Let’ s just start by saying that this is going to be a touchy subject for a lot of people, but it’s still worth being kicked around a bit over. Earlier this week I wound up reading an editorial piece published at CNN by David M. Perry, associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois and author of the blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? In the article, titled, Is Down syndrome comedy fodder, the author takes comedian Wyatt Cenac to task for a particular joke he told.
“I am like, I am so (BLEEP) high. This is terrible. And I did it in that voice. And I have never done that voice before in my life. I don’t know where that voice came from. But I heard myself use that voice. And in my mind, I went, oh (BLEEP). I just gave myself Down syndrome.” –Wyatt Cenac, This American Life, 5/4/2014
Perry, the father of a son with Down syndrome, is understandably in tune with the subject and describes the heartrending personal experiences he’s had in his own family. With that as the setting, the author then proceeds to describe exactly what’s wrong with Cenac, as well as Ricky Gervais and others.
There is no disclaimer that can take the sting out of Cenac’s joke. He and Glass can decide that the humor of the piece is worth being offensive, but they don’t get to determine whether the hurt is real or just. Neither do the many comics that rely on punching down, using mockery of people marginalized by ability, race, religion, gender or sexuality to get a laugh.
Cenac isn’t alone. Ricky Gervais, in the British TV show “Derek,” plays a man who appears to be disabled. Derek is supposed to be a positive example, but much of the comedy extends from his disabled physicality — a hunched back, a slacked toothsome mouth, and a shuffling walk. Other laughs come from his cluelessness as he cheerily staggers through uncomfortable scenes.
Gervais has said he doesn’t mean to make fun of people with intellectual disabilities, saying in an interview, “I’ve never considered him disabled; he is a ‘out of the mouth of babies’ innocent person who always says the right thing that you didn’t see coming. And if I say he’s not disabled, that’s the end of it.”
That’s not the end of it. Not for Gervais. Not for Cenac.
First of all, dismissing Cenac’s explanation of the joke – something which never makes a joke funnier, by the way – as just a “disclaimer” to cover his own backside is rather abrupt and disingenuous. Wyatt wasn’t making a joke about a person with a disability… he was making fun of himself, but used the name of the disability as a descriptor. But Cenac isn’t really the issue here. Are we so far gone in terms of making sure that nobody’s feelings are ever hurt that you can’t even say the name of the affliction? And who precisely qualifies for social “protection” from the the aim of comedians. Perhaps more to the point, who doesn’t qualify?
What does Perry want to do about somebody like Daniel Tosh, who has a weekly television show on Comedy Central where he makes fun of every race, every religion… pretty much everyone. And I’m talking about seriously offensive comments which, in normal conversation, would earn him a mouth full of broken teeth? The fact is that Tosh’s seemingly impenetrable defense is precisely that he does make fun of everyone. And while I don’t personally watch him any more (mostly because of the excess of scatological humor) he is, at times, very funny.
What about comics like Carlos Mencia who also crossed just about every line of decorum imaginable? As a Honduran born American, he could clearly get away with doing jokes about the Taco Bell dog, but he went on from there to say that we needed “a black dog. A ghetto rottweiler with an ear cut off and a bullet in his a** doing commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken.” (Warning: NSFW language in that linked clip.) Of course, Mencia may have gotten a bit more slack for being a minority himself. If Ron White tried that joke he’d probably still be sitting in a cell waiting for a bail hearing.
But the point is, how many limits are we supposed to put on comedians? And perhaps more to the point, if we are going to have such social rules of order and propriety for comedy, how is it that other groups are still fair game? Why is it completely acceptable to put on a fake drawl and make fun of Southerners as ignorant redneck hicks who all have sexual relations with their sisters and brothers? I don’t see anyone raising a ruckus over that.
Was Cenac’s joke in bad taste? I don’t know. I laughed at it. I suppose it all comes down to the “taste” of the person listening. If you don’t like the material, don’t pay for tickets to the comic’s show or add to their ratings by watching them on television. Maybe it’s not such an evil, civilization ending idea to suggest that we all just lighten up a little.
This article was edited to reflect that Carlos Mencia was born in Honduras. The original version incorrectly stated Mexico.
UPDATE: Sunday, August 10 (Jazz) The author of the CNN editorial in question, David Perry, contacted me to discuss my coverage of his article. With the permission of the author, I will share portions of that exchange below.
David first suggested that I point our readers to another source, that being the conversation he had with Cenac. He includes this comment.
I don’t expect to persuade anyone, but it’s just possible that Wyatt himself might…
He said (and approved this summary and quote): “Most comedy risks being offensive, but his goal is never to do it “at the expense” of marginalized people or “in a way that promotes continued insensitive behavior.”…
I don’t claim to police comedy or demand comedy starts. Anyone can say anything they want. But what they can’t control is the reaction of the listener. My reaction, the reaction of others in the disability community, is genuine. I like to say – you can’t decide whether I’m offended, you can only decide whether you care. And I fully recognize that you may not care.
That didn’t really satisfy my original questions, so I asked a few follow-ups to determine who precisely qualifies as marginalized persons and what precisely he was trying to accomplish.
As to the first, you refer to rednecks as a “marginalized people.” (Though reading some of the comments already submitted to the piece by actual rednecks, they seem pretty clear that they’d rather punch you than be considered a target of punching down.) Am I correct in assuming that you would apply the same designation and protection to all racial minorities?
How about religions? (“A minister, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…”)
Are women marginalized people? (Think dumb blond jokes.)
Hippies? Wall Street investment bankers? Eco-warriors? Global warming deniers? Movie stars? Cable news personalities? Politicians? I’m trying to get a feel for where we’re supposed to draw the lines here.
Second, what precisely are you proposing in your CNN article? If you’re arguing in favor of your own right to be put off and complain about this, then I’m 100% on board with you. But what else? Are you encouraging people not to patronize comedians or shows which engage in such humor? Are you looking for some method to stop them? A boycott? I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish. If your sole point is that “you can’t decide whether I’m offended” then, again, we have no argument. You’re welcome to be offended at anything you like. But it sounded like more.
Those are good questions.
What was interesting about Cenac’s joke and Ira Glass’ response was that they didn’t think they were telling “retard jokes.” Plenty of people do. I turn them off. I tell their sponsors I won’t buy their products. I might well organize collective action (boycotts) if I thought it warranted. They are not, however, very interesting. I’m also unlikely to reach them or their listeners. Those CNN commentators calling me a retard are not people I’m going to reach. I find them interesting though, in an anthropological way (and wrote a bit about them here – ).
It’s where language gets complex that I start writing.
To my reading and listening, Cenac/Glass were both trying to tell the story, get the laughs, AND avoid precisely the kind of response that it engendered in pretty much everyone inside the disability community who heard it. So that’s something I wanted to explore in my writing. To explain how it happens, how the outsider ends up hurting the insider even if they don’t want to, and how to think about such a situation.
Rather than say who is or isn’t a marginalized group, I’ll come back to this. I’m asking comedians, and others, to think about whether their jokes promote harmful stereotypes or undermines them. If they promote them, then I suggest that there are negative consequences – culturally – for promoting harmful stereotypes. It’s up to them whether or not that’s worth it, or whether some other part of the payoff is worth it. For Gervais, for example, the other payoffs of Derek (it’s all about love, or whatever) are worth him aping the physicality and manner of the intellectual disabled. I disagree.
That first linked article seems to be a fairly breathtaking generalization of conservatives in general. (But I suppose we’re not a “marginalized” group, so…) Interesting, the linked blog entry also points readers to another CNN piece he published on Sarah Palin.
Make of all that what you will. But since Perry took the time to reach out, I thought I would include his answers for you.