When I was in my early teens, I was the proverbial ‘good’ boy. I was religious, didn’t swear, didn’t smoke or drink surreptitiously, and drugs were simply out of the question. But I had a neighbor of the same age who was much more worldly than I. And this youth used to tell coarse jokes. These jokes dealt with sex and bodily parts and bodily functions. They poked fun at gays and women and were outrageously sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic, although I did not know these words at that time.
As I recall, the jokes were mostly labored puns, and depended on a character having a highly improbable and contrived name that was essential for the working of the joke. So when the character was introduced by name in the set up, you pretty much could guess what the punch line was going to be. After all these years I can still recall one joke, not by remembering it entire, but because I can remember the name of the main character and thus can reconstruct the joke from that name.
Clever, these jokes were not. Even at that young age, I could see that they were labored and crude. But still I enjoyed hearing them and laughed along with the teller, feeding his ego that he was a witty raconteur, a veritable Lenny Bruce, so that he would tell more. I think that the appeal of these jokes for me was that they were a guilty pleasure, a way for me, the ‘good’ boy, to have an outlet for speaking about socially repressed topics like sex and yet preserve my self-image. After all, I wasn’t saying any of these things, I was just a bystander.
But then I grew up. As an adult, I had the freedom to speak openly about these topics and didn’t need to giggle furtively at crude humor and language as a means of expression. I think that perhaps my experience was not uncommon. At the awkward adolescent age that young men go through, when they are trying to figure out their gender and ethnic identities in societies that are uncomfortable with openly discussing them, this kind of humor may for some be a necessary phase for trying out speculative ideas.
As an adult, if one is fortunate enough, one becomes more aware of the diversity of the world and the shared human values. One also encounters and makes friends with people of different ethnicities and religions and genders and sexual orientations and begins to realize that humor that is based on gratuitously insulting those groups is simply not funny.
Sometimes the lessons are learned painfully. I remember attending a World Student Christian Movement international conference as the Sri Lankan delegate in the early 1970s. The American delegation consisted mostly of women who were feminists and I remember making ‘jokes’ (of the ‘there, there, little girl’ type) that were condescending and patronizing to women and feminism, The women were, naturally enough, infuriated and did not hesitate to tell me why they thought I was an idiot. Although I brushed off their criticisms at the time, I think their comments worked on me slowly and I realized later that I had acted like a jerk. (I still cringe at the memory and in the highly unlikely event that decades later any of them are reading this blog, I apologize.).
This is not to say that humor based on gender or sex or sexual identity and ethnicity need to be avoided. We have to take pleasure in our differences and our diversity, and a rich vein of humor can be mined by playing off stereotypes. Dave Barry shows how it can be done well in his brilliantly funny essay on The Difference Between Men and Women. But there is a world of difference between clever and mean, between witty and crude. Depending upon insulting words and denigrating stereotypes means that you have no creativity and are simply desperate to get a laugh, any laugh..
This is what seems to be at the heart of the Don Imus episode. Although I have never watched or listened to his show (except for the occasional YouTube clips when it dealt with some political topic) what caused the furor seemed to me to be like the situation when I was young, laughing along with my neighbor’s lame attempts at humor. All the celebrity guests, the so-called ‘respectable’ people, the movers and shakers in the political and media world, who repeatedly appeared on his show and indulged his alleged racist and sexist and homophobic humor seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to enjoy this forbidden pleasure, while still clinging to their respectability because they themselves did not say any of those things. They, like me, adopted the ‘innocent bystander’ defense. And this acceptance of his actions by them in turn enabled Imus to feel that what he was doing was just fine, even perhaps admirable.
The whole thing reminds me (as so many things do) of a Monty Python sketch. This one starts with Terry Jones as a little naughty schoolboy thinking that it is very funny to say the word ‘bottom’ while his ‘good’ friends giggle, and ends with the famous ‘nudge, nudge’ sketch where Eric Idle is satirizing grown men who never really became mature. They want to talk about sex but can only do so in innuendo.
What surprises me is one ‘defense’ that is being offered on Imus’s behalf, that he was an equal-opportunity offender, insulting almost every possible minority group. When did that become a good thing?
I am not much in touch anymore with talk radio and talk TV (or even popular culture in general for that matter) and so have no idea if Imus was better or worse than others in those media or whether his summary firing was justified by those standards. I suspect that he was fired for business reasons and the defection of advertisers, the real arbiter of media content, and not due to a sudden increase in refinement in the sensibilities of his audience or of the corporate bigwigs who own the stations his show ran on.
But what I feel is that while the type of humor Imus got into trouble for is not funny, and the behavior as practiced by him and his associates and guests is perhaps understandable in callow youths as a temporary phase on the road to maturity, it looks sad and pathetic when practiced by old men.
POST SCRIPT: Parody of Parodies
While searching for the above video, I ran across this very funny clip that pokes fun at the church of Monty Python, of which I am a devout member, as I am sure that readers of this blog have figured out.