Connect with us


What Nikki Haley and Ricky Gervais have in common



There’s a difference between “thought provoking” and just … provoking. You can see it in Ricky Gervais’ latest comedy special.

As recently as last year, Gervais was still making Michael Jackson jokes, and yet his recently released comedy special hit No. 1 on Netflix this week. The tires on my 2002 Grand Am had fresher treads than a moonwalk joke does today. And yet a huge number of Americans are turning to this comic expecting him to hold up a mirror to society like good comedy does. Instead they get vintage punchlines.

No wonder our culture is stuck rehashing old arguments.

In the entertainment industry, and in politics, it’s possible to make a living by saying the unsavory things others won’t. Maybe at the beginning of Gervais’ career, his controversial remarks felt poignant, as if intended to get people to think and push society forward. But eventually voices such as Gervais figure out it’s better business to just keep saying things others cannot, even if it’s the same things over and over again — including jokes that are racist or at least racist adjacent.

He can rehash white-man-grievance jokes about being “woke” or even tell 30-year-old moonwalk jokes just as long as he also keeps providing a harbor for those with unsavory views about race. Netflix can sell the special as “Armageddon,” but we all know Gervais isn’t pushing some sort of envelope or trying to move society forward. He’s comedic yacht rock — familiar and safe.

That’s the sweet spot a couple of Republican presidential contenders are trying to inhabit as well by being just provocative enough to not actually inspire thought.

Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who’s distantly trailing former President Trump in the polls, recently answered a question about the causes of the Civil War without mentioning slavery. She was widely mocked. Rival Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who’s even more distantly trailing Trump, grabbed some spotlight by criticizing/defending Haley. He said she avoided mentioning slavery because “she’s unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth.”

Gov. Chris Sununu, the New Hampshire Republican, offered his take by saying Haley’s decision to ignore slavery was “an absolute nonissue.”

This crew of Republicans are just doing what Gervais is doing: providing safe harbor for racism.

It’s not as though Haley couldn’t explain what started the American Civil War. She was the governor of the first state to secede. She had the Confederate flag removed from the state Capitol in response to a hate crime in 2015. Her refusing to talk about slavery wasn’t a brain freeze, and it wasn’t her skipping over the “easy part.” It was a political calculation eloquently explained by Christie, who said Haley doesn’t have “a racist bone in her body.”

She apparently doesn’t have an anti-racist bone in her body either, or she would have mentioned slavery as a cause of the war. And that tepid thinking is why we’re stuck.

Compared with Trump, Haley is viewed as one of the sensible ones. Compared with the former president, Christie and Sununu are said to be the brave ones fighting MAGA, representing the moderate wing of the Republican Party, all of that. And yet none of them are pushing the envelope or giving us something to think about.

At least Gervais has figured out how to maintain a career being a false prophet. Haley and Christie have not yet reached double digits in any political poll of consequence. Yet they remain committed to providing cover for racism because they’re convinced doing so “thoughtfully” makes them appear better than Trump.

It’s not flame throwers such as Trump who keep us from moving forward. It’s the people who consider the grievances of Gervais provocative. It’s the people who view the resignation of Harvard’s first Black president as a win against affirmative action. It’s the presidential candidates who court the racists.

Meanwhile the rest of us are sitting on the couch wondering why we are still hearing moonwalk jokes in 2024 and equivocation about what started the Civil War. Being provocative can make you popular, but change doesn’t come from those defending the status quo. No matter how eloquently it’s done.

LZ Granderson is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply