MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, we're switching gears now. You know that terrible feeling you get when you tell a joke that bombs? You think you're saying something hilarious or edgy or clever and crickets or gasps or worse, thousands of people lighting up Twitter to say just how unfunny or messed up you are.
OK, so that last thing doesn't happen to most of us, but it did happen to "Saturday Night Live" writer Leslie Jones after her first on-air appearance on the show this weekend where she delivered a riff on what she said was her sad dating life. It featured a bit on how much better off she'd have been during slavery. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
LESLIE JONES: See, I'm single right now. But back in the slave days, I would've never been single. I'm 6 feet tall, and I'm strong - college strong. I mean, look at me. I'm a Mandingo.
MARTIN: Well, a lot of fans were looking, but they weren't laughing. Jones was slammed across social media. And this happened just months after her hiring and that of two other African-American women that was hailed as a big step forward for the show.
So we've been following this whole "Saturday Night Live" issue since it erupted. And so we wanted to call TV - NPR television critic Eric Deggans to get his take on this latest "Saturday Night Live" controversy. Eric, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
MARTIN: So a number of commentators jumped all over this calling it appalling, disturbing, offensive, some other things that we can't say on this program.
DEGGANS: In polite company, yes.
MARTIN: In polite company, right. What did you make of it?
DEGGANS: I thought this was a missed opportunity, to be honest. I think the heart of the piece was a great idea, which is that our standards of beauty in America are so tough on black women who are not thin and picture-perfect that it might feel like you'd be better off in slavery times. And I could see a stand-up comic delivering a bit like that and killing in a room.
But I think part of it was that the tone of the piece was wrong. It felt like she was pandering a little to the white viewers of the show. And I think it might have gone over differently if she had been in a context where she was facing a black audience maybe.
And a lot of her delivery sort of harkened back to these stereotypes that we have about black comedians with their, you know, bug eyes and sort of ways of presenting yourself that are stereotypical. So I think you put all that together an awful tone and this weird delivery and you wind up with something that offends a lot of people.
MARTIN: She defended herself vigorously on Twitter. And she said that black people are too sensitive about slavery. She also asked whether a male comedian like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle would get the same grief.
And in fact, Chris Rock actually did do a riff on that same topic some years ago saying that, you know, part of the reason that, you know, African-Americans or black folks dominate professional sports is because of slavery. And she says that - and, you know, commentator Keli Goff, who's also appeared on this program a number of times, posted a piece on The Root today saying that making the same point. What do you make of that argument?
DEGGANS: Well, again, what I say is it's all in the tone and it's all in the delivery. And it's all in how you perceive where that perspective is coming from. If it feels like you're offering - I mean, you know, what Chris Rock said, you know, a white commentator, a white sports commentator got fired for saying that. So it is all in sort of how you deliver it and how the context is.
I think even people who want to say - I mean, I wanted to hold off on jumping on Leslie Jones about this because I feel like "Saturday Night Live" is still struggling to figure out how to deal with and make fun of some of these racially-charged topics. So they're going to make mistakes. They're going to put stuff on that's maybe not as funny as you would like.
What I hope is that people don't get too upset and that the show learns to listen to its viewers because so many people got upset about this that it's obvious that it wasn't the best way to present this idea. And they should have done a better job. And somebody who was, you know, editing this stuff should have told her how it was going to play 'cause it was obvious to me when I saw it that it was going to be a fire storm.
MARTIN: You know, I just do not want to advance this argument that people shouldn't express themselves because somebody, you know, A, might be offended or, B, that that would silence everybody from that group because somebody's offended by the thing that one person says. However, having said that, given, as you said, there's been so much sensitivity and kind of controversy and politics around the casting and the writers at this particular show and, more broadly, television in general, what do you think about the - obviously, too soon to sort of determine - but this controversy? Do you think it could be an upside in the sense that it makes people kind of listen more carefully or a downside in the sense that people are saying, you know what, all this diversity stuff is too much trouble?
DEGGANS: Well, there's always a danger that people are going to say it's too much trouble. But the bottom line is this stuff is going to happen. And when you're pushing the boundaries of how you talk about gender and race in a comedic context, sometimes this stuff is going to happen.
I always say, you got to earn that. You know, these topics are so important to people. And one of the ways you subjugate people in a society is you make stereotypes about them acceptable and funny and alluring and attractive. So we do have to be careful about how our comedy talks about people of color and people who don't have power in this society. That's a conversation that comedians have to accept. They're going to push the boundaries, and then we're going to talk about what they said. And both of us have to be willing to allow that to get the best comedy, you got to push the boundaries a little bit. And then when you push the boundaries and people say you crossed the line, you got to be willing to hear that.
MARTIN: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. He was kind enough to join us from his home office in St. Petersburg, Florida. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.
DEGGANS: Always fun to be here.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.