Last Friday, Steve Martin did a tweet-and-delete “joke” that earned him a lot of scorn. People said he was racist and he spent most of the weekend on Twitter apologizing for the original “joke”. A Twitter follower had asked him, “Is this how you spell lasonia?” Steve tweeted back: “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?” We covered the story yesterday, as did many other sites and blogs and Steve was still apologizing yesterday. I guess he decided that tweet-apologies were not enough, so he wrote out a longer apology/explanation:
I am very upset that a tweet I sent out last week has been interpreted by some to be insulting to African Americans. By now media coverage of the unfortunate tweet has only added to this perception. To those who were offended, again, I offer a deep, sincere, and humble apology without reservation.
But I feel I need to tell you the context and origin of the joke.
I was riffing on Twitter, inviting people to ask me grammar questions. I replied with what I hoped were funny answers. For example, a person might write “What’s the difference between “then” and “than?” I would say, “then” is a conjunctive preposition, and “than” is a misspelling of “thank.” I have done similar things to this on other occasions, and there is a great spirit of fun between me and the Twitters followers.
I was going along fine when someone wrote, “How do you spell “lasonia?” I wrote: “It depends if you are in an African American neighborhood or an Italian restaurant.” I knew of the name Lasonia. I did not make it up, nor do I find it funny. So to me the answer was either Lasonia (with a capital), or Lasagna, depending on what you meant. That they sounded alike in this rare and particular context struck me as funny. That was the joke. When the tweet went out, I saw some negative comments and immediately deleted the tweet and apologized. I gathered the perception was that I was making fun of African American names. Later, thinking it over, I realized the tweet was irresponsible, and made a fuller apology on Twitter.
Then, Salon.com reported on the story and changed the wording of the tweet. They wrote: “It depends if you are in an African American restaurant or an Italian restaurant.” Clearly, this misquote implies that an African American restaurant can’t spell “lasagna” on the menu. And my name was attached to the misquoted tweet. Other websites, including TMZ.com picked up this incorrect version and for the next four days, and more, it continued to spread and I couldn’t get out of hell.
When the error was fixed, neither TMZ nor Salon footnoted it. However, one website which had jumped on me harshly, Twitchy.com, made a generous apology:
“The original version of this post stated that Martin’s tweet denigrated the spelling ability of people who live in African American neighborhoods. A more likely explanation is that he was referencing the tendency of some African Americans to use names that include the prefix “La.” If we misinterpreted his joke (and we think we probably did), we apologize.”
I felt a little better, but not a lot.
Comedy is treacherous. I used to try out jokes in clubs and the audience’s feedback would tell me when I had crossed a line, or how to shape a joke so it is clear. Today, the process is faster. It’s your brain, a button, then millions of reactions. But it’s my job to know.
Okay… I feel a little bit better about this. Do you? Or are you still mad at Steve? Now that I understand the context a bit more, I think his explanation and apology is adequate. I like that he’s admitting he made a mistake, he’s not blaming other people and he’s genuinely trying to correct himself and correct the misinterpretations of the tweet. I can see how a professional comedian would have gotten caught up in the moment of a joke without stopping to see how it would land in the Twitter-verse, and to his credit, Steve did delete it and apologize quickly.
Photos courtesy of WENN.