Monday, June 17, 2013

When comedy is not at all funny

On the same day Sports Illustrated ran this excellent guest column by Steve Gleason, two Atlanta DJs and a third employee were fired for mocking his ALS affliction.

My immediate reaction was, "good." But after talking with two journalist friends about it, I had to re-examine my feelings a bit. One of them reminded me that shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy routinely feature Stephen Hawking-type characters for laughs, something I've never objected to before. The questions became: 1) Was the suspension out of line with free speech? 2) Is Gleason impervious to spoofery in a way that Hawking isn't? 3) Were we, as outsiders, being oversensitive in a way that a public figure might not be? 4) Had any of us heard the actual bit before passing judgment? Let's take these one by one, as I see them:

1) Was the firing out of line with free speech?

No, it was not. Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from the consequences of that speech. Now whether the punishment was appropriate, that's a better debate. I'll save it for the final question.

2) Is Gleason impervious to spoofery in a way that Hawking isn't?

No, he isn't. But the devil is in the details. When you see Hawking play himself on The Simpsons or see a similar character on Family Guy, consider where the jokes lie. Respectively, it's Hawking being a funny guy and a professor who uses his monotone computer voice to express excitement, sarcasm and boastfulness. (Years ago, my friend had a program that read her e-mails over the phone. I sent her one where the voice pleaded with her to hold him. Same gag, no disabilities involved.) In neither case is the ALS affliction the butt of the joke; the closer it gets to ALS, the less amusing it is.

The Gleason mockery was all about his ALS. He had nothing to do with the bit, and its entire basis for being was that he struggles to communicate. It also badly misrepresented that struggle, given that Gleason isn't prone to randomly spewing knock-knock jokes. At the very least, the mockery should be accurate. 

3) Were we, as outsiders, being oversensitive in a way that a public figure might not be?

Perhaps. One of my friends argued that Gleason, being the witty and sometimes self-deprecating guy that he is, would just laugh it off. But regardless of how he takes it, I (and every other listener) have a right to be offended and upset by it. Similarly, the station had a right to make a personnel decision via its own instinct. 

4) Had any of us heard the actual bit before passing judgment? 

Admittedly, no. Much of our outrage was based on the much-reported quote that fake Steve didn't know if he'd be alive next week. But then I found an audio link to the bit and it was far worse than I'd imagined. Not because the DJs were cruel and unforgiving — but because they were cruel, unforgiving and horribly unfunny

As a student of humor, I believe that nothing is off-limits if it works — a solid gag will transcend any taboo. That said, however, joking about things out of a target's control is almost always too mean to work. Aspects such as race, disability and even appearance require a delicate touch that's rare in the type of shock jock most likely to work those angles. If there's even a hint of genuine hostility toward the targets, the joke is derailed entirely. It's touchy territory at best, which is why only a handful of well-known comedians get a free pass for delving in it. And even then, they have to elicit big laughs every time or face a backlash.

These DJs made that long-shot gamble and came up short. Should they have been fired for missing the mark? No; comedy is always hit-or-miss. But professionals of their stature are supposed to know what risks are worth taking for the payoff, and they failed astonishingly in that regard. That poor judgment goes far beyond a single comedy bit, and it's for that reason that termination is a fair punishment.

They had to be funny. They could have been mean-funny. But unfunny and mean is just plain mean.

UPDATE (6/19/13): I got called out, indirectly, on another blog for an alleged double standard on this one. The blogger cited my defense of The Onion after it tweeted that really terrible remark about Quvenzhan√© Wallis as proof that my stance on comedy changes depending on who's being lampooned. She suggested that I must identify more with Steve Gleason than with the child star — and that race is a factor. Frankly, that's a cheap shot that I find as surprising as it is insulting. And I don't think there is a double standard, because the jokes aren't comparable. If The Onion had mocked Wallis for being black or poor, yes — but they called this cute and sweet little girl an inappropriate (and, importantly, random) epithet to poke fun at their own (fake) rudeness. The DJs, on the other hand, attacked Gleason for having ALS. It was mean (and calculatedly so) all the way through, and there was no indication that the joke was on anyone but Gleason. Intent is everything in comedy.

The one similarity in my view is that in both cases, the comedy landed with a thud. As it should have.

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