A few weeks ago Larry Muhammed, a Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY) writer got in touch with me to see if I would answer a few questions about comedy, more specifically if people just couldn’t take a crass joke these days. The final article took a slightly different turn, focusing on the movie Bruno and the like. So sadly I had nothing to do with the article. But, I thought Larry asked some good questions. And I thought the questions and answers might start a good conversation here. So below, you’ll find my answers to said questions. Let us know know what you think in the comments section.
Michael Richards got mad and called a heckler n**ger, but Richard Pryor had a Grammy-winning album, That Nigger’s Crazy. What’s the difference?
The difference is context. First, Pryor was referring to himself. There’s obviously a big difference between a white comic calling an audience member a “N” in an effort to hurt that person emotionally during an angry rant and a comedian referring to himself as an “N.” It’s also important to note that Pryor used that word in that album and all of his performances an astronomical amount. Whether he meant to deflate the racist meaning behind the word or not is unclear. But by peppering it in constantly throughout his sets onstage, Pryor took the control of the word away from racists and gave the control back to black people.
What do you think of Letterman’s joke that A-Rod knocked up Sarah Palin’s daughter during a Yankee’s game, and how do you read his apology?
Letterman made it painfully clear in his apology that he thought he was talking about the of-age daughter, not the 14 year old. His researchers or writers gave him bad information and he went with it. Huge mistake. The joke was coarse, for sure, even if it was about the of-age daughter, but for Conservatives to call Letterman a pedophile is completely ridiculous and only hurts the image of Conservatives, who I assume are mostly level-headed people who simply disagree with the philosophies of more liberal-minded folks.
As for his apology, I thought it was sincere and well spoken. There’s no doubt he had to publicly apologize, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have apologized on his own. I think he truly feels bad that the intent of the joke got lost in people’s perception. I don’t think anyone watching the show at the time thought he was joking about the 14 year old; we all just assumed he was talking about the daughter who already had a child.
Do you think Wanda Sykes went too far joking that, since pill-popping Rush Limbaugh hopes Obama fails she hopes his kidneys fail?
No, she didn’t go too far. She’s a comedian. She’s made a career out of being incredibly outspoken; she’s not what you’d consider a family-friendly act. You don’t hire Wanda Sykes to tell jokes and then get surprised that she says she hopes Limbaugh’s kidneys fail. Rush was given a forum to tell the world that he hopes Obama fails. So then Sykes was given an opportunity to comment on Rush. Was it a nice joke? Of course not. Was it mean spirited? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny or that she went too far.
Is America so politically correct and sensitive now that we can’t take a joke, or should jokes by definition make people cringe?
The general American populous is not emotionally equipped to handle cringe-worthy stand-up material. It’s like any fringe art. Not everyone can accept that, say, blowing paint out of your ass on a giant canvas is performance art. But there will always be a fringe community that sees it thusly. All stand-up isn’t for everybody.
But that said, I think, in general the country has become much more tolerant of edgy humor. I think political correctness is slowly beginning to lose steam. And we can thank comedians like Louis CK, Lewis Black, and Jim Norton for that. These are people that have incredibly cringe-worthy opinions on common life. These comedians have become huge theater headliners. The definition of a joke does not include the concept that it has to make people cringe. There’s a whole sub genre called “cringe comedy,” wherein most of a comedian’s act would make the average American cringe. But there’s plenty of comedians and plenty of jokes that are excellent and have no cringe quality.