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?
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.
"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.
DXM: The Nth Degree/11.21.06
DXM: Why So Serious?/4.25.08