Monday, June 5, 2017

Musings on the Jester's Privilege

Yes, it has indeed been almost a year since Curmie wrote anything here. I didn’t even get a post written up for the Curmie Awards. I could blame the new job (which I’ll soon be able to give up), but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Yes, I’ve been more tired at the end of the week, and more interested in watching something escapist on Netflix than in previous years, but I haven’t actually been working more hours this year than previously. Nor was the problem a lack of subject matter: quite the contrary, in fact. There’s been a surfeit of material that would make even a less curmudgeonly person than I a little grumpy.

And there was the Presidential election between the two least ethical major party candidates—at least as a tandem—in history. In the last thing Curmie posted on this blog, he sort of endorsed Jill Stein, who turned out to be an utter wackadoodle, despite being more aligned with Curmie on most issues than either of the Machiavellian and utterly corrupt front-runners; Gary Johnson proved to be an ignorant fool, too, so Curmie held his nose and voted for Hillary Clinton against the puerile and petulant grifter we ended up with. The Trump administration seems bent on destroying literally everything of value to the population as a whole—the environment, the education system, the Bill of Rights…—so narrowing the field to concentrate on one topic of particular interest or one act of especial malevolence isn’t easy.

But mostly, the reason I haven’t written anything is that I’ve been lazy, or at least too lazy to write my usual long-form posts of 1500 words or so. The result is that the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page has been updated frequently with other people’s work, but not my own. I haven’t pounced on a story that’s really still in the news, making it very difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said at least as well as I could say it, so I never finished a couple of essays I started. And inertia just kept getting harder and harder to overcome. But, as Sally Bowles sings in Cabaret, maybe this time.

There have been three incidents of late that have brought to the forefront the concept of the Jester’s Privilege, the principle by which comedians fall into a special category, having not merely the right but indeed the obligation to speak a brutal truth without fear of reprisal. The first of these events took place about a month ago, when Stephen Colbert issued his “cock holster” barb, which followed a few seconds after labelling the President a “pricktator.”

Next was Kathy Griffin’s already-infamous “beheading” (right) of President Trump in a photo shoot. She’s shown holding a bloodied replica of DJT’s head.

And finally, there was the latest Bill Maher kerfuffle. Responding to an invitation from his interviewee on “Real Time,” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, to visit the politician’s home state and “work in the fields with us,” Maher retorted in mock indignation, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”

The media have gone pretty crazy about all three moments of comedians going “too far,” with calls for all three to be fired, and even for Griffin to be prosecuted. The reactions have been depressingly predictable. On the two specifically anti-Trump pieces, the political left babbles about 1st amendment rights and the right harrumphs about respect for the Presidency: precisely the opposite reactions to posters showing former President Obama being lynched, or to the despicable Ted Nugent’s obvious threats against Mr. Obama (be it noted: I never thought Nugent ever intended to do anything about those threats—he’s too much of a cowardly blowhard—but threats they undoubtedly were).

Where to begin? Let’s start with the whole “did s/he have the right to do this” debate. The answer is, as it often is, “yes and no.” (Shoutout to Curmie’s students in Asian theatre classes over the years.) That is, all three are unquestionably examples of protected speech, whether the VFW thinks so or not. Colbert, Griffin, and Maher all had the legal right to do what they did. But such protections don’t mean actions have no consequences, and they don’t render an action ethical just because it’s legal.

Frankly, I’m not terribly surprised by any of these incidents. Colbert used to be funny because he played an invented character—a stereotype of his actual political opposition—so well. Since switching to speaking in something resembling his own voice, however, he’s become nearly as boring as he’s become boorish. In other words, Colbert probably caused the least ripple of the three because he did what we expected of him—not that we were shocked by the others, but Colbert’s schtik has become cruder in recent months. (N.B. Neither Colbert nor Curmie is unaware of the fact that in an Internet age the late-night time slot no longer means a lot in terms of the final audience.) And it isn’t as funny anymore. It’s intriguing, too, that the outcry from the left is about the alleged homophobia of the joke rather than the vulgarity of the insult to the POTUS. Colbert didn’t exactly apologize—nor, I suppose, should he—for delivering exactly what his audience wanted, but he did say that he “would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be.” Uh… yeah. Also, Colbert is a major star, and male. He opened the next night with a rather smug “I’m your host, Stephen Colbert. Still? I am still the host? I’m still the host!!” He’ll be fine, whether he should be or not.

Griffin’s case is, to me, far more interesting. Her “offense” consisted only of visual images, “across the line,” perhaps, but it’s difficult to believe she ever meant an actual threat to President Trump. There’s nothing more graphic about the photos of Griffin and the dummy head than about virtually any decent production of Macbeth in the last 400+ years or The Bacchae in 2400+ (Curmie came to this thought independently, but his netpal Jack Marshall got the Macbeth allusion in print first…). Griffin apologized in what has become a predictable mix of enforced obligation, self-serving spin, and a smidgeon of actual repentance. She’s right about one thing, though. Her career took a (short-term) hit. One certainly suspects that a has-been-who-never-really-was like Griffin took a chance: she had to know that the Toddler-in-Chief is pathologically incapable of not taking to Twitter at the slightest provocation. Usually, he embarrasses himself. This time, though, he was justified, and his usual ineptitude serves only to underscore the significance of his getting one right for a change. Yes, (as many anti-Trumpsters have argued) it would be just as awkward for young Barron to hear his father’s disgusting pussy-grabbing comments as to see Dad’s seemingly severed head (knowing it wasn’t real), but that doesn’t mean Griffin’s publicity stunt was ethical.

Kathy Griffin should have been fired from New Year’s Eve coverage for her drunken incoherence last time out. She hasn’t said anything funny in about a decade. But CNN stuck with her. Of course, they had the legal right to fire her now for this little fracas, but it would be stupid to do so. So, of course, they did. She’s a D-lister. She’s female. And they’re cowards. Griffin’s career may take a short-term hit, but Curmie suspects she’ll get extra points for naughtiness in some quarters: she’ll have a different target audience, but she’ll be fine. If not, then the predictable leftie whining about gender discrimination may actually have merit this time.

Bill Maher’s case is the most intriguing of all. The torches and pitchforks crowd is after him for using the “n-word.” This despite the fact that he applied it to himself, and that it was (whether Maher knew it or not) a literary reference to Gone with the Wind, a fact virtually none of the breathless press coverage deigned to mention. There’s something stagey about the delivery… had he primed Senator Sasse to mention working in the fields so he could come back with a clever retort? Could be. But what matters is that Maher is both more innocent and more guilty than Colbert or Griffin. Assuming the line was truly an ad lib, it’s far less pre-meditated than a scripted monologue or planned photo shoot, and therefore more forgivable. And, to the extent that it’s a literary allusion (and an apt one, given the set-up line), rendering it accurately matters.

But still, “nigger,” however and by whomever applied, is a word used in the 21st century by white people in only two ways: quoted clinically/journalistically (as, for example, in this piece) or to shock. Maher clearly chose the second of these paths, and a veteran host/performer such as himself cannot have done so without a pretty good idea of what would happen. Yes, Maher fancies himself a lot smarter than he is, and yes, he relishes the role of gadfly. Still, there are unwritten but universally understood rules you just don’t break, and this is one of them.

There are those, including Jack Marshall, who think that Maher, who has described female politicians with whom he disagrees as “cunts,” and who has shown more than a little Islamophobia over the years (and gotten away with it) may be in deeper trouble than he anticipated this time because whereas it’s okay to insult some constituencies (Republicans, religious minorities…), it’s not okay to do so to African-Americans. Maybe. Maher, who promised never to apologize for being politically incorrect, of course did indeed apologize—sort of—this time around. Whereas that marks him as, shall we say, a little less than a person of integrity, in purely pragmatic terms it may be enough to weather the storm. HBO will decide based on the only thing that matters to them: whether they think the gaffe (if that’s what it was) will cost them viewers, or whether any publicity is good publicity. Curmie’s guess is the latter.

What makes all three of these cases interesting is that they seem to fall into a grey area. The perpetrators all did something dumb, but not—taken in isolation—so dumb that public censure and/or firing was literally their bosses’ only recourse. All of the comedians in question engaged in vulgarity of language or visual image not really to make a point, but rather to call attention to themselves. And their respective unwanted (we presume) notoriety could cost them. However, all three (especially the two men) are niche entertainers: they built their careers on a cadre of hard-core followers, not on engaging a wide spectrum of society. They’re Lenny Bruce, not Bob Hope, or even George Carlin. Their fans will remain their fans. And with Griffin—the (ahem) poorest of the three—checking in with a net worth of about $20 million, all for being not very funny and rather dumb, Curmie doubts that he’ll lose any sleep wondering whether they can scrounge a crust of bread to make it through the night.

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