For Jewish comics, Dom Imus is no joke.
In the wake of the shock jock’s unflattering comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team and his shockingly swift departure from the national airwaves has come a national discussion about the propriety of character defamation in the guise of humor, and predictions that an era of increased civility will ensue.
For Jewish comics, writers and commentators, the place of humor in a national debate is not a laughing matter. The type of discourse that attracts advertisers on radio and TV, and the jokes that draw crowds to comedy clubs are a matter of personal livelihood and civic life.
Today, boundaries are the subject of discussion. What type of language is an acceptable part of a public performance? Are profanity, sexual references and derogatory references to specific minority groups — Imus’ downfall — to be banished by overt legislation or covert consensus? For Jewish comics, the answers are not clear. A cross-section of Jewish performers interviewed by The Jewish Week found no agreement on what direction the style and content of post-Imus America would take. All agreed that they oppose any form of censorship. Some, like Jackie Mason, maintain defiantly that they will not practice a modicum of self-censorship. Others, like the organizer of a show featuring Jewish stand-up comics at a Midtown theater, senses a wariness about approaching controversial topics. The topic will be the theme of a panel discussion hosted by Makor next week.
The question on everyone’s lips: Is there a limit? How far can, or should, comedy go in this country?
These are not new questions, coming in the wake of past offenses by Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Mel Brooks, to name a few comedic icons, but they are being asked with increasing urgency.
“Do people really want to have this conversation, or just talk about having it?” Frank Rich asked in his Sunday New York Times op-ed column about the fallout from Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” comment. (He didn’t offer a definitive answer.)
“With Imus ousted, will other shows clean up their acts?” asked The Christian Science Monitor this week. (The article’s answer: “Some media analysts … say Mr. Imus’s firing signals a new awareness on the part of network executives — that while mean-spirited banter might bring in the ratings and advertising bucks, it’s ultimately bad for the nation. Most media analysts believe that at least in the short term, Imus’s ouster will cause the nation’s radio and cable talkers to be a bit more careful in some of their characterizations of fellow human beings.”)
“Jewish Comedians Pushing the Envelope: Is There an Envelope Left?” is the title of the Makor program on April 26 in which three successful members of the profession will discuss whether there is “a limit” to what is fair game for humor or whether some comedians have “gone too far?” (The participants’ answer: come to Makor to find out.)
The fallout from the Imus controversy won’t constitute the bulk of the long-scheduled program, but “it certainly will be part of it,” said comedian and writer Catie Lazarus, who will serve as moderator.
“People — comics — are really talking about it, onstage and off” she said. “It’s opening a conversation.” They’re talking about the limits of responsible, appropriate humor. “I hope people will be more thoughtful when wanting to be funny. I hope people will be smarter and think more before they talk.”
Post-Imus, the combative, in-your-face style of humor “may be coming to an end,” said Rob Kutner, a participant in the Makor program who writes for “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. “The rules and practices are a little different in the stand-up world … there’s a more conscious effort to push the envelope” than on a scripted show like Jon Stewart’s.
The controversy has “triggered a debate about what are the limits,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Insults and superficial characterizations are a major component of humor.
Just ask Don Rickles.
“Can you continue to be funny without going into characterization?” asked Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-author of the recently reissued classic, “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.” “It’s too early to tell.”
It depends on the performer, the venue, the crowd.
In the last year Mel Gibson and Michael Richards learned the penalty that vile comments incur, darkening the atmosphere in which Imus made his career-jeopardizing remarks.
“The three of them have made the climate very tense” for comics, said Cory Kahaney, a performer who organized the provocatively, politically incorrectly named “The JAP Show: Jewish American Princesses of Comedy,” currently running at the Actors Temple Theater in Midtown (see interview with her on page 5). (For feminist-minded Jews, the term JAP “is kind of like the N-word,” Kahaney said, adding that she’s encountered virtually no flack from the show’s largely Jewish audiences.)
“We’re not going to let the PC police get us,” she said, speaking for comics as a whole, and especially for Jewish comics. “We are the social reflectors for the public.”
Radio and TV programs, appealing to nationwide markets, dependent on advertisers’ dollars, may be the most likely to clean up their acts. The stand-ups at comedy clubs, drawing smaller, more homogeneous crowds, are unlikely to shy away from X-rated, race-baiting material.
“Comedy clubs will say anything, anything,” said Marvin Silbermintz, a writer for Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” “It’s so shmutzy. You can’t find someone who’s clean. It will never change. That genie is out of the bottle.”
What groups are safe from the type of lines that brought down Imus? “Anyone who has a support group” — most minorities, the disabled, Silbermintz says.
Who’s not safe? “You can do whatever you want about blondes. If you insult people who don’t have any political clout, nobody will care.”
In the two weeks since the Imus controversy broke, Jackie Mason says he has already seen a reaction among parts of the public. He and attorney Raoul Felder are the authors of “Schmucks! Our Favorite Fakes, Frauds, Lowlifes, Liars, the Armed and Dangerous and Good Guys Gone Bad,” a compendium of ad hominems that suspiciously resemble lines from Mason’s stage shows. The book takes aim at public figures (Al Sharpton: “the longest, unsustained, unsponsored carnival in America”), philanthropists (George Soros: “a Hungarian-born Jew who escaped the Holocaust and now doesn’t believe in giving to Jewish causes”), countries (Saudi Arabia: “a repressive, autocratic state unfriendly and hostile to America”), and causes (affirmative action: “nothing in our country is more insidious”).
“Inappropriate,” said Gov. Eliot Spitzer and members of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct of the new book, especially because Felder serves as chair of the commission. They called on Felder to resign the unpaid position. “Much of the material” in the book “undermine[s] the appearance of impartiality and dignity and probity that is required of the commission chair,” the nine other commission members declared. They said the book “repeatedly invokes racial, ethnic and religious invective.”
Felder said he’s not quitting.Public debate over Imus has heightened public sensitivity over what may be considered out-of-line attacks on individuals or groups, Mason said. But he said he senses a backlash of support for Imus. Mason said he doesn’t plan to change his Broadway act, which often draws criticism for stereotyped depictions of many groups, especially Jews. “I won’t even consider it for a second,” he told The Jewish Week.
Though the most recent Imus controversy was not at first glance a Jewish issue, the shock jock has made a number of anti-Jewish comments over his long career, like calling a Washington Post reporter a “boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy” and referring to the publisher Simon & Schuster as “thieving Jews.” William F. Buckley observed on National Review Online that “one of his specialties … was cracks aimed at Jews.” It has long been the case that a disproportionate number of Jews are prominent arbiters of humor, adding to the perception of Jewish influence in the entertainment industry. The page in the Sunday Times’ Week in Review section that carried a pair of stories about the Imus controversy featured the photographs of three people — Howard Stern, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen — who are clearly Jewish.
“There are ethical implications to the use of humor,” said Paul Lewis, professor of English at Boston College and author of “Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict” (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
“Jews should be alert to the possibility that humor can express bias, bigotry,” Lewis said, pointing out that performers like Silverman and Baron Cohen, far from reinforcing stereotypes, “are mocking bigotry.”
“Humor has ethical implications. You can’t check your conscience at the door when you tell a joke,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t tell a joke. You have to be a human being when you tell a joke, and Don Imus forgot about that.”