'The Aristocrats' Director Paul Provenza: The Onion's Apology To Quvenzhané Wallis Was 'Problematic'

The Onion Apology

When The Onion's CEO Steve Hannah publicly apologized last week for the satirical newspaper's controversial Oscar-night tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, two thoughts crossed my mind: 1) It's not a good day for comedy when a satirical publication says it's sorry for a joke that was not actually about the Beasts of the Southern Wild actress. And 2) what would Paul Provenza make of this?

The Onion Quvenzhane WallisIn addition to being a veteran stand-up comic and actor, Provenza directed The Aristocratsone of the finest dissections of comedy in any media (and not because I'm in it). The 2005 documentary deconstructs one of the oldest and dirtiest jokes in stand-up — the film's title is its punchline — and when I shot my segment with Provenza, I quickly learned that, in addition to being a very funny guy, he's a scholar of humor, who's really good at explaining why something is funny — or not.

'The Onion': The Quvenzhané Wallis Controversy

So, in the aftermath of the Wallis controversy, I emailed Provenza to get his analysis of the situation. Excerpts of his assessment appear below, but, first, an unexpurgated recap of what happened last week for anyone who was focusing on the sequestration crisis instead. If you're offended by the word "cunt," then stop reading now, because the term appears quite a bit in the following passages, and, in the context of this discussion, I think it's justified. Also, as Provenza noted, censoring the word, "just adds to the irony" of the controversy.

Here's what The Onion initially tweeted during the Academy Awards on Feb. 24.  After initially obscuring the offending word, the tweet was eventually disappeared as the backlash grew:

"Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?"

The Onion's Apology

Here is the apology that Hannah posted on The Onion's Facebook page on Monday, Feb. 25:

Dear Readers,

On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.


Steve Hannah CEO The Onion

Why The Onion's Apology Is Problematic

Take it away, Professor Provenza:

I think the crux of it is that the whole issue has more to do with Twitter than it has to do with comedy. Not completely, but largely. Twitter is a big, broad audience, and it's a tough room to 'read', particularly with a joke this harsh.

But the joke is absolutely misunderstood in most of the chatter. It is NOT a joke calling that sweet little girl a cunt. It's not maligning her in any way whatsoever — it is saying exactly the opposite. The joke rests squarely on the fact that Quvenzhané Wallis is the very last person you'd ever want to call a cunt.  Not even the most steadfast cynic can find her anything but innocent, beautiful and adorable, and that's the whole point of the joke: The Hollywood schadenfreude and the palpable desperation that runs through much of the movie biz inspires the idea that someone, somewhere in Oscartown is already spreading vicious rumors about her. The fact that it is so inappropriate to say anything like that about her is precisely the basis — and I believe the point — of the Tweet. It was meant as a satirical comment about Hollywood and the pretense that everybody at the Oscars loves each other so much. It's all golden statues and lavish praise — and is, The Onion suggests, about as phony as it gets.

SO The Onion's apology is problematic. It suggests they did insult her, and they're sorry about it. Which is not the case. They offended, yes — not by insulting  Quvenzhané Wallis, but by using the word "cunt" in the first place. And what could they expect, putting a most innocent, beloved 9 year old in the same sentence with perhaps the second most reviled word in the English language?  That's not the norm for The Onion, which usually does a much more deft job of communicating harsh comic ideas, but, comedically speaking, the joke is meant to be a bludgeon. So, I really can't fault it on that score. It's not meant to be a cleverly disguised notion. It's meant to be as harsh as the ugly truth of envy, back-biting and negativity that Hollywood embodies. No one is spared, no matter how sweet and pure and innocent.

Provenza goes on to point out that launching the Wallis joke into the Twitterverse put The Onion in "a difficult place."

Their work rarely has reached the audience this has reached — it has gone beyond their normal audience of comedy fans, fans of biting satire, whatever — to the broadest based audience imaginable: Oscar viewers, news & opinion blog/TV watchers. That audience includes far more people who would be offended in great numbers. And that's where it becomes about Twitter. It's now a story debated by people who have never had, nor do they now have, any interest in The Onion or what they're all about. And now we're into the business of damage control.

But man, it feels wrong to apologize for a joke you didn't even make.

When I asked Provenza if The Onion should have apologized at all, he replied:

Not this apology. They could have apologized for upsetting people in their audience. That would  have been honest — they didn't want to offend anyone. But this apology is dishonest: They apologize for offending the little girl and saying she deserves better when they did NOT say anything offensive about her. Thus, the apology is obsequious, reeks of insincerity and is compromising of The Onion's integrity and its actual point of view in the first place.

The Onion's Tweet & Seth MacFarlane's Jokes Stir The Pretentious Pot

Provenza also drew a provocative connection between The Onion's tweet and Seth MacFarlane's much-maligned emceeing of the Academy Awards that night:

If you look at The Onion thing (the actual substance of the joke, not the misinterpretation of it) and Seth's entire night of hosting, some very loud voices were digging into the whole pretension of the Oscars.  And what's really interesting to me is that Seth was essentially a fox in the Academy Awards henhouse. The producers of the telecast knew what he was going to do: Nothing was off the cuff, songs were rehearsed for weeks, scripts were signed off on by legal departments and Standards & Practices. In other words, the producers of the Oscars themselves chose to let Seth call bullshit on false propriety, to dredge up unsavory things about the celebs in attendance and onstage, to take very little of it as seriously as the Oscars seem to want to be taken. They essentially allowed him to repeatedly remind the audience what a load of crap it all is.

We all know that Oscar itself is a massive industry. The politics behind the nominees and winners is predominated by studios/distributors' financial interests and all kinds of deal-making and horse trading.  The fact that awards shows and celebrities are being called out ever more loudly, even from within, seems to suggest something. It's almost as if even the people involved in the enterprise can't ignore how pretentious it all is and are really tired of the machine.

I can't wait to read the comments on this. Leave them below.

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  • emberglance says:

    I agree with all the premises here but not so much the conclusion. The Onion used the word to describe the child on a platform that they knew a lot of people would be on. This caused offence because it's an inappropriate word to use publicly about a kid, and the fact that she's a black kid in a very white world didn't help. The offense required an apology.

    The analysis of the joke is absolutely spot-on - it meant something different to what it said but that doesn't change what was said. THIS IS THE POINT ABOUT IRONY - it only works amongst those people who understand the intent behind the words. I suspect the majority of people didn't understand the intent, they only saw the words and this would almost certainly include the girl and her mother. So, you can either apologize straightforwardly for what was basically a failure to self-edit appropriately to the situation, or you can try to explain to a load of offended people, who probably don't give a shit about the point some comedian was trying to make on the public stage which was actually the opposite of what was said... err... and give a semi-apology - "I'm sorry if you're failure to understand my incredibly coded humor caused you to become upset."

    Words have an effect in the world. I thought The Onion did good with their apology.

    By the way, what is the most reviled word in the English language?

  • Frank DiGiacomo says:

    I would argue that words begin to have less of an effect when entities like The Onion have to kowtow to people who don't understand irony. If, as you suggest, an apology was in order, I think that the more surgical one suggested by Provenza would have been wiser.

  • Frank DiGiacomo says:

    As for the most reviled word in the English language, I assumed that Provenza meant the contemptuous term that is liberally invoked in 'Django Unchained,' but let me check with him.

  • I agree with Provenza. The Onion apology would have been enormously improved by adding a clarification that the target of the joke was not Miss Wallis, but the backbiting Hollywood establishment. And a further mea culpa, that a joke involving a child that could be so easily misinterpreted should not have gone out.

    The apology as is, makes it sound like "yes, member(s) of our staff here do think Miss Wallis is a cunt, but they are being disciplined because we as an organization don't agree with that sentiment." Which to my mind, is much worse for all concerned parties.

  • jbrown3079 says:

    I think the Onion missed the mark with that tweet. Maybe with a less incendiary word, it would have snuck through.
    As far as the hosting job went, I think one problem they have is the theater has lousy acoustics and that makes it difficult to tell how the audience is responding.

  • Dirk says:

    I'm not sure if I get this bit: 'They apologize for offending the little girl and saying she deserves better when they did NOT say anything offensive about her.'... It was ostensibly about her, and it's a nasty sentence, whatever way it was intended. It's a shame they fudged the apology, though; perceived insult might have been defused with a better explanation.

  • Eric Benson says:

    I totally understand that the joke was meant to be ironic, that she's the last person you'd say such a thing about. The problem is that it WAS about her! Of course it was about her! Whose name was used? Do you, Frank, really want to explain to this 9 year old girl that "Yes, they were calling you a very bad name but it's okay because the weren't really calling you a bad name. It was irony, honey." Come on, now. Be serious.

    What really bothers me about the incident is this: Quvenzhané is a real person. She had to deal with the situation in a very real way. We all know how kids that age are. We all know she was undoubtedly teased and taunted about this. "Hey Wallis! They called you a C***! Are you really a C***?"

    Meanwhile, the "adult" who posted this tweet has gotten to hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

    That's not irony. That's not comedy. That is cowardice.

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      Eric, just a guess on my part, but based on Quvenzhane Wallis' performance in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' I'd say she's an exceptional kid whose emotional development is considerably more advanced than most nine-year-olds. Even if she doesn't fully understand the concept of irony yet, I bet she has the coping skills to deal with anyone who would dare taunt her about this.

  • Sweet Reggie says:

    I'm with you Eric. The tweet was a nasty thing to say about anyone, let along a very real nine-year old. To make the case that it was ironic is just a manipulatator's attempt to suggest that a hurtful joke wasn't even funny on any level. I can live with and, at times, enjoy insensitive humor. What I cannot respect is someone who tries to make a case for destructive behavior by suggesting the "little people" don't understand a greater, more sophisticated concept.

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      If you understand the irony of the joke, then you know that it's not about Quvenzhane Wallis. It's about the underbelly of the movie business.

      • emberglance says:


      • Sweet Reggie says:

        I think I do get the irony. I just don't think that as a joke it's funny on any level. I also think it's misguided to use the name of a very real nine-year old girl, regardless of whether anyone wants to say it's not "about" her. (And by the way, I don't think it is about QW.) Finally, if a clever wordsmith, hellbent on mocking the ass-kissing nature of journalism, used a vulgar word in a sentence with a child you loved, I'm pretty sure you'd wonder why the wordsmith was dragging your kid into his failed efforts to make a loftier point. But of course, I could be wrong about how you'd react.

  • Sweet Reggie says:

    suggest = camouflage

  • DJ says:

    I'll be the first person here to say this: Personally, I thought the tweet was funny when I initially read it. But then immediately after that, I knew it was going to go over like a veal entrée at a PETA convention. It seemed to me like the dangerous type of humor that National Lampoon would've done in its heyday… but to me, the mistake made was — more than anything — a complete and utter mis-read of the room (the "room" in this case being Twitter).

  • CineRam says:

    So the reason McFarlane does not want to host the Oscars a second time is because he took the piss out on them already and doesn't feel like doing it again?

  • I agree with everything Professor Provenza says here. It is a tempest in a teapot, yes, but when it comes to humor in the public arena, it is the crux of the matter.

  • PJ says:

    I didn't see Miley Cyrus' boobs until she turned 18. Really.

  • Soothsayer says:

    Provenza is being a bit disingenuous. Yes, the joke is about the ugly truth of Hollywood two-facedness. However, you can't tell me that joke didn't come from an honest place. The writer had an instinctive response to watching a little girl who, while talented and adorable, was also growing more and more annoyingly precocious before our very eyes. I felt it, you felt it. But the Onion said it in a hyperbolically comedic way.

    The real joke is about how media attention threatens to taint even the most gracious and innocent parts of our humanity, That's a much harder truth to swallow than merely calling Hollywood shallow and backbiting. We already knew and accepted that long ago. The genius of the Onion has always been their blessedly merciless skewering of personal complacency, not mere societal mores.

    I wish that kid the very best, as I'm sure the joke writer does, because that kid is no different from any other kid, any other person. We are all corruptible. It was a very honest, very challenging, very hilarious joke because it shone a light on one of our great pieties. The fact that they retracted their comment makes me fear for the future of one of the great institutions of American humanism.

    • Soothsayer says:

      Oh, for anyone who's worried about how little Quvenzhane felt about this sophisticated joke: she wouldn't have even found out about it if all the opportunistic moralists hadn't made it such a hot-button issue. Yes, she has her apology, but she's probably more confused than appeased.

  • Nic Rellek says:

    if you have to explain the joke then its not a good joke...that's comedy 101

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