Was Billy Crystal’s Tribute To Robin Williams Racist?

screenshot (YouTube)
screenshot (YouTube)
Many people have now watched the touching tribute giving by Billy Crystal to Robin Williams at the Emmy Awards ceremony (I actually detest awards shows and show the clip below after the controversy arose). It appears that there has been a torrent of criticism of one of the clips as racist. We have been discussing the rising limits on speech deemed racist or hateful, including cases brought against comedians (here and here). This controversy highlights the subjectivity over the meaning of such a joke in my view.

In the tribute below, Crystal shows a progression of clips from Williams’ brilliant career starting with his early appearance on the Tonight Show and going to some standup routines. The clips highlighted Williams’ ability to improvise, including one scene where he borrows a pink scarf from an audience member in the front row and wraps its round his head like a Hijab, or Islamic headscarf. He then says “I would like to welcome you to Iran . . . Help me!”

The response was outrage on social media sites which called both Williams and Crystal racists and the tribute “offensive” speech. One critic objected that “After that, people who’d never heard of Robin Williams would think he’s Billy Crystal’s racist friend who was on a lot of talk shows?” Others called for apologies and sanctions. While Williams did a brief accent of a women from Bombay, it was the use of the scarf as a veil that led to the posting of most of the objections.

However, the critics ignore the alternative meaning of the joke. I took the joke as less as statement on Islam generally as a statement on the treatment of women in Iran — a subject of continued discussion on this blog. Clearly many women choose to wear burkas and veils and they should have every right to do so. However, we have also discussed how women have been abused in Iran and other Muslim countries when they have tried to resist discriminatory rules and compelled clothing requirements. Comedians use such controversies as the grist for their comedic mills. The best comedians have an edge and a point of view. While to some the veil is a religious symbol, it is also to others a symbol of the plight of many women who want greater freedom from Sharia law and cultural/religious restrictions. There are many women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries who have fought bravely for equal rights. The veil is often a symbol of that political struggle, including the continued abuses by morality police against women in countries like Saudi Arabia. This includes the recent sentence of flogging for a women who insulted the morality police and the earlier tragedy of girls forced back into a building school because they were not wearing veils and appropriate coverings.

The greatest concern is that in some Western countries like France, England, and Canada, we are now seeing people criminally charged after complaints have been filed over speech deemed to be offensive by particularly groups or individuals. It is part of a growing threat to free speech that I have written about. For recent columns, click here and here and here and here. When (as we have seen) this crackdown starts to include even standup routines, we have reached an unnerving point in our treatment of free speech and expression. In addition to the prosecutions of such cases, there is the creation of a chilling effect on many who do not want to be accused and potentially charged. The result is a type of self-censorship.

To be honest, I do find some comedians to be incredibly offensive and not funny: I would put Andrew Dice Clay and Kathy Griffin among them. I have even objected to the airing of inappropriate sexual displays during Superbowl shows or New Year shows due to the audience. Indeed, as many have noted, I tend to be a bit old-fashioned (some would say prudish) about crude jokes and a thuggish conduct. However, these objections go further than folks saying that they disliked the joke and raise the question of whether some jokes should be labeled and sanctioned as hate speech or racist. Kathy Griffin simulating oral sex on Anderson Coopers is hardly a disagreement of interpretation. It is appropriate (though in my view still decidedly not funny) in some contests (like a comedy club) and not others (like a television audience with kids celebrating the New Year). The Williams clip controversy turns more on the content of the joke and its meaning.

The clip below can be seen by different people in different ways. However we appear to be losing our tolerance for different or opposing views — even in a comedic routine. The result is pressure to strip away controversial or edgy elements — leaving a type of vanilla flavored level of discourse in our society. The free speech community needs to do a better job in advancing the notion of tolerance for speech in a pluralistic society. It may require giving the benefit of the doubt to people like Williams or Crystal and just not laughing at a joke.

What do you think?

119 thoughts on “Was Billy Crystal’s Tribute To Robin Williams Racist?”

  1. I’m so glad someone posted the “pink scarf impromptu”‘of Robin Williams. I saw it and what he did with that scarf with no script was amazing. I liked Crystal selecting the lady with the shawl on her head. That problem resonates today as it did when Mr. Williams gave that incredible performance.

  2. @Karen S. Karen S


    “How come we are not talking about the real issue with Robin Williams, apparent suicide? The psychiatric drugs he was taking, possibly even forced to take, that lead to suicide”

    It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because many drugs in this class carry the disclaimer that they can cause or worsen thoughts of suicide. I wonder if he was taking any medication with these risks. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that the shock of his passing sheds light on suicide risks, prevention, and drug side effects.

    I am quite certain Limey was remarking on the drugs negatively because he is in favor of Scientology and they refuse to let depressed people have drugs.

    In some cases these drugs are a life saver. From what I understand about Mr Williams he had the beginnings of Parkinson’s and had open heart surgery in 2009 and it is well known this does cause depression. We will never know what really happened but to blame psychotropic drugs because of conspiracy theories when they help so many people is simply not fair and cruel http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/robin-williams-dead-actor-2009-heart-surgery-contribute-depression-article-1.1900944

  3. In the olden days, some Courts had a Court Jester. According to some tradition notions, the most useful function of the Court Jester was the use of humour to help guide the Court toward honesty, decency, and perhaps ever a smidgen of truthfulness.

    On reviewing as many of the disastrous incidents in my life which involved the Court system, I find it useful to regard my mere conception, in the form of a (human?) zygote during the latter part of the year 1938 of the Common Era, to have been biological act of contempt of Court, for I have never, never ever, been able to observe so much as one event the facts of which are not pure contempt of our present scheme of interpretation of the laws of the land with regard to notions of guilt, blame, fault, or anything else which would, or could, ever make the finding of any person actually guilty of anything in consequence of any neuron action potentials (aka, nerve impulses) or any of the consequences of neuron action potentials.

    Put me on a jury in a Court of Law, and, in the absence of valid scientific evidence presented in court which actually demonstrates the existence of any form of free, or disciplined, or other form of will as related to neuron action potentials, that actually allows people to make actually avoidable mistakes, and I will find every defendant absolutely and perfectly innocent, because I will find all the factors which were decisive in the event for which the defendant has been charged to be purely situational, and I will find that no living person is truthfully accountable for situational factors, because no living person ever has enough control of purely situational factors as to truthfully be held to account by law.

    As a Court Jester, who has read quite a few legal documents, statutes, law books, and such, part of the way I write here is of a parody of legal verbiage.

    As such, please, if you don’t mind, take careful note that, when I posted, the words, “Anglo American System of Law and Jestice,” the word “Jestice” was typed as I intended that it be spelled.

    A Court Jester can only meet out Jestice.

    And a Court Jester who plays only the straight-man comedic role may survive the Jester role at least momentarily.

    If I may borrow and modify a phrase from Fibber Mcgee and Molly, “Tain’t funny, Turley bloggers.”

    I suppose I would rather be deadpan than dead.

    And the joke on all of us may be that adversarial law and justice may be a valid target for a Court Jester’s Jestice, for the Adversarial System may be our only real adversary…

    Ignorance is not bliss, it is jest an incomplete learning opportunity.

  4. swarthmoremom, seriously, another stupid video bashing President Bush? It’s been six years. Your messiah, mr. obama has been in there long enough. All he has done is made clinton’s problems of which President Bush inherited, and piled on more problems and made things worse. And mr. obama has therefore become the worst president in US History.

  5. @JBHarris

    Well, at some level, every concept is its own “Big Bang”, or as a famous philosopher once said, “Not only Kant you win them all, most of the time you Kant even explain them all.” I think I read that in Godel, Escher and Bach by whatshisname.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  6. Because of the commonplace view, not universally held or shared, to the effect that racism is bad, I did not race to post a comment here on this hear thread.

    As this thread is mostly written in variants of the “English” language, perhaps it is foolishly wise for me to vainly attempt to parody British humour.

    As the British/American system of law is adversarial, it, quite naturally will drive itself toward becoming its own best adversary.

    The structure of law, in the British/American adversarial approach, is much akin to being usefully modeled as a fractal structure, one which, because of its fractal structure, continually fractures itself and its subjects.

    (For those not yet familiar with fractals, there is a nifty computer program that I came upon a few days ago, “Fraqtive” which is available via the Internet as a no-dollar-fee download, and was written by and is copyrighted by Michał Męciński. I suggest that folks not yet familiar with fractals may usefully ponder the merits, if any, of downloading Michał Męciński’s program and running it, the better to observe two phenomena. One is how a genuine fractal [in constrast with a finite-mathematics model of a fractal] may appear to have the same observable amount of detail at any scale of observation. If the scale of observation of a fractal using Fraqtive is made small enough, the finite mathematics of binary digital computing will eventually become blatantly manifest as the computed-by-Fraqtive fractal model becomes, if one keeps making the scale of observation small enough, part of a single pixel in the Fraqtive computational process. That leads me to ponder whether the smallest pixel in the observable universe might happen to be a spatial existential-pixel of a Planck length, width and breadth, that lasts for one unit of Planck time.

    The British/American adversarial approach to law may yet be found to suffer from the universal plague of all sysems with are purely and exclusively recursively self-referential. All such systems eventually either explode or implode. {For the sufficiently astute, the word, “or” in the prior sentence is the “inclusive or” of formal logic, and is absolutely not the “exclusive-or” of adversarial discourse…}

    So, my work in bioengineering and in theoretical biology is now sharply focused on the study, as a neurological phenomenon totally subject to the principles of science and the laws of nature that are the natural-philosophy foundation of the science of biology, of the Anglo American System of Law and Jestice.

    Am I alone here amongst those who post, or who attempt to post, to the Turley blog, in being increasingly aware of hints that the adversarial system may be as-though playing a joke on itself?

    Is not, in the theatrical sense, tragedy the ultimate comedy? A joke played on itself?

  7. Thanks Annie. not sure why but it is on this page now. Just listening to a part of it, about 43 minutes in OMG!!!! Scary but you hear this kind of don’t even know what to call it when you go to Huckabee’s page on FB.

  8. Leej,
    Go to YouTube, and search for Soldiers in the Army of God. HBO Documentary.

  9. not sure if my computer or the site but it doesn;t come up only a circle with an exclamation point

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