by | Oct 17, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Once upon a time, kings got their laughs from court jesters. These men could say anything, mock anything, and as long as the king was amused, the jester lived a good life.

Then again, if he blew a joke, or went over the line, the jester could have his head cut off.

Which pretty much sums up the state of American humor. What is funny? What is offensive? When does your head come off? Who on Earth knows anymore?

In New York City recently, a Friars Roast made big news when actor Ted Danson appeared in blackface to roast his lover, Whoopi Goldberg. Even though she wrote his jokes, the bawdy humor and racial slurs offended guests. Some walked out. Danson was ripped by politically correct critics.

Meanwhile, in that same city, a few days later, 75,000 people mobbed a bookstore to get the autograph of Howard Stern, a guy who slurs every race on Earth. His typically offensive book debuts at No. 1 on the best-sellers lists.

Make sense? How about this? That same week, on “The David Letterman Show” a New York sports writer tried to be glib about a 7-year-old aspiring sportscaster named Sparky. “Screw little Sparky,” the sports writer quipped. The crowd booed him unmercifully. How could he pick on a child?

Yet on another network, an animated show called “Beavis and Butthead,” which appeals to children, had its characters say this:

“Let’s go over to Stuart’s house and light (a firecracker) in his cat’s butt.”

“Yeah. Huh-huh-huh.”

Kids found this humor so inspiring that one actually tried the firecracker for real — and killed his neighbor’s cat.

Funny? Dangerous? All of the above? Beyond the rules

We live in an age where there are no rules anymore. If you are mildly offensive, they call you a slob. If you’re outrageously offensive, they call you visionary. Remember the comedian Andrew Dice Clay? He managed, incredibly, to be both in less than a year.

Clay rose to fame with filthy, sexist humor that grew so popular, sold-out audiences would yell his “nursery rhymes” upon hearing the first line.
“Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey, along came a spider — said “What’s in the bowl, bitch?”

Clay became, for a brief moment, the most popular comedian in America. Then, somehow, he went too far. He appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and a female cast member refused to do the show in protest. This, from a program that mocks gay prison inmates, and once had Eddie Murphy do a reggae song called, “Kill the White People.”

Nonetheless, Clay’s career plummeted. His nursery rhymes were suddenly bad-bad taste, as opposed to good-bad taste. Meanwhile, good-bad taste became Stern, who pays a stuttering reporter to ask famous people insulting questions, such as this one to baseball legend Ted Williams: “Did you ever f-f-f-fart in a catcher’s face?”

Clay couldn’t get on TV.

Stern was given his own show.

At the now-infamous Friars Roast, Danson, who is white, joked about bringing Whoopi Goldberg home to his mother, who told her, “You can start with the downstairs rooms, then do the laundry, then clean the dishes. . . .” This, apparently, was funny. But when Danson tried a joke with the n-word, it was not — even though many black comedians toss that word around as if it were a pronoun. To further confuse people, Goldberg, who is black, said she thought Danson was very funny. And she accused Montel Williams, a black talk show host, of walking out in order to boost ratings for his program — which earns ratings with topics such as cross-dressing homosexuals and men who sleep with their baby-sitters.

Where does one man’s bad taste end and another’s begin?

That’s the question, isn’t it? When barbs bring stardom

And in our society, it is unanswerable. This is the price for celebrating the insult. No more “Why did the chicken cross the road?” in America. Insults are the barometer of comedy — and, in some cases, popularity.

Which makes things very confusing. Rush Limbaugh, for example, delights conservatives with his barbs at liberals. But liberals claim he is nearly a Nazi. Straight audiences crack up at a “Saturday Night Live” parody of “two men who sing like they’re gay” — but gay audiences might call it bashing.

If you think about it, we live in a country that makes no sense. The Politically Correct Police are making everyone gulp before they utter a word, lest it be offensive to somebody.

Meanwhile, the hottest pop culture heroes are people like Stern and Limbaugh, who say what they like, the hell with who’s offended.

In the end, I guess, we haven’t come so far from the days of the court jester. What’s funny is what we find funny.

And when it rubs us the wrong way, we say, “Off with his head!”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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