Our middle child, Marco, had a grade-school teacher named Miss Meece. My husband, with his strong Italian accent, pronounced her name as “Meese Meese.” I love my husband’s accent, so I giggled inside but said nothing. Finally, though, I decided to coach him on his pronunciation. He quickly grew frustrated and said, “What kind of a name is Miss Miss anyway?” I laughed and laughed.
But this past week’s Twitter spat between Jimmy Kimmel and Sean Hannity about Melania Trump reflects the wrong reasons for laughing at someone’s accent.
During a recent opening monologue of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Kimmel poked fun at Trump’s role in the White House Easter events. He rolled footage of the first lady reading a children’s book, and the audience laughed at her accent. When she read, “… ask lots of questions about this and that,” the audience laughed louder. For further comic effect, Kimmel repeated, “About dees and dat.”
Hannity fired off a tweet defending Trump and attacking Kimmel: “Also @jimmykimmel attacking @MELANIATRUMP while reading a book to kids? What happened to ‘Mr Morality’? Attacking a woman who is helping children? This is @Disney? #pervertkimmel.”
I don’t believe in censoring comedians, and I admire how they find the humor by crossing lines. That’s art. But most jokes about accents are just cheap shots.
Still, Kimmel’s audience laughed at that monologue. People at home probably laughed too. I didn’t. It’s not just that I don’t like making fun of people with accents; honestly, the jokes seemed predictable and not very smart. In fact, having an accent was the joke.
But there’s a deeper problem with that monologue and with Hannity’s defense of Melania. They both decontextualized our society’s very serious and ugly treatment of immigrants.
Some of the funniest jokes by Kimmel and other late-night hosts highlight the absurdity and cruelty of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. This time, though, Kimmel’s monologue played into the ways in which we belittle immigrants. By mocking their accents, we dismiss the content of what they say, of their contributions.
In fact, the comedian Hari Kondabolu refuses to use accents in his routines. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Kondabolu said, “I think some people are used to accents because that’s how they see immigrants: Immigrants are funny voices. Immigrants are foreign, strange experiences. And I think there are tons of examples where people have spoken about their (immigrant) parents, and all they are is an accent.”
Hannity’s tweets never mentioned Melania Trump’s accent. Reading his back and forth with Kimmel, you would think that the joke was about Trump reading a book to children, not about the way she read it. Perhaps that is purposeful. Hannity and his fellow hard-line anti-immigrant media personalities have staked their personae on nativism. The first lady’s accent is non-native.
I still laugh about Miss Meece. It wasn’t funny because my husband mispronounced her name. It was funny because he pronounced something different. He melded his Italian with his English and created something new, something surprising. That’s what is beautiful about accents. And about immigration.
Annie Abbot is a professor of Spanish at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She speaks three languages, all with an accent. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.