Everyone knows that kids sometimes say stupid things because they don’t know any better. And comedians routinely say stupid things, even though they do know better (or ought to), just to make people laugh. So it should come as no surprise that putting kids and comedians together creates the potential for a double dose of stupidity. On October 16, this potential was fully realized on Jimmy Kimmel’s “Kids’ Table” segment.
I first learned about this from my wife. She heard that Chinese students at my university were protesting something, but she wasn’t sure what. We weren’t planning to investigate the matter any further, but a few days later she heard a more detailed rumor: Apparently, someone at ABC had said that “we” (meaning America) should “kill everyone in China.”
What? Surely not.
I found it hard to believe, not because I have any special regard for ABC, but because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to face the backlash that would result from publicly advocating genocide. Two possible explanations immediately came to mind: Either the statement had been made by some racist lunatic being interviewed by a reporter, or a talk show host had made a stupid, offhand, sarcastic comment that should never have aired.
Such was our understanding of the situation — a mixture of rumor, disbelief, and speculation — when my wife told me that a friend had invited her to join one of the protests in our area. She didn’t need my advice, but I gave it anyway: “Don’t attend any protests until you’ve seen the original video clip and understand the context of what was said.” If it turned out that a representative of ABC really had seriously advocated killing anyone, I would be protesting too. And so would most Americans, I hope. But before you go out and protest something a person said, you should probably track down the original quotation in context. God knows how easy it is for people to take words out of context. Just ask Obama about his Muslim faith.
Anyway, I found the video clip easily enough and watched it with my wife. It begins with Kimmel asking a group of kids what we should do about the fact that America owes China 1.3 trillion dollars. And then things go awry. The problem was immediately clear. As I already mentioned, the kindling was laid as soon as Kimmel was put in a room with kids. But the spark that actually ignited the fire was the “Yes, and . . .”.
In case you’re not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .”, let me explain it. It’s a way of responding to other people on stage that actors cultivate, especially in improvisational comedy. When another actor says or does something, no matter how ridiculous it is, you respond by accepting it. That’s the “yes” part. Then you add something to it (that’s the “and” part) to see where the idea takes you. The “Yes, and . . .” makes performances flow more smoothly and helps actors to be more creative. It also leads to some absurd performances, as it did in this case.
I was surprised to see that it was a little kid who actually made the statement in question. It was shocking (though somehow not surprising) to hear a kid collapse in a fit of giggles while suggesting that we kill a whole country full of people. And it was offensive, even though he clearly wasn’t serious. I’ve lived abroad in places where I was both a foreigner and a minority, and I’ve heard people say similarly horrible things about Americans. Those things made me feel uncomfortable even when they were said in jest. Genocide jokes just aren’t a good idea, and Kimmel would have been wise to say, “Whoa, let’s not go there.” But instead, he did what he was trained to do. He executed a “Yes, and . . .”.
“That’s an interesting idea,” he said.
Now, what did he mean by that? Actually, I might have said the same thing if I were in Kimmel’s shoes — not because I like what the kid said, but because “that’s interesting” is what you say to extricate yourself gracefully from an unpleasant conversation. And that’s exactly what Kimmel seemed to be doing. He turned to another kid and asked what he thought. So it really wasn’t a full “Yes, and . . .”. He moved on.
Or did he?
A minute later, Kimmel brought the offensive statement back up. Why? Because he thought it was a good idea worth pursuing? No. That same kid had also just said that America should be forced to pay its debt. Kimmel was pointing out the contradiction between the two things the kid had said. It’s possible that he was actually trying to get the kid to think and see where he was wrong, though he was more likely just hoping for further comedic material to come out of the kid’s attempted explanation.
Unfortunately, at this point Kimmel was apparently struck by a bolt of asininity, and he decided to ask the whole group, “Should we allow the Chinese to live?” His posing of this question, along with the other kids’ subsequent analysis of the pros and cons of destroying another country, constituted the full “Yes, and . . .” that never should have happened. Eventually, Kimmel apparently did see that things had gotten out of hand, and he cut off the discussion, declaring it to be “the Lord of the Flies edition” of the Kids’ Table. That comment demonstrates at least some awareness on Kimmel’s part of just how bad the conversation was, since the main theme of Lord of the Flies is that the darkest, most violent parts of human nature reside even in children.
So, what was my wife’s reaction to the clip? (Her opinion counts more than mine here, since she’s considerably more Chinese than I am.) She said, “Oh. It’s just stupid.” Was she offended? Yes. Should Kimmel apologize? Yes. (And he did.) But did she feel a need to join the protesters holding signs comparing Kimmel to Hitler and denouncing him for advocating genocide and manipulating children? No.
What Kimmel is guilty of here is stupidity, not advocating genocide. Nor was he manipulating children. He was using them, to be sure, to harvest absurd statements to get laughs on his show, but he wasn’t manipulating them, at least not in the sense of influencing their thoughts or behavior (though he definitely wasn’t being a good example). Inasmuch as the teaching and treatment of children are at issue here, perhaps it should be the kids’ parents who take the blame. Where else did the kids learn to talk like that? Who made the decision to put them at that table, and who’s really getting paid for putting them on TV and making a national spectacle of them?
The whole conversation was stupid (except perhaps for Kimmel’s response to the idea of building a wall in China), but the biggest stupidity of all was the decision to air the segment. Who was ultimately behind that decision? Jimmy Kimmel? ABC? Whoever it was, it serves them right to take some flak for it. And it’s good that they apologized. But no one was advocating genocide. Obviously, Kimmel didn’t realize how stupid it would be to do the old “Yes, and . . .” after a kid suggests that we kill people. But you can bet he realizes it now.