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.