After the initial storm comes the analysis. What makes Imus unfunny but South Park funny? Interesting article that may answer some of your written, or unwritten, thoughts....
April 15, 2007
Hey, That’s (Not) Funny
By RANDY KENNEDY
SECOND maybe only to the Big Bang, the elusive essence of comedy has been subjected to a lot of theorizing. In Woody Allen
’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a character played by Alan Alda
described it pompously and mathematically as “tragedy plus time.” Steve Martin
says it’s what makes you laugh but not puke. Schopenhauer believed it was based on a false syllogism, and other philosophers said it revolved around a hidden misunderstanding. (Lone Ranger: “Looks like we’re surrounded by Indians, Tonto.” Tonto: “What’s all this ‘we’ stuff, kemo sabe?”)
At this point, at least one thing is known: if you have to explain after a joke that you were trying to be funny, then it was not funny.
And if you are Don Imus
— or anyone on a growing list of comedians who work in the treacherous terrain where race and humor meet — then you are guilty of more than flopping. You are guilty of indecent exposure, caught out in the cold without your clown suit on. All of your intentions and beliefs, ones that did not matter much as long as laughter was your primary goal, suddenly become relevant. So you find yourself trying to justify humor, never a pretty sound bite, as Mr. Imus demonstrated when he appeared Monday on the Rev. Al Sharpton
’s radio show.
“I didn’t think it was a racial insult,” he told Mr. Sharpton, of his now-endlessly repeated reference to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”
“I thought it was in the process of us rapping and trying to be funny,” he said, sounding very little like the straight-talking Imus that his fans and detractors have come to know.
More than anything, it seems, his downfall has pointed to a double standard — or what one might call simply a standard — at work in humor that uses racist and sexist stereotypes. If comedians or talk-show hosts are funny enough, in any of the hard-to-define ways that can be determined, they often earn a pass when offensive material is used.
Of course, it’s not a universal pass; many people will never find humor that flirts with racism or sexism or homophobia funny and will continue to be offended and hurt by it. But the pass often works even if the humor is what comedy experts sometimes call “outsider to insider” joking — a white comedian wielding minority stereotypes; a straight woman making fun of lesbians — a much trickier proposition than insider humor.
Mr. Sharpton, for example, has not campaigned for the cancellation of other shows that tread up to and sometimes cross the line, like “South Park,” the slash-and-burn cartoon satire on Comedy Central, created by two white men, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, where racial epithets are about as plentiful as pronouns and ugly stereotypes are strip-mined down to the last laugh.
, the chief executive of CBS, which canceled Mr. Imus’s radio show on Thursday, spoke of “the effect language like this has on our young people.” But Mr. Moonves is part of same media empire, Viacom, controlled by Sumner M. Redstone
, that oversees “South Park.” In a 2003 episode of the show, to cite just one of countless examples, a hand puppet version of Jennifer Lopez
used so many offensive ways of portraying Hispanics it was hard to keep track.
“It’s indefensible on any level, and yet it’s hilarious,” said Chris Kelly, a writer for “Real Time With Bill Maher
” on HBO. “It’s almost the purity of the racism. Or something. I don’t know.”
“Things like this require you to make a quality distinction, which is so hard to do,” said Mr. Kelly, who is white.
Comedians and commentators interviewed over the past several days offered numerous explanations for why Mr. Imus failed the funny test so spectacularly this time, after years of dealing in the same kind of material.
For one thing, they said, the danger was more acute for his show because it confused the kinds of expectations that humor needs to succeed. While Howard Stern
’s guests, for example, tend to follow the stripper-bum-drunk-fallen-celebrity continuum fairly closely, Mr. Imus made his name by making his show a forum for serious thought and serious thinkers.
“It really is about expectations when you get down to it,” said Larry Wilmore, a longtime comedy writer who is a correspondent on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
.” (He is billed as the show’s “senior black correspondent” though he is also its sole black correspondent, and he often uses raced-based humor.)
“I mean you just can’t say, ‘So let’s talk about what’s happening to the economy this week, and up next, nappy-headed hos!,’ ” he said. “People get confused.”
He added that while Mr. Stern and many other white comedians trafficking in race-and-gender-based humor — Sarah Silverman, Sacha Baron Cohen
— make it clear to one degree or another that they are playing a role, Mr. Imus has presented himself more or less as Don Imus, a craggy-faced contrarian in a 10-gallon hat.
And while he might have been trying to sling street lingo for its discordant comic effect — as if to say, “Isn’t it ridiculous to hear this coming from a guy who looks like me?” — he was not able to pull it off. Instead, it seemed merely provocative, another sop thrown to his more Neanderthal fans, the kind he has been throwing for years.
“I have a mathematical equation for all this,” said Mr. Wilmore. “White guy plus black slang equals comedy. But here’s where the equation breaks down. White guy plus black slang minus common sense equals tragedy.”
“I think he failed comedically more than anything else,” he added.
As many people have remarked, he also fumbled badly in choosing a target for his joke — a specific and sympathetic target, a come-from-behind women’s basketball team that had just lost a tough championship game. He did not level his lampoon at all black people or all women or, alternately, the kinds of supposedly bulletproof figures used for target practice by the comedy world all the time — politicians, reality-show contestants and celebrities like, for example, Jennifer Lopez.
“That kind of humor works pretty well from below, when you are blasting people who are powerful and rich and who can’t be hurt much,” said Victor Raskin, a professor of English and linguistics at Purdue University
and an editor of the International Journal of Humor Research. “But here, it doesn’t work, racist or not.”
Or as the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
, put it: “If he had decided to parody the hip-hop world or whomever he got this lingo from, then maybe that would have been funny. But I think his primary goal was to elicit shock, not to make people laugh.”
Some people interviewed suggested that Mr. Imus’s career might have had at least a slim chance of survival if he had parried the attacks by simply being really funny, instead of making the customary rounds of repentance and apologia.
Mr. Kelly cited the example of Ms. Silverman, who was criticized for using an epithet offensive to many Asian-Americans in a joke during “Late Night With Conan O’Brien
” in 2001. She never apologized and even worked the incident itself into a new comedy bit that continued to use the word — in essence, defending her comedy with comedy (though many viewers were not placated and will never find the joke funny).
Mr. Wilmore said that instead of apologizing Mr. Imus probably “should have said, ‘You know, it’s hard out here for a pimp.’ Or something like that. Say something really funny.”
“It’s his job to remind people that he’s irreverent, and he’s a satirist,” he added. “I certainly would have done that. I’d have tried to entertain my way out of it.”