Tag Archives: Comedy

This Is How You React When Someone Finds Your Stupid Little Joke Offensive (And You Know They Might Be Right)

1 Nov

From the Archives

 

Really, With the Gay Jokes?” “The Rape-Joke Double Standard.” “Has The Onion Gotten Too Mean?” These are the headlines to just a few of the several articles appearing this week about comedians and conscience. All of them make excellent points, but the problem with trying to explain why a joke is offensive is that it instantly kills the mood. Culture critics aren’t professional comedians and thus they almost always end up being viewed as the more uptight of the two, even if their arguments are rock-solid.

And yet, the best comedians are pretty good culture critics, as Dara Ó Briain proved years ago at the Theatre Royal in London. Amidst his cracks about the idiots who ask you to remove your shoes in their home, the idiots who confuse astronomy and astrology, and the idiots who think the IRA had uniforms, he talked about a time when he was the idiot:

Last year I told a joke, and this is not a good joke, I have no excuses.  It is a terrible joke, but it was about the musical Billy Elliot. And “What was the composer’s inspiration for Billy Elliot? Elton John – do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

I know. It was rubbish. I didn’t mean it as an attack on Elton John, or as an attack on the gay community. I meant it as another joke in the glorious tradition of jokes involving the word “in.” As in, “Do you have any Irish in ye? Would you like some?”

Okay, so he explained he didn’t intend to trash homosexuality. But he didn’t leave it at that. He went on to talk about the backlash from the LGBT rights alliance Outrage, who said the joke contributed to a culture of hatred against gay men in Britain. Ó Briain explained:

And the thing is, your initial reaction is when somebody does a complaint like that is to get all tough and say, “It’s only a joke, for Jesus’s sake, relax.” Swiftly followed by arguments about civil rights and comedy’s obligation to say the difficult thing and freedom of speech. Which is a fairly lofty point to bring in to back up something as bad as that joke about Billy Elliot. You wouldn’t go to Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights with that as your argument: “Oh, my lords and ladies of the court, Elton John? Do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

He went on to clarify his political stance, emphasizing that “there is no pedophilia-homosexuality relationship at all,” showing he was brave enough to break character as a comedian despite the risk that always carries of losing the audience. He then addressed that risk as well:

And some people think it’s very politically correct of me, but then, I’m Irish. And if anyone’s benefited from a good dose of political correctness on this island, it’s the Irish. Remember the good old days with all those jokes about how stupid we were? And then a memo went around some time in the Eighties, when you [Brits] all said, “Oh, Jesus, we’re not doing jokes about the Irish anymore? Okay, fine.” And it just stopped. And thank you very much. A bit overdue, but thanks very much nonetheless.

He went on to tell a joke about a bunch of drunk Irishmen, reveling in the fact that he was allowed to tell it and the British weren’t. He then said, “But again with the whole Billy Elliot thing, the reason I backed down so fast on that was because I received one letter of support.” Removing the letter from his pocket, he proceeded to read the message sent by a group of conservatives in Northern Ireland who applauded him for taking a stand against the forces of sodomy. “If you ever use the phrase ‘forces of sodomy,’ it had better be a gay heavy metal band that you’re talkin’ about!”

It’s rare that comedians are brave enough to admit that their joke was a fail. But I’ve never heard a comedian own up to it so fiercely and admit the ways in which he’s personally benefited from the political correctness movement. By changing his target from the group he originally attacked to himself, Ó Briain proved not only the sincerity of his regret but the breadth of his comedic skill.

And I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Whenever comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy, it sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original. Ignoring the “PC police”—i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do—they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right? Wrong. We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t. We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique. And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?

Or, in the words of another Irish comic, Ed Byrne: “I see comedians making jokes about fat people being lazy, and I just think, well, they’re not as lazy as comedians who get easy laughs by picking on fat people.”

 

Originally posted May 12, 2013

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Ireland Votes on Marriage Equality – While Snarking about Midgets

17 May

 

Ireland votes on same-sex marriage on Friday, and comedians Brian O’Carroll and Lenny Abrahamson from the sitcom Mrs. Brown’s Boys have teamed up to urge voters to support equality with the above video. If you can’t view it, here’s a summary:

***

Reading from a speech, a frumpy-looking senior citizen, Mrs. Brown [played by Brian O’Carroll], looks at the camera and says, “Hello. I’d like to talk to you today about midget equality.”

“Marriage, Mammy!” interrupts her son Rory, who is standing next to the cameraman.

“What, love?” she asks, confused.

“It says ‘marriage equality,’ ” he corrects.

“What you got against midgets?” she demands.

“Nothing, Mammy, I’ve got nothing against anybody! It’s just that this is about marriage equality.”

“What about it?” she shrugs. “Any two people who feel in love enough should be allowed to get married! What’s the feckin’ fuss?”

“Well, some people believe that if you allow gays and lesbians to get married, it might change the meaning of marriage and family,” he explains.

She laughs. “I’ve heard that one before! When I was a young girl, there was a big hoo-haa about mixed marriages – y’know, Catholics marrying Protestants and black people marrying white people. But you know what? They still went ahead and got married. And the world didn’t end. No. And we all grew up a little bit.”

She turns to the camera. “And you know, we all have to grow up a little bit now. Marriage isn’t easy. Changing the law isn’t easy. Changing attitudes is even harder. But we can do it. We’ve done it before. And the world didn’t end.”

“Oh, I know that some of you think it’s not right. Well, all I can tell you from my experience is that I can’t describe the joy I feel to see my son Rory having the same opportunity for happiness as everybody’s else’s son.”

“So go out and vote. That’s the important thing. Go out and vote.” She turns to Rory. “Do you know, Rory, there was a time when women weren’t allowed to vote?”

He smiles, rolls his eyes and nods knowingly.

They both start to laugh.

“You see, that’s the thing!” she says, looking at the camera again. “Every generation gets a chance to make a big change. And you’re going to get your chance on May the 22nd. So go out and do it. Go out and vote.” She giggles. “And keep in mind, support midgets!”

Rory rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

She thinks for a moment. “Oh, right. They asked me to make it funny.” She prepares to tell a joke. “These two queers were—” ”

“Mammy!” Rory scolds.

***

The video is touching in its call for equal rights for same-sex partners in the spirit of equality for so many minorities. And yet the attempt to inject some humor amid the pathos comes via a slur at the expense of another minority. After I showed the video to a close friend, his face shifted back and forth between a soft smile and a furrowed brow. “Most of it is pretty sweet, but – the midgets part? I mean, why was that necessary?”

As the mother of a boy with achondroplasia told The Irish Independent:

I know Brendan O’Carroll probably didn’t mean anything malicious in his use of the word, but it’s just to educate people that it’s not an acceptable term to use…

Brendan didn’t use the N-word to describe black people, as this is thankfully totally unacceptable in most of today’s society…

I didn’t see what people with short stature, call them ‘midgets’ as he called them, has got to do with marriage equality. I just saw it as a source of ridicule. It was a cheap shot. It was just a gag…

[When my son was born], the obstetrician tried to explain the condition to me by using the term, “Do you know a clown in a circus? He’d be one of those.” That’s the attitude that’s out there. It’s just comments that people think it’s okay to refer to these people in a derogatory fashion and it’s not okay.

She is hardly the first mother of a child with dwarfism to hear this. Parents of children with achondroplasia born in the 1950s recounted in the documentary Little People: The Movie how they were routinely told the same thing by obstetric nurses.

I personally do not find Carroll’s use of the word “midget” deeply offensive. I find it cheap, and unfortunately symbolic of the way dwarfs are predominantly marginalized by comedians and pop culture – the same way gays and lesbians up until only recently were predominantly marginalized by comedians and pop culture. As Bob Hope wise-cracked in 1970:

You know, a new movement – a new movement has appeared on the American scene. First women’s liberation demanded the rights of women. Then the hardhats demanded the rights of men. And now gay liberation is demanding the rights of – whatever they are.

Many in the dwarf community have tried to emphasize the offensiveness of the word “midget” by comparing it to the offensiveness of the N-word for the black community. This comparison is not entirely apt because a word’s power to offend relies greatly on the intentions of those who primarily use it. Most of the time that I hear the M-word, the utterer is displaying more blunt ignorance than outright malice. In that way, “midget” is perhaps more comparable to “Oriental” or “gypsy” or “Siamese twin.” Some people use these words pejoratively, many people take them as pejoratives, but most people use them because they are unaware of the human rights conversations about these groups that have been going on for the past several decades.

Indeed, my first reaction was that, obviously Mrs. Brown is played up as a caricature of batty, outspoken matriarchs whose speech is expected to be embarrassingly outdated. But she did not refer to black people as “coloreds.”  And surely, Mrs. Brown, you had Seinfeld in Ireland back in the day?

 

 

 

In Comedy, It’s All About Deciding Who’s Us & Who’s Them

28 Apr

Krampus twins(Via)

 

The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:

political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”

Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall.  Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome.  Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way.  Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.” 

I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences.  This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original.  Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right?  Wrong.  We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t.  We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique.  And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?   

Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others.  Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear.  There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at.  So Republicans laugh at Democrats.  Hippies laugh at yuppies.  Academics laugh at hippies.  Progressives laugh at bigots.  It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs.  However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original.  Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies? 

Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny.  As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of.  However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:

 

 

Hermaphrodite?  Really?  An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy?  C’mon, Conchords.  You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture.  (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori…  Please be the Maori!  If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”)  Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away.  Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:

 

 

Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities.  But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others.  Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them.  The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated.  Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects.  As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.   

Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define.  The definers want the power to name.  And the defined are taking that power away from them.”  Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset.  But this redistribution of power can be productive.  Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries.  Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech. 

Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor.  For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television.  I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others?  But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians.  Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity.  Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism. 

Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians.  Because really.  Who’s asking to be made fun of here?

 

 

* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc.  Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.

The Good, the Bad and the Boring of “Life’s Too Short”

21 Mar

 

Today Feministing.com features my review of HBO’s Life’s Too Short, the first sitcom I’ve ever seen starring someone with dwarfism.

 

 

Dwarf-Tossing: Something I Really Don’t Like Thinking About

18 Feb

 

I was recently invited to write a guest post for Feministing.com. I’ve written about dwarf tossing and it appears in today/yesterday’s edition of the blog here(I apologize should this news seem late in coming – I’m writing to you from Tokyo where the time difference is working against me.)

 

 

The Simpsons, Dwarfism & Getting It Almost Right For Once

12 Nov

Livro ou TV?(Image by Lubs Mary. used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Somewhere, among the many things cluttered in the back of my head, has long been the wonder as to whether The Simpsons would ever address dwarfism as a topic. Last night, I found out they did two years ago in the episode “Eeny Teeny Maya Moe” and I was shocked to see them decide against the freak show trope that our generation adores so dearly.  Not only did they transcend the snickering, but they pounced upon it and deftly demonstrated how blurred are the lines between comfort and discomfort.

Of course it feels silly to be grateful upon seeing one’s difference portrayed respectfully and productively.  But forgetting all the crappy media that take cheaps shots at dwarfs (James Bond, The Man Show, Celebrity Apprentice, Austin Powers), I’ve become quite used to good art reveling in the yuk-yuk fascination (Scrubs, This Is Spinal Tap, QI, Bob Dylan).  Not to mention the fantasy genre’s long-held tradition (from The Wizard of Oz to The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) of utilizing dwarfism to denote either a separate race or mysticism (“It must be a fucking dream, there’s a fucking dwarf in it!“), which is not explicitly offensive, but also not particularly helpful in deconstructing prejudice and misconceptions.  Across the genres, Hollywood usually contributes more to the list of names we get called (Oompa Loompas, Hobbits, Mini-Me, etc.) than to diversity awareness.

The Simpsons episode isn’t perfect – how does one deal with minority issues perfectly? – but I was quite pleased.  The one moment that left a bitter taste in my mouth is the final line: “Who would have thought a woman so short could make me feel so big?”  Little People of America and many of their supporters perpetuate this same, pathetic slogan of empowerment: physically short, but mentally/spiritually/emotionally huge.  Short, but.  Little, but.  You’re well-meaning, but.

Little is not less.  Little is not inferior.  Little is not cute.  Little is not submissive.  Little is not weak.  Little is not a Napoleon Complex.  Little is little.  Big is not greater.  Big is not better.  Big is not powerful.  Big is not dominant.  Big is not strong.  Big is not a Gentle Giant.  Big is big.  To consider size as indicative of personality traits is as ludicrous as equating anything from freckles to elbow shape with personality traits.  (Any attempt to compliment Oprah Winfrey or Alice Walker by saying, “She may have been dark-skinned, but she brought light to the lives of many” would be considered wholly idiotic and righftully so.)  Having two x chromosomes does not impede my intelligence or independence or strength, and neither does having an autosomal dominant mutation in my fibroblast growth factor receptor gene 3.

If you want to praise an individual’s ability to overcome social obstacles, do not place blame for the obstacles on their genetics.  Society’s incessant xenophobia and vanity are constantly let off the hook because a genetic difference is still seen as that which upsets normalcy, rather than that which is handicapped by our delusions of normalcy.  It is all too often supported by the reasoning that if a majority is scared of a difference, then it must be a natural fear, and natural is practically synonymous with good.  It will take quite a few more episodes like that on The Simpsons before the discourse changes and someone says, “Who would have a thought a woman so shat on by our culture’s omnipresent lookism could have the patience to deal with my own individual prejudices?”