Thursday, October 30, 2008

Insolent Jest


A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to the legendary Friars Club here in New York City as a guest for its roast of ex-Star Trek star and current professional kitschy homosexual, George Takei.

If you've seen a Friars Club roast on television -- or any roast for that matter -- you probably think you have a pretty good idea of what it's like to attend one of these things. Suffice it to say, though, that whatever you can imagine, it's not even close to the actual experience of being surrounded by some of the funniest people around minus any sacred cows, sense of decorum, good taste, or general concern for the feelings of others.

My wife and I figured it would be funny.

We had no idea that we'd spend two-and-a-half hours laughing so hard that we wouldn't be able to breathe.

They made fun of tragedies. ("That joke was deader than Shatner's wife at a pool party.") They turned seemingly inviolable topics into punchlines. ("He's the most effeminate Jew in the closet since Anne Frank.") And of course, they mercilessly mocked George Takei's sexuality. (Gilbert Gottfried stepped up to the podium and did, no bullshit, ten minutes worth of "faggot" jokes.)

Was it offensive?

Oh, I have no doubt that most decent folk would've fled in horror.

Was it funny?

Absolutely.

Nothing was off limits, and that's what made the whole thing such a scream.

By now, regular readers of this site have probably figured out that I'm not very easy to offend. Sure, ignorance and stupidity piss me off to no end, but generally the kind of thing that will cause one group of people or another to demand blood, or at the very least an immediate public apology, will barely get a reaction out of me (and if it does, that reaction will usually be to laugh my ass off not only at the offending behavior itself but at those overly sensitive enough to take it so goddamned seriously). Don't get me wrong: Despite what you read here, I don't wander through my day wondering whose buttons I can push next. I may say some pretty obnoxious things from time to time, but rarely is any of it offered with malice or the intention of riling someone up just for the fun of it. That said, I'm a very firm believer that almost anything can be a legitimate target for a little ribbing -- myself included. What makes mocking or satirizing ostensibly untouchable cultural institutions like God, the church, political figures, and even, yes, Oprah so much fun is that they are held as sacrosanct by so many -- and that makes them, in a word, oppressive. There's a visceral thrill to be had going against the grain once in a while and defying the tyranny of political correctness. But more than that, it's necessary. Unassailable ideals and social mores are dangerous, and while holding something above criticism or ridicule, no matter the context or intent, may seem like the ultimate form of respect -- in fact, it's nothing more than the product of fear or idolatry. Just ask the editors of a Danish newspaper that dared to publish comic images of the Prophet Muhammed a couple of years back.

Which brings us to Denis Leary.

The acerbic comedian-turned-actor-turned-author has been buried under an avalanche of criticism lately in response to some of the comments made in his new book, Why We Suck: A Feel-Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid. First, Leary was pounced on by autism activists -- including shrill, militant mom Jenny McCarthy -- for supposedly implying that autism isn't a real disease.

He writes:

"There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can't compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don't give a fuck what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you -- yer kid is NOT autistic. He's just stupid. Or lazy. Or both."

Although this is an unsurprisingly simplistic view of the problem of autism -- a statement I qualify because, needless to say, Leary's a comedian and not a doctor -- it's worth noting two points: First, that the above quote has provoked the ire of people who, for the most part, haven't read the rest of the book and therefore can't appreciate the larger point Leary's trying to get across; second, nowhere does Leary say or even insinuate that autism isn't a real and serious condition -- only that it's likely being overdiagnosed. And guess what? About this, he's absolutely right. Our media-saturated, scared-to-death culture ensures that diseases, like anything else, can become trendy -- that if you ram the idea of an "epidemic" down the throat of the American public long enough, certainly one involving a condition as mysterious as autism, it will almost surely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While I've done several stories on autism during my journalistic career and have no doubt that outside factors have contributed to a rise in the number of legitimate autism cases, any idiot can see that autism has become the new ADHD: Edgy parents looking for an explanation as to why their kid can't function "properly" approach doctors with an idea already in mind that their child might be autistic. And who put that idea there? A media machine which understands that your fear translates into its revenue.

But if you think the whole autism thing was trouble for Denis Leary, you obviously haven't heard how some in the gay community are responding to a chapter in his book entitled "Matt Damon is a Giant Fag."

In an interview with the gay magazine The Advocate, Leary defends his right to call gay men "fags," insisting that despite whatever authority we've given the word, it's still just that: a word.

"I don't believe in the power of words. My parents came from Ireland, where 'cunt' is literally a word your mother and father would use to describe the weather or the car: 'That cunting car won't start!' And I come from a Catholic background where the nuns were always telling you, 'Don”t do this, dont say this.' So any time anyone tells me I shouldn't say something, my reaction is, 'Why not?'"

Leary points to the fact that there's another chapter in Why We Suck called "We'd Hate You Even if You Weren't Black" (which I suppose doesn't justify the former insult so much as prove that at least Leary's an equal opporunity offender).

Whether or not Denis Leary hates homosexuals I can't say for sure. I do know, however, that simply using the word "fag" doesn't automatically make someone a homophobe any more than simply using the word "nigger," irrespective of context, automatically makes someone a racist. I get that it's sometimes tough to tell a person's intent simply by his or her language -- and that the knee-jerk inclination might be to make broadstroke declarations banning anything that anyone may find offensive -- but that's when it's best to consider the source. Denis Leary, once again, is a comedian. He's made an entire career out of being an asshole; he even recorded a song in the early 90s proclaiming as much. Only a moron -- or, more likely, someone looking for something to be pissed about -- would pick up a book written by Leary and expect not to have his or her magnanimity challenged. Leary's stuff isn't designed to be everyone's cup of tea, but neither is it supposed to change the world. If you really think a book called Why We Suck should be filed under the self-help section at the bookstore, you need to have your head examined. It's meant to be funny. It's a fucking joke.

And if it's one you don't particularly appreciate, then by all means don't buy the book.

I certainly understand that the difference between a Friars Club roast and a mass-marketed book is just that: One is reaching a mass market, while the other is a private function in which everyone on hand realizes and accepts what they're getting themselves into.

But is a book, or a radio show, or a TV show aimed at a specific audience really all that different?

If you don't go looking to be offended, chances are you won't be.

Related:

DXM: The Nth Degree/11.21.06

DXM: Why So Serious?/4.25.08

30 comments:

Vermillion said...

Hello, Mr. Nail. My friend Chez wants to hit you square on the head. Do you mind?

While I would consider my sensibilities much lighter than yours, I have to agree. Folks are so ready to get pissed and blame the wrong things on the wrong people because they don't want to take any personal responsibility (i.e. the general reluctance to point out the Palin abstinence/teenage pregnancy bit).

Shit, I am one of those diagnosed ADHD folks, and I still laugh at the jokes, and totally understand why some folks think it is bullshit, because a lot of it is. If you feel it doesn't apply to you, why would it piss you off so much?

So yeah, consider the source. Not just of the joke, but of the "outrage" as well.

Jeremy said...

Speaking of being offended... Palin thinks she's something big, with a national career beyond this election. And she tried to initiate a chant of "drill baby drill" while speaking at a solar cell technology start-up.
I'm offended that someone so out of touch with even her immediate audience thinks she has something to offer the nation.
Story here:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081030/ap_on_el_pr/palin_16

Fungi said...

Wow, you're defending Denis Leary? Really? I never found him to be funny at all. As a matter of fact, a lot of comedians don't like him because he has been known to steal jokes. Bottom line though, if he had a kid with autism, I seriously doubt he would have written that. Shit like that is funny till it happens to you.

Hex said...

Dennis Miller once said,

"There's the real world, and then there's the joke world -- things in here get a little rough, so make sure you're wearing a cup."

Vermillion said...

Bottom line though, if he had a kid with autism, I seriously doubt he would have written that. Shit like that is funny till it happens to you.

I love that logic. Basically, if something sucky happens to you, you can't joke about it.

But then how come nearly every comedian who has ever performed in front of a "serious topic" crowd (terminal patients, soldiers in Iraq) say that the first thing they want to hear are jokes making light of their situation? For some folks, laughter is the only way they can get through their pain.

So for you to a) say that the guy wouldn't crack wise on his own autistic kid (knowing him, he would) and b) claim that the only way he can sympathize is to go through it himself is ridiculous.

Deacon Blue said...

Comedians often mine their own experiences, even the most painful ones, for their comedy, so I'm with Vermillion on this.

I think the bigger thing is: Is it funny? And does it reveal some nugget of truth that we need to hear?

That to me is the best gauge of whether comedy that goes offensive has stayed within bound.

For example, when Michael Richards (Kramer from "Seinfeld") went off on his angry racial tirade during a stand-up routine...well, that was neither funny (at all) nor did it edify a goldamned thing. So, that was simply angry and offensive.

I'm pretty leery (no pun intended) of using certain words, and tend to cringe when I hear those few words used, but at the same time I realize that it has to be about context mostly, and sometimes, those words need to be used (but really, it's pretty hard to use the N-word without being offensive if you aren't black. I really don't see too many non-blacks who can whip that out without it just being jarring and distracting...just sayin')

Anonymous said...

A little off subject... Did you catch the Lauer/Snyderman exchange on the Today show this morning regarding vaccine shots and autism? Gots pretty intense at the end. http://www.businessandmedia.org/articles/2008/20081030121246.aspx

//c

Fungi said...

Vermillion- I have a hell of a sense of humor and find a lot things funny that are pretty awful. But to go after a child is pretty gutless. I happen to be a father and once my daughter was born, I changed. He has the right to say whatever he wants. I’m not saying he doesn't. I just feel kids with horrible diseases and their poor parents who didn't ask for this to happen to their child, is wrong.

Chris said...

If I'm to understand fungi correctly, going after kids with a disease is wrong, but adults are okay? It's a joke--lighten up, Francis.

Recently on The Daily Show Jon Stewart made fun of Barak Obama and the audience got uncomfortable. Jon looks up and said, "We can make fun of him..."

As a gay man, I use "fag" all the time. It's actually a fun word. Who doesn't know some guy who's a total fag? I know lots.

I come from a family of teasers, so my feeling is, if you're going to sit down at the big table of brotherhood, be prepared to get your balls busted.

marija said...

there was a piece on Guardian online today over Russell Brand's phone prank on his show that went awry. BBC has been washing his hands of him after receiving complaints from the public. This reminded me of the whole Imus case and your take on it - both the public and his employers knew what to expect so why were they so fucking shocked that he was an insensitive bastard - they had been paying him to do that shtick for years. Same goes for Denis Leary (he may be a joke stealer - I still love him); he's always been an asshole, the man built his entire career on being able to offend every possible minority equally, so why so shocked? He is not a politician or a decision maker, he is a comic. The stand-up comics have taken over the role of the court jesters - they have the privilege to say that the emperor has no clothes on. Anyway, Sarah Silverman is just as offensive as Leary, god bless her filthy mouth!

marija said...

Fungi: he didn't point at an autistic kid and laughed at him. he rightly pointed out that modern parents will look for any reason to say:"No, my child is not stupid and I am not a neglectful parent who works 14-hours days, he was flawed genetically and there is nothing I can do". He pointed out that administrating Ritalin had long replaced responsible and committed parenting and there is nothing wrong with saying that.There is a difference between sick children and children whose parents have given up on parenting and went to the pharmacy to get the happy pills for their little uns.

Jeff said...

I think you're absolutely right. Hell, I'm gay and I think the collective forces of GLAAD need to remove the stick from their ass (unless they enjoy it, in which case, leave in)

What pisses me off about this Denis Leary thing isn't that he used the word fag, that's his right. It was that he tried to defend it by saying that words don't have power. The late, great George Carlin built a good part of his career around the words that we use and the impact they have. Words do have power, and the hurt they can cause is real.

I guess all I'm trying to say is people can say whatever the hell you want, censorship sucks, and political corrective does more harm than help. But if you're going to start pissing people off and throwing really shitty words around, you better be able to defend with more than the lazy ass excuse "words don't have power".

Jen said...

@Fungi - I am a parent myself and I agree that there are some things that, once you become a parent, you don't find funny anymore.

However, I think Dennis Leary's point is that some parents nowadays are so intent on pinning the blame for their child not being totally "normal" on some problem that autism is now becoming over and mis-diagnosed. Rather than take the time themselves to find out if there's another reason their child became withdrawn (or etc etc) they run off to the Dr. If Doc says their child is autistic, well then hell, it can't be *the parents'* fault! It's that damn disease to blame!

I think Chez pretty much made that point in his post..

Anonymous said...

This might be pretty insignificant and/or pointless to throw out there but one of Dennis Leary's best friends, as he's stated openly plenty of times, Mario Cantone (another comedian), is gay.

Green Lantern said...

Chez,

My inner nerd is insanely jealous that you attended a Friars Club roast, AND that George Takei was the guest of honor.

Having said all that, you don't have to like Mr. Leary to appriciate that he's ultimately trying to defend freedom of speech. Me? Hell I've been a fan of the guy since "Afterdrive" aired on Comedy Central (yes, I'm THAT much of a nerd. Deal.)

Jeremy said...

Sarah Silverman is more offensive than Dennis Leary, becuase she isn't that funny (and fond as I am of fart jokes, and religion jokes, sometimes they are just too easy.)

Fungi said...

Chris- To me, the difference is Obama can defend himself. A child can’t. And don’t call me Francis, fag.

Anonymous said...

There are "fags" that are not homosexual.

There are "fags" that are homosexual (And are usually creepy or undesirable to be around by virtue of the personality they carry with their homosexuality).

There are homosexuals. Some I consider friends.

There are "niggers", and there are black people. The functional difference is black people ARE functional in society. A nigger may or may not be in a gang, but invariably is foul-mouthed, borderline retarded, and usually has something bad to say about white people, mexicans, his great-great grandfather's slavery, or how hard it is to live in the "hood". Usually, this "nigger" could have or can make his or her life better, but chooses not to because life is easier when it is filled with hate, resentment, bile, blame, and pride.

There are people with ADD/ADHD, and there are people who are too fucking lazy to try to apply themselves and learn something, instead looking for the quick entertainment fix, anything to keep their mind busy without causing them to actively think.

There are people with autism, and...well, let's just say that some kids are just dumb or their parents didn't care enough to help their child in their early years to learn what they needed to. This is generally paired with a fair number of hours spent in front of a TV.

Then there are those retards.

Oh, wait. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have used the R word. They're just idiots, or imbeciles if you prefer. Numbskulls, or simpletons, or nitwits.

Me? I'm a fucking crazy cracker with an occasional drinking problem. I am not to be confused with "Joe Six Pack" either. My name is not fucking Joe, and I don't stop at a weak-ass six pack.

votar said...

Wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Wrong.

Words do not have power. None. Nada. Nein. Zilch. Zero.

People have power. People who think that a word can somehow cause them harm, surrender that power. Words are merely instruments to deliver ideas. How you act upon those ideas is an individual choice. You are either the master of your own choices, or you are a slave. Surrendering your power to a word says more about your weakness than about the strength of the person who spoke it.

Pants said...

When it comes to humour, NOTHING should be off limits. It's what separates us from the animals, the ability to make light of the horrors that life throws at us, in order to understand them. My cousin is gay, handicapped and has the Aids. I can't imagine a person who laughed harder at the Aids-song in Team America World Police. To him, laughing at his shitty life is not only a surviving mechanism, but also a way to make whatever time he has left on this planet a hell of a lot more fun!

Amii said...

I disagree with Leary’s ideas that words have no power (I could demonstrate their power if I had time and you had interest), but I definitely agree with his reaction to question their power. This is because groups of people silently agree on the power of the words, but an individual can deny it…if he or she has the guts to do so.

Bitch, fag, queer, nigger, cunt, kike, jap all started with the power to belittle. Most have also been usurped by those who were victimized by them, and turned into powerful words of healing and protest. That’s good by me. But after awhile they do become these exclusive club words that one is not supposed to use unless one happens to fall into the type they were originally used against. That’s just another way of excluding people. I think its great that homosexuals and African Americans and women have all taken back their words, but I resent feeling pressure to use only one of them because it applies to my particular marginalized group. That’s just nonsense…or in other words: Nigger please.

Anonymous said...

I thought Matt Damon was the giant fag.

Jeff said...

Votar, you missed my point. I wasn't saying he can't use the word fag or any other word, I was asking that he not pussy-foot around about it. He should have said "I can use whatever fucking word I want and I don't care if feeling get hurt. I'm an asshole, get over it" Say it how it is, don't go half-way with some very very very wrong bull-shit about words not having power. I would get into why except I don't feel like having a debate over words and concepts and ideas ant thought. Like Amii, I don't have the time and you don't have the interest.

Anonymous said...

Our cultural perception of a word, filtered by our personal experience, causes us to react to that word in a specific way in a given context, if only because we have already decided what our reaction will be before we even reach a situation where that word comes up in that context.

If our subconscious minds weren't constantly kicking our conscious asses, perhaps people wouldn't assume so much and hurt so deeply at the encapsulation of an idea in the space of a few letters bleeding through the airwaves.

Chez said...

Anon 5:58 --

You're absolutely right. I corrected it. I've really been having this issue lately where I have to write very quickly -- to say nothing of reading the source material -- because I do it in between taking care of the baby. As such, I make stupid mistakes. Sorry.

And of course sorry to Matt Dillon, who's not, in fact, a fag.

MelodyLane said...

The thing is that somewhere within this layer of bullshit known as "political correctness" that people lost the ability to take a joke. "Oh, you can't laugh at that because that is insensitive" or "Oh, well one jackass somewhere may get offended at someone stating the obvious". The point is that comedy, humor, whatever is there for a reason. Get over yourself and seriously take your free hand that you are not using to complain about Leary, bad things on tv, or the word "porno" in the title of Kevin Smith's new movie and remove the giant stick from your ass. People need to chill the hell out and realize that life isn't always fair, sometimes you loose, and not teaching your children that is doing them a major disservice.

Autism is a serious illness. I have a friend who is a school psychologist and see children every day overmedicated, bored, and misdiagnosed. The statement that Autism is becoming the new ADHD is pretty accurate if you ask me. I have a psych degree and I have studied autism. If Ms. McCarthy wants to complain about Dennis Leary making an offhanded statement about autism, then she needs to take a serious look into her own statement about how she "cured" her son's autism. There is no cure for classical autism. It is more likely that her son either had a very mild form or was misdiagnosed. With her statement of a cure, she is doing a larger disservice to those who deal with autism than a statement by a man who made a song called "I'm an asshole".

Amanda said...

Jenny McCarthy gets on my damn nerves. She's always on Oprah crying about her damn kid with damn autism. If she had any sense at all she'd see that he wasn't insulting people who actually suffer with autism. Dumbass.

With that said, YES I watch the occasional episode of Oprah (as long as Nate Berkus isn't there) and YES I had to suffer Jenny McCarthy snotting and sobbing during the New Earth webcast on Oprah.com. That was annoying.

Mr. Controversy said...

...I envy you sir. You got to go to a Friar's Club roast and watch it all up close. You lucky bastard, you.

Kurgan said...

When did we forget how to laugh at ourselves?

Anonymous said...

Words don't have power, but they do have histories. That's why it's way easier to watch a black man call another black man a nigger than a white man to do the same. Although we're supposed to be equal enough to poke fun at everything without getting anyone's panties in a knot (although anyone with half a brain knows this is not the case), it still brings up pretty close, and pretty uncomfortable issues.

It's a comedy book. I'm not going to go on crusade or anything. I just think he's pretty dumb shit for believing the words he says are inconsequential. It's just another weak way of absolving himself of responsibility for his statements.