Comedy Ethics, Censorship, and Culture

(The current uproar over the use of  various versions of the word “retarded” by Rahm Emanuel and Rush Limbaugh seems to warrant a reprint, slightly revised, of the following essay on ethics and comedy, a January 2008 post on The Ethics Scoreboard. The word “retard” also came in for criticism in a comic context last year, with its use in the Ben Stiller comedy “Tropic Thunder.” Of course, comedy is one thing, and gratuitous cruelty is another. In either case, the issue is the use of a word, not the word itself. As discussed in the previous post, it is appropriate for any group to promote sensitivity and to encourage civility. It is unethical to try to bully others into censoring their speech by trying to “ban” words, phrases or ideas. )

Here is the essay:

Comedy Ethics

“Saturday Night Live” has, not for the first time in its three decade run, ignited an ethics controversy with politically incorrect humor. Was SNL ensemble member Fred Armison’s impression of  New York Governor David Paterson, who is blind, including as it did a wandering eye and featuring slapstick disorientation, legitimate satire or, as Paterson and advocates for the blind have claimed, a cruel catalyst for discrimination against the sight-challenged?
It is not an easy call, though the opposing sides of the argument probably think it should be. And it raises long-standing questions about the balance between ethics and humor.

Humor advocates say that comedy must be able to reign free, and that jokes about our differences, weaknesses, eccentricities and problems must not be censored in any way. It offends you? Fine: don’t laugh, don’t applaud, don’t watch. But don’t tell those who are amused that they have no right to laugh at the outrageous, or those who create humor that their range must be limited by those who don’t appreciate the jokes, rather than expanded by those who do.

The critics look at the problem from the opposite end of the telescope. Ridicule has long been a tool of discrimination and oppression, reinforcing public bias and misconceptions. When society is trying to improve itself, become more humane, just and fair, humor based on stereotypes and ridicule can become a serious obstacle. The civil rights movement had to battle offensive black stereotypes in radio, TV and movies, like Steppin’ Fetchit (“Feets don’t fail me now!”) the slow-talking and slower moving “Lightnin” in the “Amos and Andy” shows, and “Prissy” in “Gone with the Wind.” The women’s liberation movement was undermined by jokes about women drivers and screen portrayals of brainless bimbos. Jews, Hispanics, Gays, alcoholics, the mentally ill, people with speech impediments…these and many other groups have been the butts of jokes and comedy routines for decades, and some of them still are.

Earlier this year, a similar controversy erupted over the Ben Stiller comedy “Tropic Thunder” and its running gag about Stiller’s character portraying a “full retard”—a movie character that made Forrest Gump look like nuclear physicist by comparison.  Yes, I thought it was funny. And I am aware that if my son had Down Syndrome, I would probably have not been so amused. But that should not be the standard. Ultimately, efforts to dictate acceptable humor becomes censorship and thought control, because they limit creativity and expression. They also lead to inequities and, if we try to be fair, the ever-present slippery slope.

On what basis do we declare jokes about the blind intolerable, but continue to laugh at lampoons of seniors, when age discrimination is a far more pervasive national problem that discrimination against the blind? During the presidential campaign, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Jay Leno included one or more joke about John McCain’s advanced age virtually every night. They were every bit as disrespectful and absurd as Armisen’s portrayal of Paterson as not being able to find the camera. By what logic were the McCain gags acceptable but the Paterson bits flagrantly over the line? Because “everyone” knows the elderly can still do complex jobs? Because McCain is a white Republican and Paterson is a black Democrat? Because jokes about the elderly are more common, from Tim Conway’s shuffling geezer on “The Carol Burnett Show” to Johnny Carson’s “Aunt Blabby” on the old “Tonight Show”? Because it is less of a burden to be old than to be blind?

Why was it offensive for Ben Stiller to portray an imaginary, absurd moron, but acceptable for “Saturday Night Live” to portray the President of the United States as an equally ridiculous moron (in one 2000 skit, joyfully playing with a ball of yarn, like a kitten)? If you really believe Bush is such a moron, isn’t this exactly the same as making fun of Paterson’s blindness? Or does Bush have to not be a moron for it to be fair to portray him as one? Is it only amusing the lampoon Bill Clinton as a sex addict if he is a sex addict, or is it more acceptable if he doesn’t suffer from this A.M.A. sanctioned disorder?

As always, once you start analyzing what makes humor funny, it isn’t, and figuring out what makes a joke funny is as bewildering as determining what makes a gag offensive. And that, I believe, gives us the way out of this problem.

Humor has to be acceptable and ethical as long as it is funny to sufficient numbers of people, with the additional requirement that it not be intended to cause harm. The culture continues to adjust our sense of humor. By its nature, humor will be either ahead of consensus or behind it, for humor is a form of art. And there will always be segments of society, sometimes quite large segments, that will find forms and topics of humor objectionable. This can’t be avoided, unless we want to ban all humor. There are individuals who object to classic Warner Brothers cartoons, because they portray violence. Monty Python episodes that many find hilarious mock speech impediments, diseases, mental illness, women, gays, religion, ethnic groups and other nationalities, as well as the British. “The Simpsons,” which has helped define American humor since the 90’s, was roundly (and wrongly) condemned as portraying harmful values.

And then there is “South Park.”

What we once considered outrageous and even culturally dangerous humor decades and even mere years ago has sometimes emerged as culturally vibrant and stimulating. Lenny Bruce was arrested for material that Chris Rock would consider tepid. Do some forms of humor make us coarser, less humane? That is a long-running debate with no resolution in sight. What we do know is that laughter, and the ability to laugh at ourselves, is an essential ingredient of a sane and happy civilization, and that efforts to control, through decree and outrage, what is regarded as funny by others has never been effective. What moderates humor is cultural consensus and evolving standards of kindness and respect. Those are reached by open discussion and experimentation, combined with active ethical instincts.

For humor isn’t humor if no one laughs. Over a decade ago, SNL was hosted by singer Ray Charles, and at the end of the show, there was a presentation by Michael O’Donoghue, the black humor specialist on the writing staff whose on-air character was the dark wag “Mr. Mike.” Michael O’Donoghue’s  idea of a comedy act was to give a vivid imitation of Tony Orlando and Dawn “having red hot spikes plunged into their eyes.”

In the final moments of the Charles show, “Mr. Mike” told Ray that the cast wanted to give him “special gift”…

“You know, we’ve kidded Ray a lot tonight, but blindness is nothing to kid about. So, we at “Saturday Night,” with the network, set up sort of a matching fund and we were able to purchase this lovely painting in appreciation of Ray Charles and the courageous example he sets for all of us — besides being one heck of a good sport. And, so, in Ray’s name, we’re donating this painting to the Lighthouse of the Blind, in the hope that someday all will be able to see it. Let me just, uh, pull the string here and give you to look at what I’m talking about. [“Mr. Mike” removed the covering to reveal a frame without a painting, just big red block letters that read: PLEASE DON’T TELL HIM!] It was painted in 1909 by the French Impressionist Claude Monet and it’s entitled, as you may have already guessed, “The Old Windmill.” Uh, there’s that shimmering iridescence, the, uh, subtle interplay between light and shadow that Monet was famous for. Hard to describe really, you sort of have to see it.”

It was a very tasteless gag, and a very funny one. Was it funny because it was such an outrageous trick to play on a blind man? Was it funny because everyone knew Charles was in on the gag? (After the presentation, Charles made this clear with his own joke: “Now, what Mr. Mike doesn’t know … is, at the party, are going to be ten or twelve of the biggest black dudes he’s ever seen in his life. And they’re gonna whoop him upside his head and break every bone in his body. So please don’t tell him!”) Would David Paterson have found it funny? Who knows?

What we do know is that if people stopped laughing at such humor, such jokes would disappear, because it would be humor no longer. (I think that would be a loss. Laughs are worth protecting, like endangered species. Naughty and tasteless laughs are like endangered stink-bugs and dung-eating lizards: ugly, but still worth having around for diversity.) For decades, the slurred speech and shaky walk of drunks were staples of comedy. Dudley Moore won an Oscar portraying a funny alcoholic in “Arthur.” Then, suddenly, Americans didn’t find alcoholism funny any more. It wasn’t because of scolding and protests from activists. The change grew out of gradual awareness of the astonishing number of alcoholics in our families and workplaces, combined with the medical profession’s conviction that this is a terrible illness rather than a “moral failing.”

Did drunk jokes and drunk routines vanish because someone declared them insensitive and wrong, or tried to ban them? No. They vanished because they just weren’t funny to enough people any more. Comedy is utilitarian by nature: if it works, the end often justifies the means. But when the laughs stop, all that is left  is the means. If such jokes don’t make people laugh, then the jokes must be malicious. Malicious jokes are unethical.

The verdict on the SNL David Paterson sketch has to be this:  it was within the broad range of ethical humor, recognizing that satire, by its very nature, often has element of criticism, meanness, unfairness and disrespect. All that can be acceptable, if it is funny. But the fact that it was funny this week doesn’t mean it will be funny in ten years, or even next year. The culture, as always will decide.

Let us enumerate some basic principles of comedy and ethics:

1. Humor, laughter, and comedy are important, and necessary components of human existence and civilization. As such, they deserve to be given great weight in any balancing exercise.

2. There are two varieties of unethical joke: those that aren’t funny, and those with a malicious intent.

3. Humor does not have to appeal to a majority or even a substantial minority to justify itself, nor is the fact that some or many may find a joke offensive sufficient reason to censor or suppress it.

4. Humor, like all speech and art, requires freedom to experiment, to test limits, and to be wrong. Attempting to censor humor is more wrong than any misguided attempts at humor itself.

5. Humor, like all forms of public speech, cannot claim immunity from accountability and responsibility. “It’s just a joke!” and “Lighten up!” should not end public debate about whether a particular attempt at humor is, in fact, funny or worth the pain it may inflict or the conduct it may encourage.

The governor and advocates for the blind are right to raise the issue of whether such jokes are worth the cost, and they have a right, and even a responsibility, to persuade the public that they shouldn’t be laughing. Meanwhile, comics, humorists and comedians are not breaking ethical principles by exploring the frontiers of laughter.

Ray Charles would understand.

6 thoughts on “Comedy Ethics, Censorship, and Culture

  1. Very interesting post. Whoever wrote this post, I am interested in talking with them further because I am looking at starting a project looking at comedy and ethics and I would like to have further conversation. Please feel free to email me.

  2. Pingback: The Dishonest or Cowardly Joke Excuse « Ethics Alarms

  3. Pingback: Police Brutality: Direct TV Strikes Again! « Ethics Alarms

  4. if laughter is an end
    this forgets
    that the end then, may be the means that causes offence
    laughter is the expression
    that falls on those who do not laugh

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