The Dissected Frog: or, Man walks into a bar, offends everyone…
[Trigger Warning: It is quite possible that you might find any or all of the embedded or linked videos offensive, save the second one that features Russell Brand. I’d be hard pressed to think of that one as being offensive to anyone, except possibly government employees. Do with that what you will.]
Better yet, consider both of them.
In Steve Gordon’s 1981 classic film, Dudley Moore’s titular protagonist Arthur Bach suffers badly from the disease of alcoholism. Despite having been born with the ultimate sliver spoon in his mouth, he exhibits all worst psychological (and behind the scenes, presumably, physical) symptoms associated with the disorder: depression, self-destructive and compulsive behavior, suicidal tendencies, narcissism, and a profound inability to communicate or connect with others. He speech is often slurred and he has trouble with basic motor skills. Dudley’s Arthur is pathetic and pitiful, in every definition of each of those words.
Here’s a pretty good example of what I’m talking about:
In Jason Winer’s 2011 remake, Russell Brand’s Arthur Bach is still the rich boy who parties and drinks too much. However, there is a very purposeful attempt in the film to make all of Arthur’s laughable foibles stem from his bigger-than-life personality and not his disease. Where audiences of the original film were forced to deal with comical moments derived from Arthur’s alcoholism, the remake mines its humor by making Arthur a fun, wacky Peter Pan with a oodles of money, a winking scamp who does things we know are against the rules but applaud nonetheless.
Here’s a pretty good example of what I’m talking about:
Gordon’s Arthur is mercilessly unwavering and thoroughly politically incorrect in its treatment of alcoholism. It’s a romantic farce/comedy of manners whose primary source of humor is a person who is suffering from a disease that afflicts over tens of millions Americans and negatively impacts even more. Winer’s Arthur, on the other hand, tries hard to deliver most of the laughs through the fantasy of how super-space-awesome it would be to have more money than Bill Gates. It even ends with the protagonist kicking the habit, and finding that sobriety totally rules!
There is or course another major difference between the two films, which is this: The first is a hilarious and deeply human classic, while the remake is an unwatchable turd.
Humor is a funny thing.
I have been thinking recently about an observation PJ O’Rourke made while arguing that Republicans are inherently funnier than Democrats back in the 1980s.
I can’t find the quote now, but O’Rourke noted at the time that too many liberals sorted humor not into categories of what they did or did not find funny, but rather what other people should or should not be allowed to find funny. And while I think this both overstates the case against liberals and lets today’s conservatives unnecessarily off the hook, I still believe there is a lot of truth to the observation. (The remainder of his argument that Republicans were life’s true wits, as I recall, was s**t.) In fact, I think that I would restate and update for 2014 O’Rourke’s observation to say this:
In our ever-polarizing society, humor is sadly becoming first and foremost a tribal marker in our culture wars.
I find this distressing for a number of reasons, not least of which is the reality that humor, along with it’s physiological counterpart laughter, is not actually a reasoned thing. True, they are in many ways social mechanisms, but they are as well primal ways of dealing with stress, fear, anxiety, sadness and even horror. Humor invokes its responses from us entirely unbidden, as anyone who has found themselves giggling uncontrollably in front of judge, teacher, lover, or spouse at an inopportune moment can attest.
More than that, however, is the troubling notion that more and more, we are dividing society up into those whose foibles we encouraged allowed laugh at, and those for whom finding anything remotely humorous is tribally verboten — humor as a Mark of the Other, if you will. You see this a lot on both the right and the left these days. And more and more, I’m seeing it here in the threads at OT.
It’s a tempting reaction to things you may not feel comfortable with, of course, but dividing people up into those we are allowed to find humor in and those we are not does more than create an un-empathetic crowd. It creates a system where the humor levied at those who are on the We Can Laugh At Them list becomes increasingly hostile, mean-spirited, and unfunny. (And if you don’t believe me, feel free to visit any internet site where only one political stripe is allowed, and read through the posts and comments for the knee-slappers about people on the other side that everyone agrees is “funny because it’s true.”)
Besides, even if we were to decide that certain types of humor are acceptable and others not, the DNA of humor itself is not so easy to pin down.
When I was in college I earned money tending bar, and one of the things people who tend bar have to endure is people who aren’t particularly funny tell completely unfunny jokes. The one I most remember from back then was what I came to call the Nacho Cheese Joke. As a bartender, I heard the Nacho Cheese joke a lot. The people who would come in to tell it (always white, always male, always wearing golf shirts with collars popped) would it stretch it out forever as if it were an epic poem, but the joke was basically this:
I’m walking down the street and I hear a loud voice behind me getting closer and closer, yelling “NACHO CHEESE” over and over. Eventually a guy passes my, running, holding a big wheel of cheese. Soon after a man who is chasing him passes me. He’s black, chasing the guy who had apparently stolen his cheese wheel, and is in fact yelling “NOT YOUR CHEESE!” (But in the joke you have to say in using heavy stereotypical Ebonics so that that “not your cheese” sounds kind of like “nacho cheese”).
The Nacho Cheese joke has never been remotely funny to me. I don’t say this because it offends me; it doesn’t. And I don’t say it because I think the joke itself is racist; I don’t think that I do. (I have found it to be a somewhat accurate barometer in regards to the joke teller, however.) No, the Nacho Cheese Joke isn’t funny to me because I just don’t find it that funny or clever, in the same way that I don’t find it particularly funny or clever when conservatives say Taxechussetts or liberals say ‘Merican.
On the other hand, it was hard not to think of the Nacho Cheese Joke when I first saw Daniel Tosh’s cannibalism bit.
It’s not safe for work, but here’s the bit:
The cannibalism bit is an odd and almost “meta” bit of standup comedy. The intended humor rests upon making a primarily white audience uncomfortable when confronted with its own casual racism. The bit starts out with a simple yet ugly premise: If you had to resort to cannibalism, would different ethnic groups taste like the food-related stereotypes we have for them? The first few “zingers” are lame jokes that might have actually been told in the 1970s; in fact, they’re not that different (or funnier) than the Nacho Cheese joke. Part of how Tosh gets the audience to laugh anyway (and they do laugh) is by letting everyone believe he will be making fun of all ethnic groups, including whites. When he gets to white people, however, his voice becomes serious and he explains that you can’t eat white people. Then he piles on with that a bit about how he might be punished for saying what he did if God is black, and then telling a story about a woman complaining about the joke at a previous show.
The entire bit is an shameless stream of inviting white people to safely laugh at non-whites, and then ending each part with something that underlines what a horrible place they’ve happily and gleefully been led. It’s like a man holding out a cookie to a dog, and then hitting it with a rolled up newspaper each time it gets too close. It’s profoundly uncomfortable for me to watch, and if someone were to tell me they found it offensive I would completely understand. I don’t even think the bit is funny, frankly — indeed, I’ve never really found Tosh himself to be so. And yet there’s something so entirely subversive about the unforgiving mirror Tosh holds up to his audience in the cannibalism bit that I find sort of brilliant in a Kaufman-esque kind of way.
Tosh, of course, has been persona non grata to liberals since he was caught making a decidedly inappropriate rape joke at L.A.’s Laugh Factory aimed at a female audience member in 2012. Afterwards, the Internet was abuzz with bloggers of both sexes noting that rape jokes are never funny. Except, as we have since learned, if they are rape jokes written by Louis CK, in which case they are brilliant, perfect metaphors.
And rape isn’t the only pass given to CK by liberals. He regularly makes jokes about “f**gots,” and he refers to women as c**ts. You might well ask why CK is given such leeway on hot-button topics in a way that, say, conservative darling comedian Adam Carolla is not — or, for that matter, why conservatives who love Carolla despise CK so much. I’m sure there are deconstructions to be found on either side of the fence, but I personally suspect that the real answer is tied up with comments such as this one, made just prior to the CK’s meteoric rise, regarding Sarah Palin:
A couple of years ago, “comedian” Louis CK “joked” on the Opie and Anthony radio show about Palin coming to the Republican convention “holding a baby that just came out of her f-ing, disgusting [C-word], her f-ing retard-making [C-word]. I hate her more than anybody,” he said.
On Twitter, this “comedian” attacked Palin in 2011 as a “f—ing jackoff [C-word]-face jazzy wondergirl” who “has a family of Chinese poor people living in her [C-word] hole.”
When focused on a well-known conservative, liberals apparently found this kind of humor hilarious, or if not, they at least found it entirely forgivable; conservatives, not surprisingly, found it unforgivably offensive even as they were defending Carolla.
As I said earlier, humor is a funny thing.
In the threads on his post on the Photoshop Lawyer, Burt got near-universal heat for finding humor in a public document penned by someone who was quite probably mentally unstable, on the grounds that the person was quite probably mentally unstable. Several even noted that they had known people with mental illness as a reason why one should not see humor in the document. I’m both sympathetic and empathetic to this argument, but for me it falls short.
I lost both parents to cancer, and most likely I’ll lose my sister and myself to it as well. But here’s an actual feedback comment directed at an alpaca-wool socks manufacturer from eBay a friend sent me years ago, and I find it frigging hilarious:
Don’t buy these socks! I bought some of these for a cousin who had cancer.
They never arrived, and cousin died.
I also find the joke about the doctor telling a patient he has terminal cancer and Alzheimer’s funny. (The punch line is the patient saying, “Well, at least I don’t have Alzheimer’s.”) In fact, there are a ton of jokes, one liners, and dark but humorous observations about cancer that I love, most likely because that particular disease has had such a ravaging toll on the people that I love. It isn’t logical, it isn’t rational, and it isn’t fair that I find them funny. I just do. And if you’re offended by them, I actually understand completely — I even empathize. But attempting to build consensus that everyone agree those things are unfunny asks humor to be something that it isn’t.
The truth is that humor will never conform to our sense of right and wrong. And that’s okay. I spend a lot of time working for the basic human rights of people who have developmental disabilities. The work is very important to me, and the way those folks are treated pretty universally by American society is deplorable. But I still laugh every time I see the Puttin’ On The Ritz scene in Young Frankenstein. Likewise, I sympathize with those with mental illness, but I don’t find the humorous parts of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (or for that matter, Milos Forman’s film adaptation) any weaker for that. I find misogyny despicable, but to me Austin Powers, Swingers, and Animal House are still delights nonetheless. I don’t think I could be any less pro-terrorism than I currently am, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find the darker-than-black comedy Four Lions to be brilliant. Hell, my favorite comedy of all time is Life of Brian, and I don’t think you can watch any five-minute stretch of it without finding something that doesn’t rightfully offend someone. And don’t get me started on Book of Mormon, Team America, and every episode of South Park ever.
Or to put it another way…
To paraphrase E.B. White, humor is like a frog. You can dissect it, take it apart, and find out what makes it tick in a very logical, reasoned fashion. You can even remove from it those parts that keep it from being clean and safe. But you’ll find afterwards that the frog has died in the process.
That, or you’ll have made the Russell Brand version of Arthur.