One of the most memorable numbers from the classic 1952 film “Singing in the Rain” is a little ditty called “Make ‘Em Laugh.” On the set of a not-so-good movie, the best friend pianist (Donald O’Connor) of its depressed male star (Gene Kelly) tries to cheer him up by doing a series of pratfalls, funny faces, odd dance steps and various other musical twists and turns while dispensing reassuring adages and advice guaranteed to lift his buddy, and pretty much everyone else, out of the doldrums. Of course it works, and by the end of that film everyone (well, mostly) lives happily ever after, as most popular movie characters in the 1950s did.
In some ways, times have not moved forward all that much. These days humor is constantly being used to change people’s thinking, or at the very least help them escape and/or make them feel better.
We live in an iron ironic age when everything is fair game and, unlike years ago, is easily accessible. Google any outrageous or filthy word, phrase or comment and you’ll find some sick or hilarious joke somewhere. (I know this to be true because I just did this for a birthday message to someone only a matter of days ago). Research any big issue and you’ll find someone somewhere has done a parody of it in film, television, the web or in your own back yard.
On the flip side, today’s popular humor is often unintentional, whether in real life or on the pop culture scene. What one person says seriously sometimes becomes a national joke. On the other hand, what another person off-handedly cracks jokingly can resonate to great affect worldwide. And – on yet another flip side – it can also land with as much deftness as a lead balloon and be met with everything from deadly silence to international outrage. In short, we don’t live in a Warner Bros. musical anymore (if we ever did) even if our humor sometimes feels right out of the 1950s.
I couldn’t help reflecting on all of this and more in the last two weeks, especially since seeing the L.A. production of our South Park boys’ Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “Book of Mormon” – a musical that is about as far away from “Singin in the Rain” as you can get but no less entertaining. Granted, I have a sick sense of humor – but any show that sends up religious hypocrisy by featuring a fever dream where Adolph Hitler and Jeffrey Dammer have sex with misguided Mormon missionaries as live dancing Starbucks coffee mugs look on, is doing something right in my book. And before you dismiss me as being the twisted, sick, immoral far-left liberal that I admittedly am, just note that this show also won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this past year and is touring all around the U.S. (and eventually the world) with a record zero protests at its door. That’s a far cry from when I was a kid and the sight of some live naked draft-dodge talking hippies onstage in the musical “Hair” caused a national freak out.
With a presidential election looming in less than two weeks, religious and political humor is in full swing at the moment. In this season alone we’ve been treated to the meme of The Eastwood Chair –Clint Eastwood’s embarrassing or perhaps hilarious, depending on what side of the aisle you’re on, attempt to lampoon an inactive Pres. Obama at the Republican convention; Pres. Obama’s self-admitted long onstage “nap” at his first debate with Mitt Romney (also spawning alternating doses of hysteria and hilarity dependent on your left or right leaning); Mitt Romney’s trumpeting “Binders Full of Women” from his Massachusetts past in their second encounter (which, you gotta admit, is sort of funny all around); the “Horses and Bayonets” Pres. Obama joked were Mr. Romney’s weapons of reference for a ready 2012 military during the third debate: and various other uber-meme-y catch phrases like #Romensia,” “#legitimate rape?,”#Obamaloney,” #YouDidntBuildThat, #The47%” and #BigBird.
A small group of humorless talking heads, mouths and pens can regularly be seen or heard self-righteously bloviating on television, radio or in print, stamping their feet and bellyaching about the political correctness of any one or more of these phrases. But to all of them I say this – plainly and quite simply: BITE ME.
I’d much rather have a lot of word-play, offensive though it might be to some group of us all than have the political violence of 1968, when disagreement over race, politics and social mores spawned a lot more than hurt feelings, hate speak and, (heaven forbid!) an attempt to re-secularize American society away from the doctrinaire fundamentalist views of a particular national religious doctrine. (I mean, most of the wars of the world – historically and, in fact, currently – are fought over the latter alone, if you think about it).
And yes, because this is my blog, I’m particularly singling out those who Tina Fey so aptly named several days ago in a speech on reproductive rights — all you self-proclaimed ultra religious “gray-faced men with the $2 haircuts” who want to lecture women on what rape means.
Ms. Fey’s jokes about these older men who see a child conceived through the violent crime of rape as a “gift from God” for women would not exist without the middle-aged male politician who made this unintentional sickly humorous remark, much in the same way that Ms. Fey’s brilliant impression of Sarah Palin wouldn’t exist without the former Alaska governor turned reality TV star. In fact, speaking of Ms. Palin and humor, the mother of single Mom abstinence crusader Bristol often likes to use her own unique brand of 2012 yuk-yuks in her incessant Facebook posts. Her last noteworthy attempt, categorizing our bi-racial president’s policies in Libya as “shuckin’ and jivin’,” an old Jim Crow term widely used to categorize a certain type of shuffling, irresponsible Black man, was seen as downright hilarious to her many loyal supporters. I find this, Ms. Palin and almost any remark she makes to be particularly offensive for various reasons but remember – I also found the religious fever dream in “Book of Mormon” hilarious, which would no doubt in turn be deemed humorless and probably equally offensive to at least some of the Romney clan (I’m not naming names) if I could muster enough tickets (or even one!) or get them a group rate for a family theatre party. Plus, we haven’t even gotten to what the reaction would be from Donny and Marie Osmond, who in a weird and hilarious twist of fate are actually scheduled to follow “Book of Mormon” into the Pantages Theatre with their new live Christmas show. Talk about equal opportunity offending!
The contract that is America, as opposed to the 1990s era Contract For America that Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority in Congress unsuccessfully tried to push during the Clinton administration, calls for inclusion of all opinions: humorous, deadly serious, and everywhere in between as long as no laws are being broken. This is as true for jokes by and about the Tea Party as it is for all the down home humor you get at, say, a meeting of the Green Party. It’s as true for Bill Maher as it is for….well, I can’t think of a right wing equivalent off the top of my head but let’s say that unintentional huckster by the name of… Glenn Beck?
It also goes for all things apolitical. I mean, the one movie in November my students are insisting we all watch together is Lifetime’s “Liz and Dick,” starring Lindsay Lohan. (I am choosing to take this not as a personal failing of mine but to own it as my own little successful attempt to show them there is no differentiation between “high” and “low” art). Sure, they all are dying to see Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and are anticipating “Life of Pi,” “The Impossible” and “Cloud Atlas.” But for unbridled sick humor – well, they’re under 30 and Lindsay is their gal. Yes, it’s a new world. But in some ways, it hasn’t changed it all. (Does anyone aside from myself and a few gay friends remember “Valley of theDolls?”)
All this is to say that I, for one, am looking forward to the humor in the 2012 election results – no matter how they turn out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely partisan and will want to slit my wrists if every important candidate of my choice doesn’t win – which means ALL OF THEM. But I will resist because there is good chance that if most or even one or two of my main picks win – especially Pres. Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Mass), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tim Kaine (PA) and Alan Grayson (FLA) – or in the unlikely chance that they all win and the Dems take back both the Senate AND the House, thereby giving Nancy Pelosi back the Congressional gavel – I will also have lived to see Ann Coulter’s head explode on national television… live and over and over again in blood-curdlingly graphic, murderous sound bites.
Oh relax, I’m just joking!