Saturday, April 23, 2011

Humor in Bad Taste?

Last Monday, Jack Steuf wrote a post where he mocked a poem written by Sarah Palin's followers.  Apparently his intent was to criticize Palin for using her child as a prop for her political agenda.  Unfortunately, this is how he chose to criticize her - by quoting the poem's refrain: “Oh little boy, what are you dreaming about?” to which he added, “What’s he dreaming about? Nothing. He’s retarded.”  Trig Palin, the youngest of the Palin children, has Downs Syndrome.

Many advertisers dropped Wonkette, the site on which the post appeared. No surprise there. Insurance company Aflac fired comedian Gilbert Gottfried, voice of the Aflac duck, for the jokes he posted on Twitter about the tsunami in Japan.  What could possibly be funny about that?  However, this is not a new phenomenon.  Remember the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer goes to the dentist?  A mouth full of Novocaine causes a dribbling mouth.  That, along with his awkward walking in training shoes causes him to be mistaken for an Able Mentally Challenged Adult.  Kramer is invited to an AMCA benefit, where Mel Torme dedicates the song "When You're Smiling" to Kramer.  Still feeling the effects of the Novocaine, Kramer lip-syncs the lyrics of the song, still looking like he is mentally challenged.  This episode too received a lot of criticism when it was first aired.  To this day I cringe when this episode appears on syndicated television.

This begs the question: Do comedians and humorists really need to go after people with special needs in order to get a laugh?  Do they need to get a laugh out of hopelessly tragic situations like the tsunami, hurricane Katrina (Thank you, Carlos Mencia) and September 11?  Isn't there enough material for them to find without offending the victims of these unfortunate circumstances?  How insecure do they have to be to pick on people or situations that they are lucky enough not to be a part of?  On the flip side, I have heard the argument made for freedom of speech and the entitlement to one's opinion.  The assessment from this faction is that political correctness has taken over and caused us to become an overly sensitive, humorless society.

So, when is it permissible to laugh at someone's tragedy?  Back in 1984, I watched Geri Jewell do a comedy routine about living with Cerebral Palsy.  One of her punch-lines was "It takes me longer to put on my make-up than Boy George."  I wasn't sure if it would make be a bad person to laugh at that line.  Fast forward to 25 years later and Josh Blue who also has Cerebral Palsy is joking about how this affliction causes him 45 minutes to sign a single autograph.  Josh, winner of Last Comic Standing in 2006, uses self-deprecating humor and makes his audience feel that it is perfectly okay to laugh at his jokes. 

Then there are comedians like Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern.  Racist, misogynistic, homophobic.  Hated by most, revered by some. What do we make of their humor?  Cutting edge or woefully offensive?  What do we make of their fans?  

Pondering over all of this, I came to a shocking realization about myself.  I am a huge fan of the show "Family Guy".  If I were being honest, the show is sometimes no less offensive than everyone and everything I have stated above.  Is it easier to look past everything offensive in the show because the laughs come in quick punches?  Does the animation tone down the force of the blow?  Does it make me a bad person because I laugh at the truly tasteless jokes along with the good ones in the show?

I don't have the answers.  But I take with me a quote from Josh Blue.  The way he sees it, "Everybody has a disability, whether you admit it or not. Sure, disability is a label, but it's one I don't give a s*** about. Life is too short. Just go all-out and enjoy the f*** out of it."

As for Jack Stuef, he issued an a statement saying he was sorry that people were offended by what he wrote, but hee stood by his assertion that Sarah Palin was using her children as political props.  My thought - did he really need to use the R word?  We all know that Trig has Downs.  His criticism of Palin should have had nothing to do with Trig.

I would be interested to know what you think.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

We Are The Champions

We are the champions, my friends
And we'll keep on fighting till the end 
We are the champions 
We are the champions
No time for losers
'Cause we are the champions of the world 

This now legendary song by Queen has become the anthem of winners in all walks of life.  Whether they overcome obstacles, graduate, win a game.  And today, this will be the anthem of every Indian.  For the first time in 28 years they took home the 2011 Cricket World Cup.  Congratulations Indian Cricket team, we are so proud of you!

Growing up, I was never really interested in the game.  I did not understand it.  To me, cricket seemed to be all about a player defending 3 sticks from a ball, using his bat.  Somewhere in there was the concept of hitting the ball hard enough to allow him to run away from and back to the three sticks he was defending.  There were terms I didn't understand, that sounded like they would make good cartoon sketches.  "A Fine Leg and a Deep Square Leg".  All my mind's eye could see was a player with two limbs that didn't match.  "Out for a Duck".  I could see someone trying to catch a fleeing, quacking bird.  And "Bowled A Maiden Over".  Now that you get the idea, picture that in your mind!  

But with the advent of television and with little transistor radios becoming so affordable, there came a time when EVERYONE had their pulse on the cricket matches that were being played.  My classmates would bring their little transistor radios to school, and turn them on during the ride in the school bus and at any opportunity they could, just to hear the score.  Eventually, one couldn't help but get on board, as cricket fever swept the nation.  Cricket during the weekend was especially interesting.  The streets were quiet, there was no traffic on the roads, you could almost hear a pin drop.  Once the match was complete, people came out of their houses either jubilant or dejected.  Those days you could see neighborhood children get together and play the game.  Some of them were able to afford the gear, including leg pads.  Others would use whatever they could find.  The less fortunate children who grew up on the streets were especially resourceful.  They would draw three wickets on a wall, use a broken piece of wood as a bat and use a tennis ball to play cricket.  Nobody really cared that they didn't have the right gear.  I remember quite a few times that a crash of glass from a broken window would prematurely end a game, with all the kids scattering away and an indignant neighbor seeking them out.

As time went by, one saw shifts in behavior related to cricket matches, not all of which were moments to be proud.  The political tension between India and Pakistan was taken to the field with some undesirable results.  Politicians used the venue to rile up negative sentiments.  I remember one situation where a politician poured hot asphalt on a playing field.  There was another situation when Pakistan won a match against India.  Coincidentally someone was burning fireworks after that match, which some people perceived as Muslims celebrating Pakistan's victory.  A riot ensued.   These situations were few and far between though, considering the fact that we were talking about millions of people who wanted more than anything in the world, to win.   The enterprising street hawkers would set up a television that people could watch.  The investment was worth it for them, because they drummed up business like you cannot imagine.  Throngs of people clustered around the television set to watch.  Even though people were supposed to be at work or going about their business, nobody really cared.  The match was on.  People stayed up late to watch, and sometimes the matches that were played in other countries went on into the wee hours of the morning.  

That was what cricket fever felt like.  I didn't have to be crazy about the game to be part of it all.  I just had to be able to celebrate when we won.  That wasn't difficult to do.  It was really easy to get caught up in the pure joy that everyone felt from winning.  That is what India is feeling right now.  That is what I am missing the most.

Congratulations again, India.