clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A woman was convicted after laughing at Jeff Sessions. It’s my patriotic duty to call bullshit.

I’ve made my career using comedy to expose the hypocrisy of the powerful. It’s dangerous that the Justice Department can’t take a joke.

Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

Maybe we should have guessed that an administration led by a man who didn’t want to be made fun of at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner also may send a lady in a pink crown to jail for laughing at its attorney general. Big shocker. Our overreactive, thin-skinned, sexist thug of a president has created an overreactive, thin-skinned, sexist, thuggish Justice Department.

Earlier this year Desiree Fairooz was arrested for the crime of laughing at a particularly gaslighty comment during the confirmation hearings of Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. And last week, we learned that she was convicted and could face 12 months in prison, $2,000 in fines, or both.

I’m personally offended by the idea that a bunch of powerful men could lock up a woman who has an appreciation for irony. I’ve made my career using comedy to expose the hypocrisy of the powerful. It’s the whole point of the very popular television program The Daily Show, which I co-created. It’s also the point of Lady Parts Justice League, a cabal of comics I brought together to expose creeps hell bent on destroying access to birth control and abortion.

So when the government comes after a woman for laughing in the face of political hypocrisy, it’s my patriotic duty to call bullshit.

Fairooz was right to laugh at the Sessions confirmation hearing. Everyone should have been laughing.

Here are the horrifically dangerous actions of Desiree Fairooz at Sessions’s January confirmation hearing:

In his glowing remarks about the future attorney general, Sen. Richard Shelby was prattling on that Sessions’s history of “treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.”

This is when the laugh came out of Fairooz’s mouth. I am sure it was similar to a variation of the guttural utterances anyone with a heart, a pulse, and a thirst for facts has been spewing during this unintended comedy show we have all been living in since the election.

In fact, Fairooz’s response may have been even more reserved than the spit takes that have wound up on our computer screens, as those sitting near her during the hearings have said her laugh, or gasp or cough or whatever, was so inaudible they couldn’t tell what it was.

I’ll wait for your own laughter to die down, and if jackbooted thugs did not bust your door down and arrest you for letting out a chuckle, read on.

My question is, “Why didn’t the entire room convulse with laughter at that point?”

Jeff Sessions’s history of “treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.” LOLOL.

That is comedy gold.

I mean, this is the guy who in 1986 was denied a federal judgeship after it came out that he allegedly said he was okay with the Ku Klux Klan until he found out they smoked pot.


In fact, his ties to racist factions at the time were so alarming, Coretta Scott King personally wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking that Sessions be denied the position because he “used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.” Back then, the Senate Judiciary Committee understood that if the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is saying you’re racist, there’s a problem. But in 2017, they seem to say, “Hey, why limit yourself?”

And his “clear and well-documented” treatment of people is not limited to racial inequality. It never is. As senator, Sessions consistently voted against rights for LGBTQ folks. His nomination to attorney general was cheered by anti-abortion extremist Troy Newman.

Jeff Sessions is beyond laughable, and to me the crime is that the whole room wasn’t laughing. Laughing until they were crying.

As a nation, we should all be laughing at the suggestion of Jeff Sessions as a civil libertarian, a fighter of freedom, a person qualified for the job of attorney general of the United States.

And now that he has it, a few months in, his department is prosecuting a woman who laughed at him.

The Trump administration seems to think it can end criticism by punishing it away

As a comedian and satirist, what scares me most is that not taking these licks in stride is the backbone of this administration. And they seem to think they can end criticism by punishing it away.

Even Joe McCarthy is saying from his grave, “Lighten up, man.” Fragile egos are the worst, and those who can’t take a joke are announcing to the world they are impostors. Since laughing at someone creates a status shift, a perceived loss of power is transferred in that moment of release. If you believe you are an impostor, you panic at the loss of even a drop of it and become angry and belligerent as a counterbalance. I watch it with dude hecklers all the time. They can’t shut me down, so they just become loud and rude.

Now we have a president who is basically that insecure, belligerent heckler. But with a Justice Department who can arrest people for “acting up.”

It is scary enough that as comedians and social critics we are facing an ever-growing totalitarianism. I mean, the Federal Communications Commission is investigating Stephen Colbert for a presidential dick joke, for Chrissakes. But when we start arresting and convicting people for laughing, we have created a society that outlaws thinking for ourselves and reacting when we are fed bullshit.

That is literally what happened. Laughing at an outrageous statement from a politician has led to Fairooz being convicted on two counts: engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct with the intent to disrupt congressional proceedings; and parading, demonstrating, or picketing. It’s been pointed out by people who miss the point that the convictions are not for the actual laugh, but for the disturbance made while she was being escorted out of the hearing by a police officer. But because of her laugh, she was seen as so dangerous that she needed to be arrested, so nice try.

Desiree Fairooz laughs for all of us as we watch dangerous incompetence take center stage, from Rick Perry becoming the head of a department whose name he forgot while promising he would abolish it to Betsy DeVos becoming the secretary of education although she has never taught public school — and never attended one either.

Did Fairooz’s laugh sexually assault someone? Did her giggle shoot an unarmed black teenager? Did her chuckle have suspicious connections to Russia that affected our democratic elections? Of course not! Had that been the case, she wouldn’t have to worry about arrest, conviction, or sentencing.

We are all Desiree. Laughing to keep from crying, resisting to keep from hopelessness.

They say it’s the best medicine, and with the health care bill Republicans are trying to pass, we’re gonna need all the free meds we can get.

I’d love to give the administration some advice and alternative rules to try. For example, it’s important to take criticisms with a grain of salt. That’s “salt” not “assault,” just incase you misheard me the first time. Also, try to see the humor in yourself. It’s better for people to laugh with you than at you. Then while you’re laughing, try not destroying the world in a nuclear war over your own fragile male ego.

As for the rest of us, if this is a taste of things to come, you better stifle that cough or that hiccup, because you could do time in the hole.

Lizz Winstead is co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show and one of the founders of Air America Radio. She is a co-founder of the Lady Parts Justice League, which is going on The Vagical Mystery Tour, bringing comedy and music shows to 16 cities, joined by a rotation of the biggest names in comedy. A performer and standup comedian, Winstead frequently appears on MSNBC, CNN, and Comedy Central. She lives in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @lizzwinstead.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.