Q: Where did Michael Jackson leave his other glove?
A: In Brooke Shields’ lap.
When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, those were the kinds of jokes you heard about Michael Jackson. I didn’t know who Shields was beyond the figure in the Calvin Klein ads, and I doubt I really understood the punchline, beyond knowing that it was vaguely off-color and therefore irresistible. But we all knew who Michael Jackson was—the man who was always on the radio and on MTV, who filled untold living rooms with the squeak of moonwalking Keds—and cracking jokes about his sex life was a way to mime adult sophistication, like standing on your tiptoes and lowering your voice as you tried to buy a ticket to a PG-13 movie.
As Jackson’s public image grew stranger, and especially after he was publicly accused of child sexual abuse in 1993, the jokes grew darker—Q: Why did Michael Jackson go to the sale at Kmart? A: He heard little boys’ pants were half-off—and so did the way Jackson was portrayed in popular culture. When Eddie Murphy played Jackson on Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, the joke was to present Jackson, with his high voice and flamboyant outfits, as an insatiable ladies’ man. In one sketch, Jackson was paired with Liberace (played by Dave Thomas) to swap stories of sexual conquest on a show called Guy Talk. “That’s the only way to go,” Murphy’s Jackson says, “Slam, bam, thank you ma’am.”
But by 1994, Tim Meadows was portraying the singer on SNL as an asexual naïf incapable of relating to adult women—if not necessarily an abuser, at least someone whose sexuality had been permanently stalled in childhood. In the sketch “Operation Pedophile—Not,” security guards take Jackson to a club he is assured is “the popular choice of many single women,” hoping to put on a visible display of his heterosexuality. Jackson can get as far as an opening come-on—his songs, if nothing else, had proven that—but the moment a woman responds, he’s flummoxed, and starts sounding like he’s trying to set up a play date instead of a one-night stand. He tells one would-be date she has “a sexy name, like Macaulay.” Two years later, Meadows’ Jackson appeared on the show’s version of Nightline, assuring Ted Koppel, “I love the ladies, with their short brown hair, slim, 60-pound bodies, and the way they like to play with action figures.”
SNL took far more pointed line of attack on “Weekend Update,” where Norm Macdonald, who manned the desk from 1994 through 1997, would regularly make jokes at Jackson’s expense, wait for the audience’s reaction, and then make a quip along the lines of Don’t get the wrong idea—Michael Jackson is a homosexual pedophile. In one bit, Macdonald feigned outrage at a woman who had accused Jackson of plagiarism, protesting his innocence while suggesting he was guilty of much more serious crimes. “Isn’t it odd that she’s the only one who’s ever accused Michael Jackson of song-stealing,” Macdonald says with the exaggerated skepticism of a defense attorney, “that we’ve never heard this accusation from anyone close to Michael, like his maids, and butlers, and bodyguards, and the children he regularly has sex with.” Three “TV Funhouse” cartoons, released between 1996 and 2005, portrayed Jackson as a cartoon sexual predator with the bulging eyes of a Tex Avery wolf. (Sample lyrics from the ironically peppy theme song: “Michael Jackson’s always making lots of noise/ Michael Jackson’s got a thing for little boys.”) In the last, released during Jackson’s criminal trial, he’s lured away from the courthouse by the scent of a young boy, floating through the air like Mickey Mouse lusting after a delicious pie. Meanwhile, in sketches, the role had passed to Amy Poehler, whose Jackson was, if anything, even more asexual and childlike than Meadows’. By then, Jackson had drifted so far from the realm of normalcy that having a white woman play him caused barely a ripple.
Then as now, SNL’s writing staff was largely white, but In Living Color, created by Keenen Ivory Wayans as a deliberately diverse alternative, took a more sympathetic approach. A 1992 parody of Jackson’s “Black or White” video pokes fun at Jackson’s changing physical appearance, but Tommy Davidson’s emulation of Jackson’s choreography is too elaborate to be anything but a tribute. The song’s rewritten lyrics take aim at the racial ambiguity of Jackson’s lightened skin and reshaped facial features, but after emulating the video’s destruction of a parked car, he’s arrested by a police officer, and that settles the question once and for all: “I guess I am black!” But even years before the first public accusations, the show reflected the understanding that there was something at least a little bit off. In a parody of Home Alone, Jackson tries to force his way into Macaulay Culkin’s house, calling him “P.Y.T.” and suggesting that the two of them can “blow Bubbles,” a reference to Jackson’s famous chimpanzee.
Arriving on Fox a year after In Living Color, MadTV picked up where its predecessor left off, but by the mid-’90s, Jackson was, at least for comedic purposes, an irredeemable freak. In 1997, Phil LaMarr played Jackson as a megalomaniac supervillain whose plot for world domination starts with having armed troops storm the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show. But in 2003, the TV documentary Living With Michael Jackson had made it difficult to joke about anything but Jackson’s possible pedophilia. A fake movie commercial posited Jackson, now played by Aries Spears, as the star of Honey, I Touched the Kids, and the next year, Jordan Peele took the lead in a parody of Chingy’s “Holidae Inn,” whose lyrics include the couplet “Michael Jackson was my idol, way back when I was little/ Now all he does is think he’s white and look for kids to diddle.” At the end of the of sketch, Jackson is once again taken into custody, and he protests, “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” The police officer shoots back, “You’re not black.”
Late-night comedians and stand-ups took up the subject as well, more often than it’s possible to survey. A 2014 Slate study found that Jackson was the sixth-most-mentioned celebrity in all 29 years of David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists. According to another, Jay Leno alone cracked more than 500 jokes about Michael Jackson on The Tonight Show—and that presumably doesn’t include the period when Leno, who was called as a defense witness in Jackson’s criminal trial, was forbidden by a gag order from mentioning him on air and had to call in other comedians to tell the jokes for him. Like most late-night humor, their jokes seem largely opportunistic, devoid of anything resembling a coherent point of view. Individual stand-ups wrestled with Jackson on their own terms. On Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle played a witness convinced of Jackson’s innocence for the simple reason that “he made Thriller,” but onstage the same year, Chappelle merely said he was “reserving judgment.”
Looking back over all of this material, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we knew, or at least could have known, what Jackson was doing, and the responsibility for failing to stop it can’t just rest on the mothers of his victims. Jokes can serve to process anxiety, but they’re also a means of passing on knowledge, even if, like a kid in grade school, we may not fully understand it at the time. If Bill Cosby’s reckoning was sparked by Hannibal Buress, why didn’t Katt Williams’ incendiary routine from the mid-2000s, in which he accused Jackson of “smelling like little boys’ booty holes,” inspire the same calling to account? We’ve bought into the idea that comedians should be truth-tellers, but truths told and not acted upon become simply facts of life, to be winced or shrugged at but left unchanged. The laughter absolved us, and let us pretend we cared.