After a hiatus from performing in the seventies, Bette Midler was asked by a reporter whether her new live act would contain her usual tasteless material. “Actually, no,” quipped the diva, “The new show will be taste free.”
I’ve thought of this comment periodically over the years, especially when family, friends or the general public tell me they find one of my jokes or comments “tasteless.” What the heck is tasteless, anyway? And I’m not talking offensive, as in disparaging a specific ethnicity. I’m talking tasteless as in….well, you decide.
The argument surfaced this week all over the blogosphere when Casey Anthony was found not guilty for killing her two year old daughter Caylee (Oh, you haven’t heard about it? Lucky you, who lives under a rock like the caveman in the Geico commercial). Anyway, I casually glance on Facebook and Twitter later that day and am immediately bombarded with witticisms like: “Casey Anthony, meet Dexter Morgan.” “Don’t worry, Dexter will take care of her.” “Dexter’s headed to Orlando with knives sharpened,” etc. etc. (For those who don’t know Dexter, he’s our larger than life TV serial killer hero who only kills particularly heinous killers who have managed to avoid justice). Lately (meaning today), the comments have gotten even more taste challenged — “Is Casey Anthony available for birthday parties now,” “Would that jury let Casey babysit for them?” and my favorite from the Borowitz Report: “Casey Anthony got off light – the Judge had considered sentencing her to one hour with Nancy Grace.”
I cop to laughing, to varying degrees, at all of these. Are they in bad taste? Well, they don’t tar any particular group of people. But they do rag on a person who has been in jail for three years and was just found NOT guilty by a jury of her peers and is now INNOCENT under our justice system. HASN’T SHE SUFFERED ENOUGH?
Do you find this last statement tasteless despite the fact that this woman has been declared innocent under our justice system? Hmm. Now we’re getting into murky waters.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t know what else to do but laugh or crack my own joke when faced with an awful subject or uncomfortable situation over which I feel as if I have no say or power. And the more outrageous the joke or reaction from the audience, the bigger the release seems to be. George Carlin first said it best for me when I was in high school with his classic comedy routine about the seven dirty words you can’t say on television.
This was, of course, before cable television – which regularly features any of those words nightly on a given series, movie or special event program. My, how times have changed.
Carlin was greatly inspired by comedians before him such as Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, who dared to venture into uncharted territory of language and race. There were also a whole slew of female Jewish comedians, often performing in Florida or the Borscht Belt, who made people laugh with “taste free” jokes. Goggle names like Rusty Warren (hint: one of her record albums was called “Knockers Up!” – yes, those knockers!) and Belle Barth, who used to sing to packed houses in Miami Beach, “I lined 100 men up against the wall, and bet $100 I could…“ well, you listen and you’ll see what inspired some of Bette Midler’s seventies antics.
None of those acts are particularly shocking today, though some are still probably considered tasteless. But are they funny? Hell yes! Are there people who don’t find them funny and find it/me tasteless? Hell yes again! Do I want to be friends with those people? Hell, no!!! Many times!!!
Consider this – there was some degree of hoopla when the fabulously terrific late actress Jill Clayburgh, Oscar-nominated for her performance in Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman,” visibly upchucked onscreen when her husband of many years blurted out he was in love with another woman. I think at the time more people were disgusted by having to look at vomit than the sexual politics of the moment. Imagine if they were around now (some of them still could be!) and had to look at the tour de force food poisoning scene of the four gals in “Bridesmaids?”
One of my proudest moments as a screenwriter and taste-free, soap box standing liberal was when I was late for a meeting at Disney in the nineties, got lost in the animation building and ran smack into a tall man carrying an attaché case and wearing a plain suit. I profusely and hurriedly apologized and as I looked into his eyes and rushed away I realized, “Holy sh-t, That’s John Waters!” Who could have imagined when I clandestinely watched that bootleg copy of “Pink Flamingos” with my friends (where drag queen star Divine ate dog excrement), that one day its director would be rubbing shoulders with Mickey Mouse. How subversively taste free of all of us!!!
I’d like to also add to this that several years after watching “Pink Flamingos,” when I was still in college, the student film society SPONSORED a midnight showing ON CAMPUS, of the popular X-rated porn film, “The Devil in Miss Jones.” I went to see it, my first exposure to big screen movie porn, and I’ve managed to live a relatively moral life (depending on your morals) since. How many college campuses across the country do you think would allow that now?
There’s no sense arguing for a mass acceptance of porn (unless it would increase tax revenues and solve the debt crisis, which it might, so we could) but I will go out on the line for 85 year-old Mel Brooks. (Note: I saw him six months ago at LA Chinese restaurant Mandarette and he was still sharp and hilarious). He mainstreamed tastelessness in 1974’s “Blazing Saddles” and it’s famous bean eating scene. Was that crass, stupid and tasteless? You bet your sweet derriere it was/is!
It should be noted that Mr. Brooks hasn’t stopped. His Broadway juggernaut musical of his movie from the sixties, “The Producers,” featured a homosexual Adolph Hitler sitting at the footlights of a New York theatre eight performances and six nights a week imitating Judy Garland. I mean, if that’s not taste free, I don’t know what is.
I’m going to try to remember all of this the next time I blanch (not Blanche as in DuBois, but as in repelled by) when someone tries to get me to watch one of the “Hostel” movies all the way through or tells me I have to rewatch the original “Last House on the Left,” one of the only movies that has ever given me nightmares. I might even try to remember it when I’m watching Sarah Bachman or Michelle Palin (oops!) giving a speech, though for me that will be a lot tougher. It is then you can come to my door (or blog) and shout me down with the inimitable words Oscar nominated and Emmy, Grammy and special Tony winner Bette Midler has shouted numerous times from stages all across the world, “F—k ‘em, if they can’t take a joke!”