“If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.”
“Comedy is tragedy plus time.”
— both from the Woody Allen film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”
This past weekend, the White House Correspondents Dinner was held. At this annual soiree journalists, media personalities, politicians and actual celebrities intermingle as the Washington, D.C. media gives out awards. The two main events of the evening are the President of the United States making a few comments followed by a comedian scathingly rebuking all things Washington.
President Trump has not shown up the past two years. That makes sense. He does not like the legitimate media, he watches Fox News.
This year’s comedienne was Michelle Wolf, who is best known for her spots on “The Daily Show”. Her routine at the WHCD has been criticized by many people in the world of journalism for being mean-spirited and inappropriate for the venue.
Yes on both counts. But you invited a comedienne with a reputation for torching politicians and media personalities. That is what the White House Correspondents Association should have expected.
I personally found her performance underwhelming. Her shrill voice made her unintentionally sound like Gilbert Gottfried. Also, her delivery was too fast. She seemed nervous. And finally, her shots at White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders came off as too easy. I prefer comics to put some effort into ripping pseudo-celebrities.
With that said, I was reminded with this performance why the WHCA should probably suspend the ritual of asking someone from the world of comedy from doing a stand-up routine. The media must work with these politicians and their staffs. Putting journalists that are the primary beneficiaries of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in a position of having to rebuke comics for telling jokes is awkwardly hypocritical.
But this is a common, dangerous problem in the United States of America. The art form known as comedy is currently under assault from many factions, all with an agenda that runs counter to the great American tenets of Free Speech and freedom of expression.
And most of this assault can be covered under the blanket of a two word term: cultural sensitivity.
In short, any subject, any theme, any joke or funny scenario built upon a foundation of a stereotype is now considered culturally insensitive and subject to a metaphorical pilloring of the perpetrator by an outraged and triggered social media mob.
Americans now live in an era where any individual or fanatical group can call for the removal—if not outright banning—of any expressive art because their feelings were hurt by its’ existence.
Allow me to add a caveat. I fully support every individual’s right to criticize work that they deem offensive; or to a lesser extent, bad. The line that is often crossed is when individuals come together to form a coterie that tries to exert force against the artist to curtail, impede or remove that work.
The frayed psyche of an insulted group should only go so far as the freedom of expression is infringed upon. That basic, reasonable rule is changing.
I consider myself a “First Amendment Guy”. I am completely bi-partisan when it comes to my belief in free thought never being abridged. With that stated, there are many entertainers and artists that say things or create art that I shake my head at with bewilderment. But my sensitivities are secondary to my desire to live in a free society that allows for the existence of things that insult me. I am not sure those who are coming of age after me feel the same way.
A startling and disturbing survey was performed jointly by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that many college students in America are trending towards the premise of “inclusion” being an acceptable means by which to deter the fundemental right of free speech.
Let me share the one sentence from their synopsis that makes me shiver as an American who holds sacred the idea that Americans value free thought over all other things:
“Students do not believe the U.S. Constitution should protect hate speech, and they continue to support campus policies that restrict both hate speech and wearing stereotypical costumes.”
Let me be unequivocal. In my expert opinion, those who try to stifle or ban speech—or any free display of expression—because they deem it unacceptable are just as dangerous to the American way of life as the Muslim terrorist who would blow up a football stadium, or drop poisonous gas on to a subway platform, or would fly airplanes into skyscrapers.
It might be that Millenials of a liberal mindset are more dangerous to America than Islamist fanatics because it is easier to form a rabble of Orwellian thugs on Twitter than it is to acquire and distribute Sarin gas.
I wonder how many college students today know about Lenny Bruce.
In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Bruce was a controversial stand-up comic who challenged authority by not only speaking openly about his disdain for the status quo, but he used vulgarity in doing this. He was arrested many times for using obscenities on stage.
He paved the way that comedians walked on for decades. Now, instead of cops busting comics for using vulgar words, politically correct social networking warriors feign outrage in the hope of exerting power of a totalitarian nature to soothe their hurt feelings when they shame comics into banishment.
The one example I wish to discuss as the prima facie example is the fatuous lobbying against the character of Apu from “The Simpsons”. Known as one of the first characters of South Asian origin or television, Apu is now considered bad. The man who voices Apu, Hank Azaria recently said he would be willing to put the character aside.
I am not going to read Azaria’s mind, but I am willing to wager his overture has more to do with his unwillingness to be the next celebrity crucified by the jack-booted Cultural Sensitivity Cops than out of enlightenment. Azaria has spent 3 decades getting paid to voice Apu, including a mountain of residual checks for the multiple reruns of the show. I wonder if he is willing to give that money back.
Of course, if the Soviet-esque mob gets their way, Apu reruns will be removed from the airwaves. Don’t laugh, they did it to Speedy Gonzalez.
When Matt Groening, “The Simpsons” creator and principal braintrust, was asked about the controversy, he scoffed. “I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.”, Groening said.
I expect everyone that feels outrage that Groening gave a dissenting view to immediately get on to Twitter and destroy his career. He must be bullied into exile, shame and silence.
Comedy does not need to be mean, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, stereotypical, vulgar, or insensitive. But, more time than not, comedy is funnier when one or more of those vices is present. Ribald humor isn’t always funny, but it should always be tolerated.
And I would remind everyone, regardless of where you fall on this issue, that the one man who has had the most successful career adhering to the precepts of “clean” humor over the last 60 years is Bill Cosby.
How’d that turn out?