Comedians can be as offensive as they want, because they're comedians. Unlike news organizations or politicians, comedians don't have an obligation to serve a public or a citizenry. Their primary function is to entertain -- and sometimes that means turning a few people off.
Still, that doesn't mean that their words don't shape the way we think. That's why I want to take a moment to talk about how often the phrase "illegal immigrant" has been used in recent comedic bits, despite the fact that about half of American Latinos find the term offensive.
A number of comedians (including some I really love!), like Jimmy Fallon and Ricky Gervais, have used the term "illegal immigrant" as shorthand for immigrants without authorization, in recent weeks. Jimmy Fallon has used the term at least four times (five times if you count using it twice in one sentence) in the past couple of months in his opening monologue.
Here's the rundown:
On January 15th, he joked: "The president will push for a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Obama says it's all part of his plan to give every man, woman, and child the chance to pay more taxes."
On January 31st he said, "A bipartisan group of senators has unveiled a plan that would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Or as immigrants call that, 'a tunnel.'"
On March 1st he used the following joke in his opening monologue: "New spending cuts allowed 300 illegal immigrants to be released from jail in Arizona. Or as officials put it, 'Catch ya later.'"
And on March 19th, he opened with, "Today Kentucky Senator Rand Paul announced that he supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, or as illegal immigrants put it 'Who do you think is gonna build that path?"
It's not just Fallon, though.
Last month, on Valentine's Day, Ricky Gervais tweeted "Guys, show how much you love you [sic] wife tonight in the restaurant by buying a dead rose from the illegal immigrant who pops in." The tweet, which went out to over 4 million Twitter followers, got thousands of retweets, but was soon deleted. Latino Rebels blog was none too happy, and tweeted, "Dear @rickygervais we captured your original "illegal immigrant" tweet. Why did you delete it from your stream?" They never got a response.
I've never really wanted to play the role of humor police. But to me, it doesn't seem "illegal immigrant" is being used deliberately in the place of other phrases like "unauthorized immigrants" or "undocumented immigrants" in the aforementioned instances. Rather, it seems Fallon and friends simply don't know -- they don't know that the term is off-putting to many people because it demeans and dehumanizes. Whereas comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart ironically use phrases like "the illegals" and "illegal aliens" to satirize the Republican party's stance on immigration, Fallon's use of "illegal immigrant" in context doesn't seem to be satire, but only part of a setup for his punchlines.
This is why I conclude that, maybe Fallon's writers room just doesn't know. Maybe they don't know that a coalition of linguists have come out against the word because it is neither neutral nor accurate. Or perhaps they haven't heard of the growing Drop The I-Word campaign, hosted by the ColorLines blog, and championed by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargas.