What’s a Comedy Central “Roast” Doing at the Supreme Court?

Without a doubt, comedy is a big deal these days in our society, especially in our pop culture, and when done smartly at an appropriate forum, the jokes can mean a lot of money, but when done in a certain way at certain places, they can also be a deadly serious affair that can wind up in front of the judges at the US Supreme Court. Not least when it involves a Comedy Central roast featuring the famous and talented insult comic Jeff Ross and a murder trial in a red state like Texas. And, under the circumstances of this case, the crucial question that pops up is whether an apparent joke is still just a joke or perhaps something rather dark and incriminating. But first, here is some background to all this:

In 2011, a Texas man named Gabriel Hall murdered an elderly man and badly injured his wheelchair-bound wife in College Station, Texas. In 2015 while Hall awaited his murder trial, comedian Jeff Ross visited the jail house where he and other inmates were being held and over some days Ross filmed a special for Comedy Central titled “Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail”. Ross claimed he was there because he was a believer in second chances and that he wanted to see if the inmates at the jailhouse had a sense of humor about their situation. Among the inmates Ross spoke to was Hall and although his talk with Hall was not ultimately included in the special when it aired, the prosecutors in Hall’s trial nonetheless subpoenaed the footage of Ross’s conversation with Hall and played it for the jury during the sentencing phase of Hall’s trial following his conviction a few months later. The prosecutors aimed to use the footage to persuade the jury that Hall had shown no remorse for his crime; as a result, the jury sentenced Hall to death.  In the footage, Ross asked Hall what he was in for, whether he had hacked somebody’s computer? Hall joked that he took a machete to someone’s screen. Ross then remarked that Hall looked like “a fuckin’ scary dude,” to which Hall said: “Oh, come on, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Then, Ross said: “What about a human?” And Hall replied: “Ah, they’re annoying.” The banter also included Ross making some derogatory comments about Hall’s Asian heritage.      

Well, Hall’s lawyers have challenged the use of the footage in securing the death sentence, claiming that it gave a rather misleading portrayal of Hall and his true feelings in a situation where Hall was just playing along with a comedian and nothing more. Even more significant, Hall’s lawyers have also hitched their wagons to the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel provision, claiming that the comedian’s interactions with Hall, which generated the footage, was permitted by the jail house authorities without the presence of Hall’s attorneys and was therefore unconstitutional.

So, now we are dealing with at least two main issues here: the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment plus the question of whether the content of the footage was just a guy playing along with a comedian or whether it was something else more sinister, as in, somebody who showed no remorse for murder.  First, the Sixth Amendment. Under the law here, anyone charged with a crime is given the right to have their lawyer present during what is known as “critical stages” of the process, meaning that this right usually comes into being even before things start happening inside the courtroom in front of a jury and so on. To explain it more simply, once a guy is arrested by the cops and is informed that they have a right to a lawyer, most ordinary folks do understand that to be the beginning of the person’s journey through the criminal justice process, and that is therefore a “critical stage” of things. The basic idea here is to protect the person in custody against unfair oppression by the government authorities.

But our situation here with Jeff Ross and Gabriel Hall is rather interesting in one obvious way: most ordinary folks can also appreciate the fact that someone bantering with a comedian, even inside a jail house, stands on a rather different footing when it comes to the right to counsel than, say, someone being interrogated by a cop in the same situation. Unlike a comedian, a cop ain’t joking around with the guy in custody, rather he is usually trying to get information about a crime, something that could doom that guy at his trial. Well, let’s just say the difference in the two situations is pretty clear and this is where Hall’s legal team has a genuine problem when it comes to their big argument about the Sixth Amendment. And this is a heavy lift, for sure.

By comparison, the lawyers seem to have a less heavy lift when it comes to whether the footage shown to the jury reflected Hall’s true feelings, as in, remorse or no remorse for his crime, or if it was just a guy playing along with a comedian. Again, most ordinary folks would understand that a guy sitting down somewhere and doing a back and forth with someone he knows is a comedian probably isn’t expecting such information to land in front of a jury that is deciding his guilt or innocence let alone a jury that is deciding whether he should live or die.         

So far, the efforts of Hall’s lawyers to shoot down his death sentence have tanked on appeal before the Texas courts, and they have decided to seek another bite at the apple at the Supreme Court of the United States. Only time will tell if they’ll find success with this move. And it likely won’t be long before we see how the Supreme Court processes the subject of humor in the criminal justice system. And, of course, it’ll also give us a window into the high court’s own sense of humor.

**Editor’s Note: The new book “Comedy Goes to Court: When People Stop Laughing and Start Fighting“, is now available on Amazon and at bookstores. Go get your own copy of the new bestselling book today and, of course, enjoy the read!

The Brave New World of Muckraking Comedy

By Carl Unegbu and Ron Simon

These crazy times have demanded a new brand of comedy. With the news more insane than any joke a comedian can devise, this new comedy has partnered with journalism. Once facts were facts and jokes were jokes. But the two have merged with comedians now wanting to change hearts and minds and not just release a guffaw. This is comedy with a Pulitzer purpose, as the New York Times recently noticed. Funny is no longer funny, as Sid Caesar would say. Funny now investigates and persuades, with the hopes of knowing laughter too.

Comedy interacts with Journalism. Murrow meets Mirth. It has been developing over twenty years, but has reached its apex with Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. We like to call this new humor, muckraking comedy. Back at the turn of the twentieth century citizens were prompted to act because of so-called muckraking reporters, who scoured the filth to discover the truth for its readers. Our leading comedians now get dirty with the transgressions of politics and culture to bring some type of cleansing illumination to its audience. Laughter is the first step of the way to action and enlightenment. You might remember Upton Sinclair from school; his novels prompted legislation in Congress. Now you can see an electronic version of The Jungle nightly with such comedy muckrakers Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert.

Political Jokes Then and Now

Yes, there have political jokesters like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. But they just wanted to release tension and basically affirm the status quo. Take this classic joke by Hope in the sixties: “President Kennedy is just winding up a nonpolitical tour of the 11 states he lost in the last election. He wanted to see how they’re getting along without federal aid.” Kennedy could be any politician. Funny to all sides, but ultimately harmless.

Oliver wants more. He posits: “Is anything about Trump funny anymore? I don’t know. Somehow the world’s most objectively laughable human has become a comedy graveyard where laughter goes to die.” Oliver recognizes that good old-fashioned inclusive humor is now hopelessly dead. The comic arrows must now be laced with some sort of poison. The world and its leaders are muck and your mission after the laughter is to change it.

Creating Muckraking Comedy

Well, this new muckraking comedy has transformed the process of creating jokes. If you are going to attack, you have to ensure that your jokes are as accurate and factual as anything in the New York Times. Comedy staffs now feature journalists and fact-checkers, reviewing every word to affirm it is true and factual, as well as funny. Lawyers also assiduously review punch lines to ascertain any possibility of defamation. The danger of muckraking comedy is that your targets will always be out to get you. Not to outwit you, just sue you.

Most people credit Jon Stewart as the trailblazer of this phenomenon in comedy thanks to his revolutionizing Comedy Central’ s The Daily Show. However, this new genre seems to have attained maturity at the hands of John Oliver in the weekly production of his own show HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Taking advantage of the weekly intervals between his shows and the absence of in-studio guests, Oliver, an alum of Daily Show and a protégé of Jon Stewart, is able to do a deep dive into an individual issue each week. Investigative reporting with savage laughs.

Oliver Takes on the Coal Industry

In this award-winning report on the coal industry, Oliver follows the journalistic principles of the muckrakers of old. He begins generally with the Trump Administration’s relationship with the coal industry. He then specially zeroes in on the safety practices of Murray Energy and the fatal collapse of the company’s mine in Utah in 2007. The piece was a smart indictment of the coal industry, worthy of Upton Sinclair, but with a large talking squirrel. His satire led to a defamation lawsuit by the company’s boss Robert Murray, which was ultimately dismissed by the court. Think how much research and comedy writing went into this piece, seamlessly intermingled.

We plan to explore ramifications of this radical muckraking comedy in future blogs. But first we want to understand the roots of the phenomenon. We had a conversation with one of its unsung heroes, Daniel Radosh. Radosh was a journalist for such publications as Spy before he became a writer for the Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart and then Trevor Noah. Here he explains how journalism is injected into the satire, as well as the comedic differences between Stewart and Noah.

Now journalists play a very crucial role, something that Radosh considers a big legacy of Jon Stewart’s writing staff. As he puts it, “The Daily Show’s DNA” is becoming widely adopted as research and fact checking become commonplace in satirical writers’ rooms, the definition of muckraking comedy.

*This article was originally published in Medium, under Paley Matters. The co-author Ron Simon is curator of television and radio at The Paley Center for Media. Simon has been an associate adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University, as well as a former chair of the Peabody Awards jury.

*For more interesting information about humor at large, visit Feedspot for the Top 100 Humor Blogs on the web. (https://blog.feedspot.com/humor_blogs/)

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. Please keep reading!