Should Victims of Twitter Mobs be Allowed to Work in Corporate America?
A subsidiary of Callaway Golf hired comedian Josh Denny, then immediately fired him when someone complained about his tweets.
In May 2018, comedian Josh Denny, the host of the Food Network’s Ginormous Food, became the target of a Twitter mob. He tweeted a controversial observation about modern usage of the N-word that offended many Twitter users. A veritable Twitter-storm erupted, with hundreds of tweets demanding that Denny be fired by the Food Network immediately.
Unbeknownst to most in the mob, Ginormous Food had already not been renewed by the Food Network after its recent acquisition by Discovery. Nevertheless, within a week Denny had lost his agent, all ties to Discovery/the Food Network, and a large percentage of his friends and collaborators. All of his upcoming pitch meetings were suddenly cancelled.
Afterwards, Denny drove for ride share companies to pay the bills, while trying to get his comedy career back on track. But the Twitcident haunted him. His live comedy show “The Darkest Hour” was kicked out of its space at Westside Comedy, and he struggled to find a new location. He ended his food-focused podcast and started a new one that embraced his new image as a reluctant member of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web.” The podcast is called “The Implications of Josh Denny,” and its most prominent returning guest is Gavin McInnes.
After about a year as a ride share driver, Denny needed a better way to pay the bills. He had been the star of an international television show, syndicated in 14 countries, and unsurprisingly his fall from grace put him in a difficult financial situation. Fortunately for him, he was recruited by an old boss to work for a Travis Mathew, a popular menswear brand and subsidiary of Callaway Golf. This, he thought, would at least allow him to get back on his feet while he re-evaluated his comedy career.
He started on a Monday. He was fired on Tuesday.
Denny grew up in Philadelphia, the son of working class parents who divorced when he was 7 years old. In his younger years he was raised by his father, but In high school he moved to Minnesota where he lived with his single mother. He did not go to college, and got a job working at Hollywood Video instead. There he rose from a 17-year-old sales associate to a 21-year-old district manager and “Rookie of the Year.” In 2006, when both of his bosses left Hollywood Video to start the retail division of the newly IPO’d Crocs (yes, the weird shoes), they recruited him. He worked at Crocs from 2006–2012 as a district manager running multiple large markets across the country.
While advancing his corporate career, he was also developing as a comedian. After Crocs, he worked at Sean John’s parent company for a year and a half before being recruited by another company that, due to a legal settlement, cannot be named. After being released from that company, he tripled down on comedy and, against unbelievably insane odds, landed a national television show.
Ginormous Food was light, sunny fare that featured Denny traveling across the nation to gorge on various culinary obscenities. It was the total opposite of edgy, although at times Josh’s dark side inevitably poked through.
I think it’s important to note here that even Denny’s most provocative stand up is dark, but not extreme. His jokes follow closely in the vein of edgier mainstream comedians from George Carlin to Dave Chappelle. He toys with the limits of what is appropriate and what isn’t. Like Carlin/Chappelle/Bruce/Pryor, his jokes are designed to highlight the absurdities of the contemporary moral code — the hypocritical social rules that seem so important, but don’t stand up when poked and prodded with logic.
Discovery acquired the Food Network in 2017, and did not renew the show. It had been Denny’s first big shot, and it had gone reasonably well, consistently drawing high ratings and lasting for 24 episodes. He was getting ready for his next big chapter when the Twitter incident occurred. Not only did the mob condemn his N-word Tweet, they also dug up every offensive joke he had ever made, dating back ten years. Within a matter of weeks, he’d lost his team of agents and all pending opportunities, not only in mainstream comedy, but in television at large. He was in the middle of pitching his next show around Hollywood when all of his meetings were immediately cancelled without warning. He was for all practical purposes blacklisted.
During this time of crisis, a friend who had supervised and mentored Denny throughout his career — at Hollywood Video, Sean John, and Crocs — offered him safe harbor in the form of a corporate position at Travis Mathew. The position was created specifically for him and tailored to his skill set. Denny was relieved to have a stable income and excited to re-join the corporate sector. He planned to re-focus his energies on his business career while putting comedy on the back burner.
And then, on his second day at work, he was called into a meeting with HR. They pulled up a TMZ article about the controversy and raked him over the coals. They also held up more recent tweets of his, one of which made fun of women driving on International Women’s Day. He was told that an employee had complained about his social media after his hiring was announced. He was told exit the building and leave his work computer behind so HR could make an official determination. Later that day, he was officially fired.
Whether or not an edgy comedian like Denny should be able work in a corporate environment is a legitimate question. At some level, you can’t blame corporations for avoiding the headache of clickbait controversy. Accommodating someone with outwardly challenging opinions is difficult to justify for any widget-seller driven by the bottom line. It’s doubtful that George Carlin would’ve made it as a mid-level executive. He was, after all, arrested for his comedy, and you wouldn’t blame a company for not hiring him to avoid tarnishing a squeaky-clean image.
However, Denny is not Carlin, and this is not 1972. In Carlin’s day, Denny would’ve surely slid by unnoticed at a place like Travis Mathew, as there was no Google machine to instantly reveal his scarlet letter. If you google him, there is a full page of reports about the Twitter controversy. There is nothing he can do about this. Denny was recruited by a company, and accepted a high paying position that was custom made for him. He was only fired by its parent company because someone complained after googling him.
His tweets have effectively become a felony on his criminal record, except they’re far easier to find than a criminal record. This, to me, seems a bit harsh for a professional comic creating satirical comedy. In my opinion, comedy that questions what is and what is not okay to say is an essential part of a free society, and our society is free because it goes to great lengths to protect it. Detractors will say that private corporations are not bound by the first amendment and thus can do whatever they want. But if saying the wrong thing means that otherwise productive individuals are forced into a life of poverty because they are permanently unemployable, I’m not sure the first amendment is doing its job. The United States can’t pretend to be a beacon of freedom if one offensive tweet is grounds for total exclusion.
So just what should the sentence for a Twitter criminal be? The fact is that neither legislators nor courts have sorted this out yet. Tech companies seem recognize the potential chilling effect that situations like Denny’s would have on their user bases, and have lobbied for laws that ensure that social media data cannot be used to deny someone a job. One of these laws (A.B. 1844) makes it illegal for a nosey company to request an employee’s or applicant’s social media username or password. Other similar laws are in the works, and there is a new California labor code adjustment (Labor Code 1101–02) which prohibits firing employees for “political activity”—which would obviously include tweeting—that occurs outside the workplace. These recent developments signal a shift towards an understanding that freedom of speech should extend to the social media sphere, and that Twitter mobs should not be allowed to deny someone private sector employment for life.
As more of these cases pop up, courts will soon have to start creating common law on these issues, Denny’s situation included. In a lawsuit filed in mid-April, Denny alleges that he was wrongfully terminated in violation of his civil rights.
So does a comedian have to only tweet appropriate things or risk a being unemployable for life? I would argue that such a society not only doesn’t value free speech, it’s not serious about protecting it. In any case, at least one judge and/or jury will decide on at least one case very soon.