Funny how: Can We Take a Joke? *** & Eat That Question ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” – George Carlin

In my recent review of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, I noted an observation by actress Joann Lumley (one of the film’s co-stars), excerpted from a Stylist interview:

[… ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in [the 1990s] were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything.

To which I added my 2 cents worth:

I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with [Joann Lumley’s] point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to counter a new Bizarro World Hays Code from segments of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

Life is hard out on the streets for professional funny people. But don’t feel singled out, fellow liberals…for The Uptight Brigade is a non-partisan club, with members hailing from Left, Right, and Center. All you need to join is a sense of moral superiority and an active Twitter account. Consider the hot water that self-deprecating comic Jim Gaffigan got into in 2013 with a fairly benign “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” tweet:

(from Gawker)

So yesterday, stand-up-comedian-slash-fat dad Jim Gaffigan decided to make what he thought was a mostly harmless joke about women and their nails.

“Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done,” Gaffigan tweeted to his 1.6 million followers.

Ha! Women be getting their nails done, am I right fellas?

Anyway, commence TOTAL MELTDOWN:

“If you think I make my nails pretty for anyone other than myself, you are a fool,” replied @gesa “or maybe some women do things not to impress other people,” offered @oceana roll. “you’re such an asshole,” @phaserstostun. And the tweets kept coming. Dozens every minute.

“If you think people are overreacting to my edgy ‘nails done’ post here,” Gaffigan followed up a short while ago, “you have to see the anger on my Tumblr.”

And sure enough, since the joke was posted there yesterday, it has racked up over 100,000 notes, most of them far less subtle than those being made on Twitter. […]

For his part, Gaffigan did issue a worrying apology, telling those who were offended by his “edgy ‘nails done’ joke’ that he’s sorry and he’ll “attempt to be more sensitive in the future.”

Do people get irony anymore? Obviously (well, to me) he was making a point about how self-centered and clueless men are. Gaffigan got the last laugh, using the incident as fuel for one of this current season of The Jim Gaffigan Show’s best episodes. In “The Trial”, Gaffigan (who plays ‘himself’, a la Seinfeld, Louis, and Maron) is in a Kafkaesque alternate reality where he gets tossed into Social Outrage Jail (his cellmate Carrot Top has been doing time “since the mid-90s”) and tried in The Court of Public Opinion (presiding judge: comic Judy Gold) as a result of his offensive nail tweet. Jim is saved by the bell when shocking news arrives that Ricky Gervais just tweeted ‘Miley Cyrus has a dad bod’. Pitchforks are issued immediately, a mob forms and the courtroom empties out.

(*sigh*)

August 3rd marked the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death; in my tribute, I wrote:

For years following his passing, he was arguably more famous for the suffering he endured for his art, rather than the visionary nature of it.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2003, after years of lobbying by members of the entertainment industry and free speech advocates, that New York governor George Pataki issued Bruce an official posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction. It is worth noting that no comedians have been jailed in America for telling jokes to roomfuls of drunks since Bruce died. […]

Of course by now everybody has jumped on the bandwagon and acknowledges the man’s genius and the groundbreaking nature of his material. But I can’t help but wonder how Lenny would have fared in the age of social media, or in front of a modern college audience (oy).

I’m not alone in that speculation, as evidenced by a new documentary called Can We Take a Joke? (available on VOD), throughout which Lenny Bruce frequently serves as a touchstone. Writer-director Ted Balaker’s film examines the impact of “outrage culture” on modern comedy. Balaker assembles a sizable coterie of comics who thrive on pushing the envelope, like Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, and Penn Jillette. He also invites opinions from social observers and free speech advocates.

The film’s underlying thesis (in so many words) boils down to that good old school yard chestnut: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.” As one interviewee puts it, “Along with the right to speak freely, comes a responsibility to have a thick skin. Words can be hurtful, but they are not the same as violence; and they can be countered with other words. And that’s our responsibility…the responsibility to put up with being offended.”

Balaker offers anecdotal evidence that seems to indicate not only that America’s skin is stretching ever thinner, but suggests something more threatening is occurring as a result. One of the interviewees offers this tidbit: “There was this huge study that’s done every year; and they ask citizens whether or not they think the First Amendment went too far. 47% of people between the ages of 18 and 30 said that the First Amendment goes too far. This is terrifying to those of us who care about free speech and the future of free speech.”

Is he just concern trolling? Consider this further observation: “One of the first things you know when a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

One of the more notable examples cited regarding this creeping trend of “chilling speech” occurred at the WSU campus in Pullman, Washington (where, oddly enough, I once did a comedy gig). African-American student Chris Lee created a satirical play (“Passion of the Musical”), which he admitted was designed “to offend everybody.” It caused such a ruckus that he earned the nickname “Black Hitler”. But that’s not the disturbing part, which is that WSU administrators comped students who wanted to attend for the sole purpose to disrupt it.

Again, is this a tempest in a teapot? How bad can it get? Two words: Charlie Hebdo. The Hebdo massacre is mentioned in the film, but only in passing; this is one avenue that the film glosses over. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity, especially in light of what’s happening in our current political climate, which begs some glaring questions. Namely, is there in fact, despite what the great George Carlin said, a “line” no one should dare cross?

Amy Goodman featured a rare interview with political satirist Garry Trudeau just this week on her Democracy Now radio program. She brought up a controversial piece he wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, called “The Abuse of Satire”. It’s a great read, and presents a flipside view to the thrust of Can We Take a Joke? Here’s a pertinent excerpt:

I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since [the Charlie Hebdo massacre]. As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against “self-censorship,” one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. […]

And now we are adrift in an even wider sea of pain. Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest. […]

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. […]

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

I’m aware that I make these observations from a special position, one of safety. In America, no one goes into cartooning for the adrenaline. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the killings, comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage.

There’s another twisty corollary that the film misses, concerning certain political candidates who cynically conflate themselves as if they were colleagues of professional humorists (as opposed to possible future leaders of the Free World, who should be choosing their words much more carefully). How many times now has Donald Trump gotten away with tweeting something incredibly offensive by backpedaling afterwards that “it was meant as a joke, folks”… thereby (disingenuously) positioning himself as a  ‘victim’ of the P.C. police?

Clearly, there are equally viable arguments for both camps of First Amendment interpretation (i.e., the constitutional “right” for offenders to offend and for the offended to condemn). But as Garry Trudeau cautioned in his piece in The Atlantic , “Freedom should always be discussed in the context of responsibility.” Can We Take a Joke?won’t break the impasse,  but it does succeed in prompting a dialog.

As Jim Norton notes in the film: “Everyone says ‘I love free speech, I love free thought, I love free expression’…but deep down they’re going: ‘Except for when, except for when.’ There’s always that little asterisk: ‘But that doesn’t apply here.’” So you see? Cracking wise is more complex than it is, erm, cracked up to be…especially in this current  political climate. As Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean (allegedly) said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

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“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.”      –Frank Zappa

If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art as a free citizen, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s new documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (in limited release).

Despite his massive catalog (62 albums released in his lifetime, 43 posthumously), Zappa, like Bruce, is probably remembered more for his fights against censorship, rather than for the actual material in question (which includes some pretty hummable stuff, I must say). Most famously, he took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Resource Music Center in 1985, joining fellow musicians Dee Snider (from Twisted Sister) and John Denver (!) to testify at a Senate hearing over the “Parental Advisory” sticker controversy.

One of the highlights of the film is a clip from a 1986 appearance Zappa made on CNN’s Crossfire. In an observation that now seems quite prescient, Zappa opines, “The biggest threat to America today is not Communism, its moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened under the Reagan administration is steering us down that pipe.” Of course now, I almost long for those “good old days”, when the Republican Party was but a tool for the Religious Right-in lieu of, uh, whatever it is now.

That said, I should point out that Zappa was not an artist who went out of his way seeking dragons to slay; it’s just that somehow, the dragons had a tendency to seek him out. While he definitely leaned Libertarian when it came to freedom of expression, he was otherwise politically…fluid. Through the course of the film (culled from archival interview/performance footage and contextualized via Schutte’s editing choices), Zappa dumps on the Left, the Right, Hippies, politicians, religion, pop music, record companies, consumer culture (his pet rant), corporate America, and even on his own most rabid fans.

As far as those rabid fans were concerned, the more curmudgeonly and autocratic Zappa’s stance became (regardless of whether or not it was just  show biz shtick), the more they loved him (in that narrow context, there’s a weird parallel with Donald Trump…the obvious difference being that Trump has never really created anything that is of  value to anyone but himself). Zappa was kind of an asshole, but in that Mozart kind of way, as he was an extremely gifted and prolific asshole (was Tipper his secret Salieri? Discuss). Like Picasso, he kept experimenting and creating until he expired (after a long battle, Zappa succumbed to cancer at 52 in 1993).

Let me be up front…this documentary will play best for members of the choir (guilty!). If you’ve never been much of a Zappa fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. This impressionistic approach can still paint a compelling portrait; if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb (consider 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which remains my favorite biopic, despite the fact that I had never even heard of him when I first saw it, and I still don’t own any of his albums).

There is genuine poignancy as well. In a Today Show interview, an obviously gravely ill Zappa is asked how he wants to be remembered. “It’s not important to even be remembered.” After an awkward silence that implies his interviewer did not see that one coming, he continues, “The people who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush…these people want to be remembered, and they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific.” “And for Frank Zappa?” she presses. Without missing a beat, he replies “Don’t care.” Back to you, Katie.

I suspect you really did care, Frank. But I know if I ask, I’ll end up eating that question.

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In case you’ve forgotten what a lyrical player he was (when he chose to be)

One thought on “Funny how: Can We Take a Joke? *** & Eat That Question ***1/2”

  1. His daughter Moon said, and I agree with her, something to the effect that what he meant by the ‘remembered’ quote was that what’s important is to be *in your moment* rather than ‘remembering the greats’, etc. I think he wanted his music to be remembered, but I would bet that he truly didn’t care if he himself, i.e. his showbiz personality, was remembered, particularly.

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