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A questionable joke

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

In my first few months as NPR's Public Editor, I received a flurry of notes about a joke on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! that didn't go over well. The executive producer at the time responded to my email with something like, Nice to meet you. Since we're a comedy show, we will probably come to your attention about once a year. We're always happy to talk.

That prediction was spot on. I've just finished my third year in the office and we're on our third newsletter item about Wait Wait. We've addressed a joke about chicken slapping in 2021 that drew objections of animal cruelty from bird lovers. And in early 2022, a joke about former comedian and current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy being "used to bombing" did not go over well. Now we have a joke that involved a reference to the Holocaust, but was not about the Holocaust. It was about Taco Bell. But it did mention the Holocaust and that will almost always inspire ire.

Read on to see the details of the joke and how it came to be.

Know that as a team, we appreciate the balance that Wait Wait brings to the diversity of shows NPR offers. Frankly, it seems right that a comedy show about the news would test boundaries every once in a while. The folks who work on the show always respond to our questions and explain their process. In a weird way, we look forward to chatting with them.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Another bad joke

Patty Rich Zucherman wrote on May 21: I was greatly disturbed by what was said on Wait Wait today ... regarding the Taco Bell reference "Taco Holocaust Remembrance Day." This reference to the Holocaust along with Taco Bell was insensitive, ignorant, hurtful, and terribly harmful in making comedy of the Holocaust. I am greatly disappointed and shocked by this choice of writing. ...

I was taken aback when I heard this joke, as well. For those who missed it, here's the background: During a Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! show recorded on May 18 with a live audience at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, host Peter Sagal asked panel members several questions based on the week's news. He asked panelist Negin Farsad: "Taco Bell and the less well-known chain Taco John's are in a heated legal dispute right now over who gets to use what phrase?"

The answer: the popular phrase "Taco Tuesday."

Then, Sagal said, "It turns out that the restaurant Taco John's trademarked the phrase Taco Tuesday back in 1989. But Taco Bell has filed to get that trademark lifted so they can use it, too, right? Taco Tuesday — it's a natural. They're just mad because all of their trademark days never caught on. What were they thinking with Taco Holocaust Remembrance Day?"

I asked Mike Danforth, executive producer of Wait Wait whether he felt the joke worked.

"Sort of! It got the kind of boo/laugh response we were expecting," he told us in an email. "It's an edgy joke, making fun of corporations and their misguided attempts to create brands and trademarks around specific days/events.

"We definitely think very hard about the jokes we make. In this case, the joke was about Taco Bell doing something dumb," Danforth continued. "I can totally understand how someone would not find it funny."

That's me. I understand the joke's suggestion that companies sometimes trademark ridiculous things. But the mention of the Holocaust was distracting and disconcerting. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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