Jay Leno, as much as he takes flak from audiences and comedians alike, generally isn’t on the receiving end of critique for particularly edgy or offensive jokes. Sure, he’s had his share of Tonight Show-related debacles, but Leno doesn’t have a reputation for pushing the comedic envelope. At least, not these days.
But, alas, it seems that a recent Leno skit has yielded him some bad juju from overseas. According to BBC News, a recent sketch depicted the ornate Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh temples, as the home of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney; it was meant as a jab at his vast wealth. The Sikh community, however, has condemned the sketch for suggesting the holy temple is a place for the rich, instead of what it really is– a place for all Sikhs to worship.
Several public officials have weighed in on the controversy, arguing that there is no place for this kind of offensive comedy, freedom of speech be damned. Vayalar Ravi, Overseas Indian Affairs Minister, said, “Freedom does not mean hurting the sentiments of others… This is not acceptable to us and we take a very strong objection for such a display.” Verbal condemnations aside, many Sikhs are taking action: several members of the community in the United States have launched an online petition demanding Leno apologize for his “racist comments” and that he “promise not to make any direct or oblique references to Sikhs or their places of worship.”
As much as I respect the religious beliefs and practices of others, I can’t help but think that this response is a bit overblown. Certainly this is an important shrine to Sikhs, but it seems that Leno’s joke was less about the Sikh community and more about Mitt Romney. It hardly seems rooted in racial intolerance, as the online petition suggests. Furthermore, I’m troubled by any calls for censoring comedy. Everyone has the right to be offended by a joke and to express their distaste, but if we ask that comics avoid touchy subjects, where would we draw the line? Could Leno tell jokes about Tea Partiers, if that “hurt[s] the sentiments of others?”
There’s a place in the world for comedy that might take a few jabs at particular groups: rather than having a knee-jerk reaction about the offensive content of that comedy, maybe we should focus on the potential that comedy has to knit communities together. Shared laughter, after all, can build bridges over fissures like few other experiences.