Defend Art, Not Celebrity

I thought I was done with writing about the Oscars, but those damn bastards at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences get me every year. Maybe I’m coming into the fray too late, and I had promised myself I would stop talking about such a non-issue, but as these things are wont to do, it ballooned into a larger battle that I actually care about.

I’m a big fan of comedy. I love and am fascinated by great standup work, comedy writing, films, etc. I think it’s one of the hardest things to do, especially as people age and get more serious and find they perhaps have less in their lives to laugh about. That is, of course, when they need it the most. As the always vituperative and hilarious Doug Stanhope once said about New York City “[It’s] why I filmed my special here…because it’s the last fucking place I wanna be.”

A short time after the Oscars telecast ended, someone manning @TheOnion tweeted the following: “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis kind of a cunt, right?” I don’t follow the Onion’s twitter account, but I laughed. If my quoting of Stanhope wasn’t a good indication, I’m a fan of the shocking and grotesque in comedy. Most people on the Internet, however, were not pleased. There was a swift and angry outcry as it seemed every person with access to Twitter immediately came to Wallis’ aide.

While the tweet was no doubt risqué, and admittedly, perhaps not very thought-out in terms of potential consequences, I was somewhat baffled by the reaction. Yes, the person in question is nine years old, and yes, she no doubt would catch wind of it at some point and her poor unfortunate parents would have to explain it to her. It was probably a bad move on the part of The Onion.

Still, given the amount of backlash, you would have thought that whoever was manning the satirical paper’s twitter feed that night had posted snuff film footage. Within minutes, it became clear to me that most of the folks fanning the flames had completely missed the satirical subtext of the tweet, as it was clearly designed to lampoon the celebrity-obsessed gossip rag culture we’re currently mired in, full of hack “journalists” who seem to be attacking younger and younger stars for no real reason outside of their own success (see: Anne Hathaway, Kristin Stewart, et al). However, most of the people responding to the tweet were probably so mired in the modern swamp of irrelevancy that the reference flew right over their star-obsessed heads. Additionally, nearly 100% of those furiously typing way continued to perpetuate the false narrative that the word “cunt” belongs on the same level of gravity and shame as the word “nigger”, a position that is only made slightly less ridiculous by others who were claiming that the tweet was racially motivated.

The go-to comeback for the humorless is always “if you have to explain the joke, then it isn’t funny,” a companion argument to the tiresome “if I’m offended then it’s enough to call something offensive.” While I don’t want to give too much credence to these non-arguments, they highlight a point that is sorely missed in all of these recent discussions about how “appropriate” something is or isn’t.

It is not the job of comedians to be appropriate.

Comedy, in its most interesting and thoughtful forms, is inherently subversive. It’s a complicated art form that hinges on deftly dealing with expectations, irony, timing, and abstract thinking. I’m a firm believer that art should never be censored, and if we’re to accept comedy as an art form (something of which there can be no doubt), then we need to apply the same philosophy to our comedians. Likewise, the pearl-clutchers of the world should stop pretending that something being “not funny” has no bearing on an argument as to why something should or should not be said.

Similarly, host Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame was derided by scores of bloggers when he dared to poke fun at nudity in Hollywood with the undeniably silly musical number “We Saw Your Boobs”. The bit wasn’t any piece of comedic genius, but it’s hard to say what anybody in this day and age could find so insulting about what is clearly nothing more than self-aware, sophomoric antics (the whole thing is basically MacFarlane and other cast members pointing out members of the show’s audience who have appeared topless on-screen). However, as I drearily predicted on Oscar night, there soon followed a flood of “think pieces” setting the whole thing in the context of rape culture and the War on Women, as though it were comedians who were leading the charge into regressive gendering rather than whacked-out religious pundits and conservative politicians. My jaw dropped when I read one headline from Salon.com: “ ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ Is a Celebration of Rape on Film.”

The gist of this thinly-disguised grab for page views was that MacFarlane was fully aware that a tiny fraction of the movies he mentioned in the bit produced the alluded to nudity through depictions of sexual assault. Even if MacFarlane did know all this, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he went with titles that were easier to rhyme, such as Monster over The Devil’s Advocate, both of which Charlize Theron appears nude in. The takeaway from the piece is that since the song references movies in which the boobs in questioned are produced via rape, the song is gleefully celebrating rape. To be blunt, this is the kind of logical reasoning employed by a pre-teen who knows they are desperately losing an argument. Intent, at least in comedy, is everything, and this sort of willful ignorance of context and what it means to a piece of satire is lazy and insulting.

I was recently going through a round of fresh Stanhope videos, and found a particularly incredible clip of the comedian viciously throttling (with words, of course) some hecklers who had booed a young woman’s set. Seeing as I am an e-masochist of sorts, I scrolled down to the comments section, and was pleasantly surprised that most of the comments were supportive of Stanhope. One in particular stood out though, and read: “Stand-up is the new rock ‘n’ roll”.

How despicably, heart-wrenchingly true. The spirit of rock ‘n’ roll left mainstream music long ago, and we desperately need somebody in the creative battlefields to rock the boat and rattle the cages. Those who continue to gnash their teeth and insist that something must be done about these comedians who dare to have unpopular opinions would do well to remember that when you begin making rules about what can and cannot be joked about, you walk a very dangerous road. The end result of such rule-mongering is this: all comedy will end up sounding like it does during a Billy Crystal-hosted Oscars, and nobody wants that, right? Right??

A final note to the words on the tip of every naysayer’s tongue that reads this: of course anybody has the right to speak out against art they find despicable. Of course you can boycott and unfollow and picket and do whatever you want. But in the end, you will always lose, because expression blazes an indelible trail. That tweet, long since deleted from The Onion’s twitter page, is still burned into the memory of everybody who read it, and it continues to exist on the pages of bloggers who are supposedly decrying its lack of humanity, while they lick their chops and watch the hits roll in. Anytime anyone says “that’s not funny” as a justification for why something shouldn’t be, the eternal retort is “yes it is.” As long as there is one person in the world who finds something funny, and there always will be that one person, the ones who flail and rend their clothes and cry out “won’t someone think of the children” to the heavens will lose. “It’s not funny!” you say? Prove it, and perhaps stop and think long and hard about what your outrage actually accomplishes, for the sake of yourself and the sake of the society you live in. As the mortal Christopher Hitchens once said: “How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape.”

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