Joel Stein’s Immigrant Problem

Joel Stein, the closer-and-closer-to-not-being-under-40 humor columnist for Time magazine, is not funny. That’s usually a copout when there’s a controversy about offensive humor, as with Stein’s column about how Indian immigrants have taken over his old hometown of Edison, New Jersey: Well, it’s offensive because it’s just not funny , one says, so as to moot the question of whether something was not funny because it was offensive.

But Joel Stein’s lack of funniness is the key to understanding any phenomenon involving Joel Stein. He is a bad and incompetent humor writer, a writer who lacks the basic ability to control his tone and persona. I know no one under 50 who does not hate him because of this, because he is out there constantly soaking the pages of a major national magazine (not a magazine for writers or for readers, but still) with his flop sweat, as he feebly enacts what Time magazine thinks a young, funny person would be like.

So he botched the Indians-in-Edison piece. He was trying to do a parody of anti-immigrant sentiment, and he ended up with what Indian-Americans read, not unreasonably, as an unironic anti-immigrant rant: Edison is

“as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers”…”we started to understand why India is so damn poor”…”I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”

In an apology appended to a Time magazine apology appended to the column, Stein wrote that he is “stomach-sick that I hurt so many people.” He probably is. To a charitable reader, it’s clear that the piece was trying not to be offensive. Stein’s description of his childhood small-town idyll before the mass immigration is deliberately fake-sentimental, describing lowlife white kids stealing things and getting drunk. He was trying to make more fun of white people than he made of Indian people.

When readers see “dot heads,” though, they have a hard time feeling charitable about the author. Especially when they see it in Time magazine, where people don’t count on working through layers of irony. “Growing up a few miles from Edison, NJ, I always thought it was hilarious when I’d get the crap kicked out of me by kids like Stein who would yell ‘go back to India, dothead!’” Kal Penn wrote on the Huffington Post.

The lesson here, which seems to have caught Stein by surprise, is that Jews are not Indians. Not only in the ethnic or tribal sense—people within a group can make jokes that outsiders can’t—but in their relative positions. His piece assumed that it was impossible for him to actually insult Indians, because they were on the same side. Indian-Americans, at least the ones with high SATs in the freshman dorm, are in on the joke . Aren’t they?

This is the plight of secure young upper-middle-class Jewish funnypeople, who have inherited the sharp humor traditions of an oppressed minority without inheriting very much of the oppression. Sarah Silverman might be the best at handling this contradiction (though there’s plenty of room to debate how much she can really get away with). But Silverman is a brilliant gag writer, with the hard-won experience of a standup comedian. Joel Stein is a soft writer in a soft gig, dressed up in an older generation’s clothing, with an expired comic license in his pocket. Testimony to the power of the melting pot: he’s just another white dude.