Things That Have Been Bothering Me

11 Mar

As a comedian, I really want to stand by the idea that nothing can’t be joked about, that no word should be off-limits, that anything can be funny and should be allowed to be examined from a humorous stand-point. For my world to function, it’s something I NEED to be true and I NEED to believe in.

There’s still something, though, that gives me a sick, unpleasant feeling when I hear someone use the word “faggot,” “nigger,” or “cunt,” in a joke and then say, “You shouldn’t be offended, a word is just a word” when the comedian happens to be  white, male, and heterosexual.

Now, I know a bunch of you are rolling your eyes right now thinking “Oh, a white, heterosexual male who’s going to tell other white, heterosexual males how to act so he can ease his own guilt.” Please understand that, yes, I have heard the Louis C.K. bit where he talks about “nigger,” “faggot,” and “cunt,” and I laughed and enjoyed it. I am not about to call every white, heterosexual male (let’s just use WHM from here on) comedian a vile, racist, homophobic misogynist. I just want to ask where we get off telling other people that they shouldn’t be offended.

I was at an open mike where a guy was on stage had a joke about hipsters (already he’s losing me with a hack topic) and he had the line “looking like a faggot doesn’t make you hip.” There wasn’t much set-up or pay-off, that was just supposed to be the joke by itself. I, feeling like he had crossed a line, made a loud scoffing noise, prompting him to indignantly respond “Oh, really?” like I was being some prude and I was insulting someone who was being as much of a virtuoso as C.K. himself.

Now, just think about it this way: If you are a WHM, and someone calls you a nigger, faggot, or cunt, those words can never hurt you or dehumanize you the way they can when directed at a black person, gay person, or woman person. None of those words attack fundamental parts of your being, rather, they’re insulting you by comparing you to those inferior groups, and you always have the luxury of shrugging those insults off by saying “hey, I know for 100% sure my skin’s not black/I like women/I indeed have a penis.” A black person can never escape being black. A gay person has the luxury of hiding his gayness from other people, but he can’t escape from the truth of his reality. A woman may have to squat over a mirror to SEE her vagina, but she knows it’s there, and can’t pretend it’s not.

That’s why we WHMs have the luxury to view those words as just words, because to us that’s the only thing they’ve ever been. You can’t expect somebody else to just as easily view them as harmless and meaningless when they’ve actually experienced what it’s like for those words to have destructive meaning.

The bottom line is, it’s not US who gets to grant people permission to use those words. We don’t decide when it’s okay, because we’ve never been hurt. It’s like a guy making a rape joke. You’ve never had the experience of walking down the street in fear simply because of your sex, and having to deal with the reality being that who you are makes you a potential victim at any moment. So when your joke triggers a bad response from someone, how do you possibly have room to say “Hey, it’s YOUR fault you got offended?”

The honest truth is I don’t hang around a lot of people of color in my circles of the comedy world. I tend to hang around people who are typically white, college-educated nerdy types, and venues like UCB and the Creek and the Cave which are mainly populated by those types. I think this actually allows some open-mikers to talk in a pretty cavalier and insensitive way about race and sex (and class, as well, but that’s another post) because they know nobody in the audience is going to make them answer for it. So the only people I see jump to chastise people for being offended by words are people who can’t come from a place of empathy, and emphatically refuse to acknowledge it.

I have seen a few gay comics sign off on the word “faggot,” but as far as “nigger” goes I just don’t get the chance to really witness a black audience member’s reaction to it, and frankly, I think a lot of the comics who throw the word around on stage wouldn’t have the integrity to actually try it in front of one. I would be more comfortable with all this casual use if I did see a sign that it was actually okay, and it wasn’t just us deciding that being sensitive was too much of a burden on us and we didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

Talking about words like “cunt” and “rape” leads me to something else that’s been bothering me this week: The way male comedians casually talk about women’s bodies in a degrading way. For example, I was at an open mike where a comedian was telling a joke about going to finger his girlfriend, but then she said “no, you don’t get to do that yet.” He then got indignant and asked why she should say “get to” when she’s the one benefiting from it when all he gets are “smelly fingers.”

I physically cringed at the joke because all I could think was, if I was a woman in the audience, I would be thinking “My God, what if my boyfriend or any guy I’m with just thinks of my vagina as a disgusting thing that he only touches out of some Herculean feat of selflessness? Am I really that gross?” It made me think of how many male comics tend to do jokes where they talk about going on a date with a particularly ugly girl or particularly fat girl and basically go on to shame that person for committing the crime of being a woman who’s not sexually pleasing to them.

To tell you the honest truth, I don’t have very much of a “type” when it comes to women I find attractive. I’m dating a very skinny Asian girl right now, but my last girlfriend was a dark-skinned Greek who was probably heavier than I was at the time (this was in high school), and I have been strongly attracted to people who have been heavier than the norm. When a comic tells a shaming story like that, it doesn’t make me feel bad just out of sympathy for women or out of a need to be a white knight, but it makes me personally feel ashamed for not having the super-discriminatory taste in women that supposedly makes a man a real man. It makes me question if it’s simply a function of my low self-esteem that I don’t seem to view any sexual encounter with a woman as me doing HER a favor for letting her be with me, or if it is what it really is, that I don’t think a woman’s external appearance is her most valuable trait and that the onus isn’t on her to earn the privilege of my intimacy.

If my moral stance on the issue doesn’t convince anybody, then maybe I can get you from a creative viewpoint: As my friend Reid Faylor said when I was talking to him about it, it’s simply lazy comedy to just use a shocking word or to make fun of someone else for a laugh. The C.K. bit about nigger, faggot, and cunt, was about examining those words, and his own lack of self-awareness in how he used them in his life, and the examination was done artfully. That’s the thing, anything can be funny and anything can be joked about, but only if done artfully, with skill and thought. If you want to write a joke that has those words, or to describe your own taste in women, it should be written well enough that you won’t need to clarify it by saying “listen, it’s just a word, no need to get upset about it,” because it will be self-evident in how thoughtful and creative the presentation of the joke is.

So to the open mike-er who bristled at my disapproval of him saying “faggot,” I say, yes, really, because I’m not saying that the word you used is off-limits, I’m saying that if someone is going to use that word in a way that’s productive and actually funny, you’ve proven it’s not going to be you.

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