Thursday, July 16, 2009

posted by Jeff at
I was shopping the other day when REM's Shiny Happy People started pouring out of the grocery store speakers. This prompted me to send a friend the following text message: "shiny happy people is playing here. i dont care if he has aids, i want one night with michael stipe." This brief comment led us to a significantly longer discussion on "things that Jeff shouldn't say," largely on the merit of my friend's roommate, who had a relative die of the disease barely a year ago. Now, two things:

A. AIDS was not the punchline of my electronic musing, but merely a statement to elevate the situation. Something to give my sudden change of orientation a little punch. It, in itself, was not being used as a comedic device. AIDS is a tender issue.

B. I understand fully that I shouldn't be making jokes about tender issues.

Honestly, I really don't think anybody should... if you want to get technical about it. But in the real world? It seems to me that it's more of a matter of context; knowing your audience. And being a major celebrity. Allow me to explain. I've noticed that big-name comedians and celebrities seem to be able to "get away" with more shocking and offensive material solely on the basis of their being famous. There are a few signs of this.

For one thing, the public seems to think that celebrities are like space aliens, or perhaps highly intelligent domesticated animals. When they do something as mundane as riding their bicycles down Sunset Boulevard, it's somehow considered news. "HOLY SHIT! ZAC EFRON WAS SEEN BUYING GROCERIES? I THOUGHT HE DWELLED ON THE MOON AND LIVED OFF OF SOLAR ENERGY, RETURNING TO EARTH ONLY WHEN SUMMONED BY THE MIGHTY ORLANDO!"

Obviously they're able to do things that "normal" people cannot.

Secondly, somebody like Will Ferrell is so well-known as a comic icon that pretty much everything he says is immediately deemed by the sub-conscious minds of mainstream America to be either funny, or attempting to be funny. As opposed to being ignorant, bigoted, sexist, and downright offensive. You know, like most American men. Look, these comedic writers and performers are just like you and me. They come from the same background, they write the same kind of material. Most of 'em lived out of their fucking cars, okay? The difference is, somebody with a lot of money believed in them and gave them a chance. That's why they get to be pigs.

Don't worry folks, Will Ferrell isn't gonna catch swine flu. [/topical]

So here's the big question: Who gets to decide how far the envelope should be pushed? Who gets to say when you should probably just forget the whole "envelope" thing and just RETURN TO SENDER? There is no God, so who makes the call? Will an archangel descend from the heavens to bestow upon us a most perfectly divine censorship, bias-free and spring-fresh? Maybe I should get my head out of the clouds.

It's all about knowing your audience. Knowing your spots. I've talked about this before. Frankly, there's a spot for every joke. Okay? Every joke has an audience. Sometimes you can really cross the border! But other times, even the mere mention of a sensitive word can bring you down. Case in point, the exchange between my friend and I. AIDS is an interesting gray area for comics today. Back in about 1983, dropping an AIDS joke at a comedy club could end your set pretty fucking quick. Then again, wasn't it the same way for Abe Lincoln jokes 'round about 1866? There's a statute of limitations for everything, folks. A specific window.

Sometimes that window of comedy swings closed fast and never reopens. For example, does anybody remember how Dan Quayle was the butt of every other joke during the first Bush administration? Despite his decades as a public servant and notably his 4 years as Vice President of the United States, Mr.Quayle is best known as the poor fuck that couldn't spell "potato." Today's college kids would never know it. You know, the internet generation. "Children of the 80s" that can't get enough nostalgia from that superficial era... well, they don't seem to know shit about Quayle. Maybe he's best forgotten.

On a side note, Dan Quayle started a trend that has continued to this day: American vice presidents that, from a public standpoint, are severely unlikeable. Quayle of course, with his sub-Palin public speaking abilities; Al Gore, who was considered an inanimate object until he demanded a recount in 2000; Dick Cheney. Yeah. And Joe Biden, who isn't so much unlikeable as he is invisible. But hey, we are all living in the shadow of Obama.

Back to context. It's always crucial. I could go on forever about context; it's probably my favorite word in the English language! But sometimes it can turn the tables on you without skipping a beat! For example, the word "prego." It's both my favorite brand of pasta sauce, and my least favorite genre of pornography! What about the difference between troops and troupes? We send troops off to fight the war, but many troupes back home have been known to protest it. Admittedly that's more of a phonetic similarity, a simple homonym, but I still find the contrast to be interesting.

The other day a man on the street told me that "JESUS IS COMING!" and to this I replied, "Isn't that kind of personal? Um, whatever you do, don't tell his dad!" ... So, Jesus is coming. Depending on the context, this could be either Christianity's most compelling tenet... or Christ's biggest secret. Polar opposites. Jesus is coming? Wait wait wait... is he coming back to life? Or is he coming on Mary Magdalene's supple breasts? Or more fittingly, how about inside her sacred little asshole?

Jesus was never a fan of sodomy laws.

Here's my conclusion: everything that we say has a chance of offending somebody. It's inevitable. But edgy comedians can't be living in fear of hurting people's feelings; it's their job to cross the line and make us examine ourselves. If you happen to fall into their satirical crosshairs, you're just collateral damage. Lighten up. The moment that we censor ourselves to protect people, we're excluding them. The best thing you can do to the elephant in the room is not to pretend it's not there, but to feed it peanuts. To embrace it. To laugh together about our little differences... how it's deathly afraid of mice, or how we humans kill each other over little slips of green paper.

Now... y'know what's a good place for AIDS jokes? An AIDS benefit luncheon! Why? Lots of people with AIDS in your audience. Think about it. What if you were doing a set there and said something along the lines of, "People always talk about Magic Johnson surviving HIV, but what about Patrick Ewing? Look at the guy! He's clearly had AIDS his entire life!" ... Your audience would sit there and think, "Hey, I have that!" and you know what?

They'd feel a whole lot more at home.


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