Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Funny: Jokes That Hurt Jokes That Heal

There's an old joke. What's the best thing about having sex with twenty eight years olds? The answer, there are twenty of them. Another. What's the most confusing day in Harlem? Answer, Fathers' Day. One more. What's faster than a Mexican running with your TV? Answer, his brother with the DVD player. Comedians through the ages have mined the top soil of a polite society's political correctness to get to the sweet loam of our carnal desires, fears and anxieties. And while exposing those commonly hidden tenets to the light of day can be both therapeutic and comedic, there is no denying that the wrong drill, put in the wrong piece of earth at the wrong time can have catastrophic results. Say for example, making a joke about having sex with children around incest survivors or a joke demeaning African American fathers told by a non Black in a climate already highly critical about Black parenthood or a joke about Latino crime to a community so plagued with stigma and misinformation that it has fueled citizenship debates on a federal level. It's not necessarily a circumstance of, "knowing your audience" but rather knowing what your intentions are and realizing that questionable comments are not always going to be easily hidden under the umbrella of "these are just jokes" or "I have a wicked sense of humor" or "I'm just a comedian". And while a receptive audience knowledgeable of the context of provocative humor can definitely help in landing the punch lines of a good off color joke, sometimes they just punch wrong color. And sometimes, as in the case of Michael Richards, that color punches back. 

On the opposite end, comedienne Morgan Murphy makes several extremely humorous observations on life that often color outside the lines of polite conversation on her special "Irish Goodbye". She eventually summarizes that people often say to her that if she were not a comic that she would be the funniest girl in the office, a sentiment that she does not agree with because her male counterparts would never be seen as the funniest guy in the office. She explains, "They'd be the fucking crazy guy in the office. They'd be the guy where everybody's gathered in the little kitchenette at lunch around the microwave and going, 'Um, that guy talks about rape all day. Something's wrong with him. No, like seriously wrong with him. He shouldn't work here. He thinks it's funny." I found the sentiment to be extraordinarily funny since I have indeed found myself to be that guy; spouting inappropriate humor during inappropriate times, damning the displeased audience around me for not having a stronger backbone in accepting a little cynicism, disgruntlement, and naughtiness. Indeed, in this world of increasing political correctness, I do find a heightened yearning to color outside the lines since there seem to be so many of them nowadays. It doesn't take too much of an effort these days to be misconstrued as a racist, sexist and/or homophobe. One ill intention towards Barack Obama could get you labeled a racist. Expressing your distaste in men in high heels could get you labeled a homophobe. Even the eternal LGBT stalwart RuPaul was smacked with the label "Transphobic" for using the word "She-Mail" on his television show "Drag Race." Much like the veins of a porn star's penis, the lines of impropriety are thick and numerous these days. One ill will could get you inadvertently labeled a "Bully". So in an exasperating world shared by rebelliously inappropriate humorists as well as highly attuned communities tiring of malignment the question does pop up; have we as a society become too sensitive to take a joke and are the joke masters helping matters by making fun of it?   

While I fully support efforts to thwart bullying of all kinds, particularly in our schoolyards, I am also a big proponent of self defense and increasing society's emotional wherewithal. While I find the cause of eliminating bullying a most amiable one, I question the realism of its total annihilation. I think there is something to be said about learning how to deal with assholes outside of acknowledging their assholishness by pointing a finger and simply calling them bullies. This definitely comes to mind when recalling the pockmarked tradition of insult comedy. When I first stumbled upon the works of notable insult comics Andrew Dice Clay and Lisa Lampanelli, I was initially (and instantaneously) offended, repulsed and enraged. Speaking with all the delicacy and succulence of a shit covered baseball bat, both comedians unraveled their take on life using epithets filled with so much vile, derision and affronts to human decency that even the most dedicated bleeding heart liberal would question their ideas on censorship... and the death penalty.  And when armies of incensed people approached them displaying the emotional wounds they incurred while experiencing their shows,  the both of them seemed to pull out the "I'm a comedian, these are just jokes" card. A defense I have never abided by until hearing their individual interviews on one of my favorite podcasts, "WTF with Marc Maron". Both comedians convincingly separated themselves from their onstage personas and effectively gave some much needed objectivity to their work.  While I initially considered them both to be bullies, drunk with "spotlight courage" and enlarged "microphone muscles" spouting off diatribes about their disgust of anything even remotely ethnic, feminine or decent, during their interviews I was able to see the intentional and artful sarcasm in their work whereas they were pointing out their own indiscretions and mocking themselves in front of an audience. And every despicable feeling  I had about the words that came out of their mouths, it seemed as if they shared the same disgust of racism, sexism and homophobia and were mocking the true racists, sexist and homophobes they based their onstage personas on. Though I still admittedly cannot fully embrace all of their work, I do tend to view them more on the lines of complicated, intriguing and frustrating art house installations a la Archie Bunker, fully aware of his idiosyncrasies, tells tales of the days when the "Darkies" first moved into his neighborhood. 

In this, they are "just" comedians and they were "just" telling jokes and it was me who construed their comedy as ammunition against my own character as a Black, gay man. And while I feel accomplished that I was able to deconstruct some of the behavior I considered to be intimidating thus eliminating those particular "bullies", I understand the inclination to not want to delve that far in trying to separate the intentions of a comedian saying "nigger faggot" as opposed to a civilian saying "nigger faggot".  As a Black gay man I feel neither is necessarily justifiable, but in the context of open entertainment in a show, there does seem to be more of an opportunity for investigation and discussion and I do thank Maron for that opportunity. In this pin prick of a world of ours where each new breath lies the possibility to expand culture, it is a daunting task for minority communities to remain sacredly tethered to our people while fully experiencing a day to day world inclined to "mainstream" influences. In this, we are supposed to have thick skins and shrug off minority discontentment presented by humorists but be willing and able to fight, picket and revolt when the same minority discontentment is used against us politically, socially and/or financially. It is much simpler to call bullshit on the whole affair and label all that discontentment as prejudice.  But maybe if we dug a little deeper, maybe our own ammunition against racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and hypocrisy can be more nuanced. Instead of vilifying humorists with itchy trigger fingers, we can direct our full attention to establishments putting in efforts to lessen our civil rights, affect our ability to earn a living, disregard violence against our communities.  

This doesn't, however, give comedians free range to fuck with us. There does seem to be a growing trend within the comedy community to turn over the applecart just for the sake of turning over the apple cart; using the most offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic language just for the sake of using racist, sexist, homophobic language in hopes of getting a laugh. From my view as a comedy nerd eagerly watching from the back row of open mics, coffeshops and comedy clubs, I have noticed that the "compost pile" mode of comedy whereas you just pile shit on top of shit on top of more shit in hopes something will spark, rarely ever works. And while I agree that society as a whole could stand to strengthen our resolve and not be so quick to position ourselves in the role of "victim", there is no denying the level of antagonism on the level of a Disney Villain from comedians who try to rationalize their prejudice as normal occupational hazards of living in a multicultural society (Bernard Manning) or the humorists "cleverly" constructing urbane bits of comedy in a vacuum insulated from the pain of American History (the Onion deciding to tweet, "Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that [9 year old] Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?" on Oscar night 2013).

There was a time when I worked in the Box Office of the House of Blues Sunset Strip where I developed a maddeningly dysfunctional relationship with a female co-worker that was very similar to that of Fred Sanford and Aunt Esther or maybe Drew Carey and Mimi whereas we would spike hurtful jabs to each other at any given moment during the course of the day. The goal being, to see who can disrespect the other the most, converting them into a pile of broken bones and dreams. During one particular exchange in which my nemesis commented on the sanity of people who lowered themselves to sleep with me, I lobbed back that the last person to sleep with her had to be lowered into the ground. Stunned, she kept repeating that she couldn't believe that I said that, then ushered in a hideous silence that flooded the box office for an uncomfortable amount of time. She later revealed that the last person she slept with was her husband and he had indeed... died. After excusing myself from the box office and ingesting a couple of sticks of nicotine and a shot of Cuervo I subsequently apologized saying that I had no idea her husband had passed. I have always remembered this exchange when people talk about the boundaries of humor. Even with MaleMediaMind, one of the initial questions asked when I first came on board was, "What, if anything, is too serious to joke about?" And while many of my compatriots felt that nothing can not be shellacked with the gloss of humor, I have always maintained that timing is everything, some things actually are sacred, you just don't call a 9 year old a cunt, and you don't make fun of someone's recently deceased husband.  And if I were to use the experience as a microcosmic view of the boundaries and sensitivities of a comedy inclined world, I think it would be best to swing for the rafters and be as provocative as possible. If you break something, be adult enough to admit it and apologize for it. And if someone breaks you,  be adult enough to accept their apology. And the next time you're up to bat, try not to swing in that same direction again. I guess the goal is to always keep playing with each other and not let our own sensitivities and egos stop the game. 

Coincidentally she did accept my apology then went on to explain how if I ever did get plastic surgery to make sure they switched my ass and my face back to their original positions. I retorted that she just wanted me to do that so she wouldn't have to bend over so much to kiss my ass. Again, I do believe some things actually are sacred and should not be touched. But I think with humor, you can figure out why... and move on.  

Male Media Mind