What Makes a Celebrity Gaffe Stick?

16.02.2015 14:09

At the National Book Awards
last November, Daniel
Handler, better known as the
children’s author Lemony
Snicket, bounded onstage
after Jacqueline Woodson
won a top prize for “ Brown
Girl Dreaming,” the chronicle
of her family’s history from
slavery to civil rights. As the
applause for her award died
down, Mr. Handler, the
evening’s M.C., told the
crowd that Ms. Woodson had
once shared with him over
lunch that she was allergic to
“Just let that sink in,” he said.
It didn’t take long. The next
day, authors and critics
decried his remarks as
insensitive and racist. Mr.
Handler took to Twitter and
apologized for
overshadowing his friend’s
achievement with what he
called “my own ill-conceived
attempts at humor.”
Underscoring his regret, he
offered to donate funds to the
“We Need Diverse Books”
campaign Ms. Woodson
supports. Ms. Woodson
responded with an opinion
article on the Op-Ed page in
The New York Times that said
that Mr. Handler, in making
light of the racist association
of African-Americans and
watermelon, “came from a
place of ignorance.”
But nearly three months
later, it appears Mr. Handler,
44, has largely moved on.
About 120 people showed up
Feb. 3 at the Barnes & Noble
on the Upper West Side to
hear him read from his new
book, “We Are Pirates.” It was
the first stop on a national
tour, and the audience
chuckled as he narrated a
passage about two
swashbuckling misfits, Gwen
and Errol, stealing a boat.
Taking questions, he
confirmed that Netflix is
making a series based on
Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of
Unfortunate Events.” One fan
then asked if he had ever met
any of his literary heroes.
“I always make a fool of
myself, so I try not to meet
them,” Mr. Handler replied.
He said he recently declined
an invitation to speak at a
festival because the novelist
Haruki Murakami, a favorite,
would be there. “I’ve heard
sometimes that I say things
and they come out wrong,” he
said, in a nod to his
November gaffe. A few in the
audience tittered. He added,
“That’s what people have
Celebrities have long been
chastised for making
inappropriate or insensitive
comments in public. Benedict
Cumberbatch recently got
into hot water for using the
term “colored actors” when
discussing the lack of
diversity in British cinema. In
2010, John Mayer made racist
and sexist comments in an
interview in Playboy, later
apologizing onstage at a
concert. And who can forget
the uproar when Ted Danson
showed up to give a speech in
blackface in 1993 at the
Friars Club roast for Whoopi
Goldberg, his girlfriend at the
The most recent incident
with Mr. Handler makes one
ask: When, and why, does a
lapse in judgment become
part of a celebrity’s personal
narrative? For Mr. Danson, it
took years to recover. (Ms.
Goldberg defended Mr.
Danson then, saying she
helped write his jokes.) In
Mr. Cumberbatch’s case,
people seem to have let it go.
“Daniel Handler did the right
thing,” said Michael Sitrick, a
crisis communications expert
and author of “Spin: How to
Turn the Power of the Press
to Your Advantage.” “He
apologized quickly, and that
is what I would have advised.
Will it stay with him a little
while? Sure. But he did the
right thing.”
In a brief chat before his
reading, Mr. Handler said
people still asked about it. “It
wasn’t that long ago, so it’s
O.K. to ask,” he said. But
whether it will remain with
him, he said: “I don’t know.
People I hope realize what
happened, and how sorry I
am. I haven’t lost any friends,
including Jackie. And that is
the most important thing.”
Clearly it is something he
would rather forget. Two
days after the reading, his
publicist canceled an
interview to discuss it.
“Daniel does not wish to be
the subject of a profile,” she
wrote in an email. Ms.
Woodson said she had no
interest in talking either and
declined to comment.
But fans and others suggest
that continued scrutiny
comes down to gravity of the
offense and whether there is
a pattern of inappropriate
behavior. And so far, people
seem willing to give Mr.
Handler the benefit of the
doubt. Desirae Friesen, 25, a
publicity assistant at the
publisher Tor/Forge Books,
read the “Lemony Snicket”
series when she was a
teenager. She went to Mr.
Handler’s book reading in
New York, in part, because
she enjoyed hearing him
speak before. “Clearly it was
not the best thing to say,” Ms.
Friesen said. “But I do enjoy
his work so much and I don’t
see these ideas in his
writing.” Besides, she added,
“I always try to separate the
artist and their work.”
Mr. Sitrick said public figures
of any sort must be careful
when talking about race,
religion or gender because
the audience they are
speaking to isn’t always the
one listening most intently.
“It’s the sensitivity of a
greater audience you have to
be aware of,” he said. And
context matters, too.
Recently, the NBC “Nightly
News” anchor Brian Williams
was suspended without pay
for six months after he
apologized during his
newscast for misrepresenting
that he was in a helicopter hit
by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003.
He disclosed that he was not.
“It’s very different,” Mr.
Sitrick said. As a news
anchor, Mr. Williams is
expected to get his facts
straight. Mr. Handler, by
contrast, Mr. Sitrick said,
“was trying to be funny and
he made an inappropriate
statement. Brian made a
statement that turned out
where the facts were not
true. One was a joke. The
other was sloppiness.”
Interviewers who have asked
Mr. Handler about the
National Book Award
controversy have done it
largely in passing. In
interviews by Mother Jones
and NPR about “We Are
Pirates,” he was asked one
question. San Francisco
magazine ventured a little
further, asking two, including
one about the backlash. “It’s
no fun,” Mr. Handler told the
magazine. “That’s all I have
to say about it.”
Leonard Lopate, a radio host
on WNYC, is slated to have
Mr. Handler on his book club
show Tuesday to talk about
“We Are Pirates,” and so far,
he is not planning to discuss
the author’s comments at all.
“My policy is to not beat
something to death,” Mr.
Lopate said. “If there is a
reason it comes up, I won’t
ignore it. But it is not that
kind of conversation.” (WNYC
is soliciting questions on its
website from listeners.) Mr.
Handler has already
apologized, and Mr. Lopate
wondered aloud what the
author could add three
months later. “Why bother
bringing it up again?” he
asked. “For him to say, ‘Mea
culpa, mea culpa, mea
But for some audiences that
is indeed what Mr. Handler
has decided to do. Two days
after he was in New York, the
author spoke at Wesleyan
University, his alma mater
(he graduated in 1992). Mr.
Handler is a frequent guest
speaker and something of a
celebrity on campus.
Maxwell Dietz, 20, a junior
studying math and computer
science, slipped into the back
row of the Wesleyan
Memorial Chapel about a
half-hour before Mr. Handler
was slated to begin. He said
about 100 people were there.
This time, Mr. Handler
addressed the controversy
before his reading began.
“He said, ‘I was speaking at
the book awards and I made
some outrageous comments,’
” Mr. Dietz recalled. “He
acknowledged it happened
and that it stole away from
Woodson. He said writing is a
sacred space.”
Mr. Dietz is a fan of the
“Lemony Snicket” series,
which he began reading
when he was 10. And he
appreciated that the author
brought up the book awards
incident on his own.
“I heard the joke and thought
it wasn’t a wise joke to make,”
Mr. Dietz said. “But I didn’t
think he meant to be a