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Netflix is defending the Adam Sandler movie that Native American actors say is racist

Comedian Adam Sandler attends Paramount Pictures' "Men, Women & Children" premiere at Directors Guild Of America on September 30, 2014, in Los Angeles, California.
Comedian Adam Sandler attends Paramount Pictures' "Men, Women & Children" premiere at Directors Guild Of America on September 30, 2014, in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

  1. A group of Native American actors working on Adam Sandler's latest movie walked off the set this week, calling the script "totally disrespectful to elders and Native women."
  2. Actor Loren Anthony told the Associated Press that he and eight others quit after The Ridiculous Six producers ignored their concerns about the use of offensive names for Native American female characters, and a scene in which a Native American woman urinated while smoking a peace pipe.
  3. The film is the first in a four-movie deal between Sandler and Netflix, which has defended the humor, saying in a statement to NBC News, "The movie has 'ridiculous' in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke."

Comedy and bigotry meet again

There's no consensus on when satire that relies on racism, sexism, or other kinds of stereotypes goes too far, whether jokes have to "punch up" — focus on the most privileged groups — to be funny, or who gets to decide whether comedy that offends is worth the laughs.

These questions come up pretty frequently, though. Most recently, Trevor Noah, the newly announced successor to The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, was criticized for tweeting jokes that relied on anti-Semitic stereotypes and attacks on women's weight.

Noah defended himself, tweeting, "To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn't land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian," and Comedy Central backed him up, issuing a statement that sounds very much like the one Netflix offered this week: "Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included."

When defenses of humor get depressing

"We talked to the producers about our concerns," another Native American Ridiculous Six actor, Allison Young, told the Washington Post. "They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.' I was just standing there and got emotional and teary-eyed. I didn't want to cry but the feeling just came over me. This is supposed to be a comedy that makes you laugh. A film like this should not make someone feel this way."

It would be naive to expect people who make comedy to care more about the people they might hurt than they do about their bottom line, or to expect all Americans to laugh at the same punchlines.  Still, while good humor is subjective, a pretty clear sign that it's failed is when you have to explain, like Netflix did, to people who are literally crying how they're in on the joke and why it's funny.