if It Bends It’s Funny, if It Breaks It’s Not Funny.
For the entire blog, with pictures, click on the link above. Thanks, Rob Hoffman
By Rob Hoffman on June 8, 2017 at 5:31 AM
There’s a Woody Allen movie called Crimes and Misdemeanors. In the film, Woody plays a “sad sack” documentary film maker, and he ends up working for a blowhard played by Alan Alda. (Good to see these two old pros can play against the roles they are usually typecast in….ahem.) In the movie, there’s a scene where Alda’s character is pontificating about what is funny vs. what is not funny. See below:
(Even though Alda’s character is supposed to be a “know-it-all,” I always thought this theory about comedy made a lot of sense. If you don’t believe me, just ask Kathy Griffin. You Tube)
The idea regarding what constitutes humor vs. what falls under the umbrella of bad taste was put to the test recently. Two successful veteran comics were left licking their wounds in the wake of this controversial question. Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher both found themselves in hot water recently due to an attempt to test the comic sensibilities of our culture. In Griffin’s case, it was a staged picture she took for a photo shoot where she was seen holding what appeared to be the severed head of our president and “tweeter-in-chief” Donald Trump. Bill Maher on the other hand, used the one word that white people aren’t even allowed to think about, much less say. Even if a white person is in bed with a high-grade fever, and suffering from convulsions and hallucinations, this word must never pass their lips. That word was….the “n-word.”
In both cases, the comedians in question broke Alan Alda’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors rule for comedy. Their attempt at comedy bent so far, you could actually hear it cracking. What is the penalty in 2017 for saying or doing something in extremely poor taste in the name of “I’ll do anything for a laugh?” Well, thanks to social media, it would appear the penalty is a banishment to the nether-regions of entertainment purgatory, and a week-long apology tour.
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Because this is a family blog, I’m only going to show you the picture with the president’s head blurred. She kind of has that “Lizzy Borden” look going on here. Perhaps she is creating a new comic character? (You Tube)
Griffin’s offense was visual, and as you can see, done without a whole lot of context, so it’s hard to grasp exactly what message she was attempting to send here. Was she saying that she wanted to kill Trump? Does she wish to chop off his head? Does she hate the president? Does she feel he has done something criminal? Is it simply that when Kathy Griffin sinks her “comedy teeth” into you, you are as good as dead? Whichever point she was attempting to convey, she failed on the most basic level that an attempt at comedy can fail at. It wasn’t funny.
We should not be surprised by Griffin’s attempt at “shock-comedy.” Many comedians seem to be of the mind today that if they don’t do something that is at least borderline offensive, nobody will consider it funny, or at least “edgy.” Because of this phenomena, shocking and outraging the public has replaced actual cleverness. The problem therefore for comedians today is that they wish to offend some people with their humor, but not everybody. Offensive humor that is funny is fine. However, when it’s not funny and it’s offensive, then you have a problem. Which brings us to Bill Maher.
(I can’t say I’m familiar with Complex News, but as you can see, they are very upset with Maher for his use of the dreaded “n-word.” I thought it was interesting that the young “Diane Sawyer in the making” who was hosting the segment felt it was necessary to point out that his comment garnered “deserved outrage,” and that it was a “tasteless joke.” Isn’t it her job to present the news, and let us decide if it was funny and/or tasteless? You Tube)
Despite the outrage over Griffin’s controversial photo shoot, as well as Maher’s foolish use of the “n-word,” their situations couldn’t be more different. Whereas Griffin was posing for a photo shoot, and had time to plan out with her photographer several different pictures and ideas, Maher was working live on television, as he does every week, essentially without a “net.” Griffin was trying to shock and titillate, while Maher’s comment came within the bounds of a conversation he was having with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.
Maher’s comment came as a result of Sasse asking Maher if he’d like to come to Nebraska and work in the fields. Maher chuckled at the prospect, and then said to the senator that he didn’t do things like that since he was a “house n*g**r.” (I hope I put an acceptable amount of asterisks in the word, lest my own reputation become sullied.) It was an off-the-cuff attempt at cleverness on Maher’s part, and it did not go over well. A “house n*g**r” was a term used to describe those African-American slaves who worked in the house as opposed to in the fields. Any time a white person compares themselves to a slave, they had better brush up on their apology skills, because they are going to be in for a public disembowelment.
(Several years before Bill Maher’s foolish and insensitive use of the “n-word,” there was former Seinfeld star Michael Richards’ public meltdown at a comedy club in Los Angeles. Richards screamed out the “n-word” at a couple of African-American audience members who were heckling him in his act, and had a complete rageaholic episode. His career has never really recovered from this incident, and you can see for yourself his regret. You Tube)
Few issues confuse white people more than how to approach the “n-word.” I believe this stems from the fact that it is used with such regularity by more than a few African-Americans, particularly those in the field of entertainment. As a teacher, I along with many other educators have battled to keep the word out of our classrooms as well as the hallways. I believe at least as far as the classroom is concerned, we are winning that battle. The halls, and of course outside of school is a different matter. For years, particularly early on in my 27 year career, I could not get over how many African-American students were using the word so casually. Didn’t they know the sinister background of this word? Weren’t they aware of how it was used to dehumanize and demean African-American people here in the United States as a race? Is this what the Civil Rights movement had come to?
In my hometown of North Massapequa, I heard it more often than I’d like to admit. Considering that Plainedge High School where I attended in the late 1970s and early ’80s was 100% white, I can tell you that it wasn’t being thrown around as a term of endearment. Imagine then my shock when I heard students of color using it in conversation with each other.
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A delightful classroom filled with North Massapequa’s finest children, who happened to be overwhelmingly white. (Hoffman Collection)
One day several yearx ago in my Contemporary Issues’ class, I finally decided to ask my students, particularly my African-American students why they used the word, and how they justified it. An African-American student by the name of Doug who I really enjoyed teaching and having in my class, gave me an explanation that changed my attitude from anger over its use, to at least an understanding of some African-American people’s thoughts on why they choose to say the word. Doug said that it was black people’s attempt to take the word back from white racists. They had in fact made the word their’s by changing its pronunciation and spelling, (Dropping the “er” and putting in an “a”) and therefore the word now belonged to the African-American people. While I still felt the word was offensive and should not be used by anyone, I at least felt that I understood his perspective.
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For those of you “not in the know,” this is a comedian named Katt Williams. Not only is Katt a very successful comedian, (when he’s not in prison.) but he might actually hold the record for using the “n-word” in his act more times than anybody in comic history, including Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, and “Cletus, the racist, KKK Komic.” (I may have embellished on that last one.) (You Tube)
Needless to say, the Bill Maher incident has some people angry and/or confused. Many cannot understand how an African-American comedian can use the “n-word” and become wealthy and successful, while a white comedian like Maher can basically drop what was really nothing more than a thoughtless “throw-away” line, and the next thing you know, the social media assassins that troll the internet are lying in wait. From this point hence, the public evisceration can begin. The lesson for white public figures and entertainers couldn’t be more obvious. Put down the “n-word,” don’t touch it and walk away.
Comedians, especially in today’s world, are constantly trying to ascertain where the “line” is, and then in order to garner attention and notoriety, move that line in a way that helps them develop their career. For instance, in Kathy Griffin’s “apology,” she mentions how she was trying to move the line, and still ended up going over it. Griffin like so many comedians today perhaps felt the pressure of having to find more creative ways of coming across as more outrageous. In some ways, more comedians have come to Griffin’s defense, than those who have spoken up for Maher. In Maher’s case, he tried a dumb joke off the cuff, and paid the price. Comedians however seem more forgiving when it comes to one of their own attempting to do something over the top.
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Howard Stern was once the measuring stick for evaluating bad taste when it came to broadcast standards and humor. In a sign of how much the times have changed, Stern not only gets “A-list” celebrities to appear on his show who once thought he was far too toxic, he also starred as a judge on a family friendly talent program. (Getty Images)
Unlike so many controversial broadcasters who have found their careers sidetracked due to a need to constantly push the envelope, Howard Stern’s approach which says, everybody is a target, and nothing is off-limits, has given him a type of freedom to do his material which might get other less clever broadcasters and personalities in hot water. Stern for example can have a Ku Klux Klan leader on his program, or even play racist songs, and nobody bats an eye. But when the more heavy-handed Don Imus attempted a foolish and overtly racist joke at the expense of a girls college basketball team, it cost him his plum job at WFAN in New York City.
It has been interesting to see how the political sides have lined up over the Griffin controversy. Conservatives have of course been outraged over the violent and threatening photograph that depicts Griffin holding Trump’s severed head. Liberals, who at first seemed to indicate that they had no more tolerance for Griffin’s actions then some of the truly tasteless and horrific things that “celebrities” such as Ted Nugent said about President Obama, have now come around and stated that the faux outrage expressed on the “right” is nothing more than hypocrisy, and that at the end of the day, it was simply an attempt at humor by Griffin that went awry.
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“The Motor-city Mad-Man,” Ted Nugent, called for violence to be done on several occasions to President Obama while he was in office. However, Nugent has now claimed that those calls were nothing more than a “metaphor,” while completely condemning Kathy Griffin’s actions. (Getty Images)
What I believe most Liberals are angriest about is that Griffin’s pointless joke succeeded in doing what most believed to have been impossible. It ended up portraying Donald Trump in a sympathetic light. However, don’t expect this sympathy to last for long. After all, this is a man who made fun of a disabled reporter from the New York Times.
(Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter from the New York Times reminds us that the line for everybody is ever-shifting, and despite the outrage that the public may express from time-to-time, few mistakes are fatal. You Tube)
The “shark effect” that seems to occur whenever a public figure makes a mistake, or demonstrates bad judgement or just poor taste, reeks of sanctimony and hypocrisy. Liberals love to yell “got ya” at Conservatives who say or do tasteless and inappropriate things. Conservatives of course enjoy this particular pastime as well. In fact, all stories in the news are now viewed through our ideological filters, and we render judgement based on political and social leanings.
Kathy Griffin was an easy target. Her schtick is to be obnoxious, and so when she went too far, everybody pounced. However, the next time somebody does something that appears to crossover some imaginary line, one side or the other will be filled with “outrage,” and they will be calling for somebody’s head, and we will do this dance all over again. So remember; if it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it probably means a middle-aged white comic has just attempted to use the “n-word” for laughs. Get the apology tour ready.