Laughing At Or With Hate?
If it wasn't for Borat and Michael Richards, how would we discuss racism in America? Oh sure, there are police shootings and beatings caught on video. But those forms of institutional violence are forever with us and do little to shine new light on old pathologies and hatreds. And let's be frank -- they're not as glamorous as celebrities losing their minds and comedians poking at societal wounds. If you don't know the person gunned down by cops, you can read the headline, shake your head, mutter angrily, then move on to something else. Michael Richards we'll remember. How many of you still think about Eleanor Bumpers?
Also, the main culture prefers focusing on the kind of racism that doesn't call the system into question. Instead, we examine a particular person caught in an awkward or compromised position, as if they are some archiac exception to our wonderful, people-loving democracy. This is especially the case with Richards, whose racist outburst at LA's Laugh Factory is still being talked about and denounced, with Richards assuming the role of the country's main bigot, or at least the present symbol of white contempt for The Other.
There was a part of me that hoped, for Richards's sake, that the whole Laugh Factory tirade was staged; that the person who shot it and the people who were the targets were all in on the act. What would be the point? A parody of the celebrity caught speaking his rancid mind, the reactions to it, the hoops the celeb would have to jump through, the forced contrition, the attempt to heal wounds under the bright lights of mass media. In other words, a multi-level take on, say, the Mel Gibson incident. This is something that Andy Kaufman did without peer, and for Richards, it would get him away from Kramer and closer to his own type of comedy.
But, most times, things are as they appear to be, and Richards looks like he has some serious demons swirling within.
Still, Richards isn't alone. Racism exists and probably will always exist in some form because humans possess tribalistic minds. The various social divisions we tolerate and help to enforce take on different features, depending on the level of society and the immediate need for distinction. It can be institutional or personal, but we all do it, no matter how "good" our overall intentions. At best, we can water it down over time, as Martin Amis once put it in relation to his father and to his son. His father was more racist than he, and through exposure, experience and education, his son will hopefully be less racist than he, and so on down the generational line. And that's just white people we're talking about here. Prejudice, hatred and bias exist in everyone. No one escapes. Does this mean that we should shrug off open displays of racist feeling? Of course not. But there are differences between straightforward hatred and expressing hateful words in order to mock or demystify them. And since Richards had his breakdown in a comedy club, that difference has become somewhat blurred.
Thanks to Richards, there is a renewed drive to get everyone, white and black, to cease saying "nigger," regardless of context. The Laugh Factory has banned the word, which is not surprising, given the bad publicity the club has received. But how does a ban on that or any other racial or sexual epithet change matters? Easy -- it doesn't. It does, however, give many people a false sense of comfort, for if one does not hear or read "nigger," then racism is on the run, yes?
Now, I'll concede that more overt racists take advantage of any opening that allows them to spout their poison. Hey, they usually say to the offended, it's only a joke! This is the Rush Limbaugh/Ann Coulter dodge, and it's adopted and plied by lesser, cruder talents, which reinforces the original point: simply banning a word does nothing to change the feelings of those who use it to express their hatred. And by banning the word, you restrict the ways in which a comedian or satirist can take it apart to offer a better look at the nastiness that resides in all of us. The old adage that sunlight is the best disinfectant remains true.
But even in a comedic context, there is ambiguity, especially if white performers and writers attempt to attack a racist word or set of beliefs. Are white comedians really trying to breakdown and expose hateful attitudes, or are they hiding behind the Rush/Coulter dodge? Depends on the comic. I've seen white comics say some pretty ignorant shit, then try to pass it off as "satire," assuming they know what that word means. Here's an example of that mindset:
Then there's someone like Howard Stern, who is less relevant these days, now that his tired routines are restricted to satellite radio. But when he was coming up, from WNBC-AM in the early 80s through his prime K-Rock years after the Peacock fired him, Stern played with and mocked racial attitudes across the board. At times he cut so close to the bone that it was difficult to know whether or not he was racist himself, and it was this uncertainty that gave his humor added edge.
I must confess that I didn't appreciate Stern until he was well-established, at least on the east coast. Though I lived in New York all through the 80s, I never listened to his show, taking the word of some white liberal friends that Stern hated all non-whites, women and gay men, while he exploited lesbians for cheap laughs. It wasn't until I came across his Saturday night TV show in 1990 that I realized how simplistic my friends' dismissal was. While uncomfortable with some of his humor, I could see that there was more going on than mere race or sex baiting: Stern took an anarchistic approach to tribalism in general, rooted to his own confused upbringing in a largely black neighborhood. It was easily the most honest satirical take on racism I'd ever seen -- not perfect, not always funny, but clear and direct. And it reminded me why one should never trust a liberal when it comes to comedy that you've never seen. If it causes a lib any unease, chances are good that they'll hate it and insist you hate it, too.
Here's an excellent example of Stern's humor at his peak -- "Guess Who's The Jew." And unlike "Saturday Night Live", which openly stole this idea, Stern brought on real people to play unscripted roles. One, Daniel Carver, an actual Klansman, was a Stern regular, who didn't seem aware that he was being mocked. Another was Marie Bronson, an African-American woman whose obvious disdain for Carver made her, in a weird sense, his straightperson. And of course, with a premise like this, you knew that Kurt Waldheim Jr. would appear, played by Stern writer, actor and sound effects engineer Fred Norris, who was a devotee of Michael O'Donoghue (as if you couldn't tell in this sketch).
So, Sonsters, is this sketch an attack on racist, hateful attitudes, or simply racist itself? It's the same question being asked about the Borat film by those who have a hard time distinguishing parody from reality. And that such angry confusion still exists further proves that simply burying offensive words delays a better understanding of their power to wound, when not simply giving them more power than they deserve.
HA HA: Now that everyone is watching "Seinfeld" with different eyes, here's a piece from "Fridays" that, in retrospect, has an even funnier ending than before.