the resulting TV commentary, then Jones absolutely is the standout success of the 39th season to date.

Everyone has an opinion about her sketch, ranging from virulently-against to the positively-for, while the very sketch itself has even prompted a broad discussion on the Nature of Comedy, and What is Funny, and even the Too Soon question -- as in, is it too soon to joke about slavery, or will there ever be a time when it won't be too soon? (Jones herself has taken to Twitter to defend herself.)

In fact, a little bit lost in the whole debate seems to be that it's been done before -- comedy about slavery which sought the same sort of reaction that Jones' performance was clearly meant to elicit: Discomfort, anger, maybe even fury. Comedy, after all, isn't always about making people laugh.

Here's briefly the history -- both ancient and modern. Richard Pryor had a comedy series on NBC in 1977 that sprang from a hugely successful one-time special. The series didn't last, but thanks to the Internet, Pryor's famous opening "slave ship" sketch did.

Next, and much more recently, Key and Peele performed a slave skit; also posted below, and which has been cited as funnier take (by some) on the subject than the Jones skit..

Dave Chappelle, meanwhile, worked this material for years.  ("Time-haters" is an example -- posted here, and which contains some language that many will find also offensive; but it was on his show and it also has had a long life on the Internet.)

There are a few ways certainly to think about this material, including Jones' skit, and one of them might be this way: Comedy is and almost certainly should be at times about prodding the complacent among us. It can do that by taking something that has been so completely anesthetized and compartmentalized -- in the case of slavery, by history books, and the sheer passage of time, and the sense among people that this towering evil happened long ago and far away and could never happen again -- and then turning it into a visceral gut-punch. Maybe that's not funny, or maybe it is, but it does get people talking and thinking. On that point alone, Jones wins by default.



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