The Night American Comedy Died

One of the qualities that I admire in Americans is their sense of humor. I grew up in a serious Indian society which did not know how to laugh and especially not at itself. I remember a silly political cartoon from my childhood that portrayed Indira Gandhi in an unflattering way and caused fierce debate in parliament.

It was a refreshing change for me when I came to the United States to watch all the fun Johnny Carson sitcoms and monologues on TV. Everyone I met in my social and professional circles seemed ready with a one-liner. Even at a formal gathering like a conference or business meeting, the speaker would invariably begin by telling a joke or two to ensure the audience was relaxed.

I loved the variety of American humor and the different styles of comedians. Comedy in Indian films was entirely predictable and involved physical gestures, funny voices, or insane acts like men dressed up in women’s outfits.

A key ingredient in the recipe for making people laugh is to point out the stupidity of their everyday behaviors or the absurdity of their thoughts. It’s almost natural for ethnicity and gender to come into play. The differences in accent and cultural practices of different ethnic groups lend themselves as easy subject matter. There are plenty of jokes where comedians imitate Indian accents or make fun of Indians holding cows as sacred.
There are always absurd expectations and apprehensions in our fantasies about sex acts that can be fun to hear out loud. Again, American comedians were always open about these topics.

It’s understandable that comedians have to walk a fine line in both categories. They can be funny to some people and offensive to others.

We have to go back to the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 60s to find the saga of Lenny Bruce who would have crossed the border between decency and obscenity. He was arrested several times for using vulgar words and describing lewd acts, but never imprisoned. He was convicted in 1964 and sentenced to four months in prison, but appealed the sentence. He died while awaiting the outcome of his appeal of a drug overdose.

Over the next two or three decades, the American comedy scene maintained a balance between what was considered acceptable and what was offensive. There was a lot of humor in the media about race and gender, but certain topics and words weren’t allowed on TV. Movies controlled material by their “R” or “X” rating. Explicit words were allowed in comedy clubs where booze was served, and the shows were aimed at mature adults who were willing to pay to watch them. Black comedians like Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson often made fun of their own.

Things started to change with the infusion of “political correctness” into everything we did. The basic guideline was that there would be no more offensive jokes for any minority group, be it blacks, Mexicans, Poles, Muslims, etc. Using the “N-word” was an absolute no-no. It’s not just minority groups based on race and religion, but also sexual preference. Creator of the popular sitcom “Seinfeld,” Larry David cleverly came up with the brilliant “not that there’s anything wrong with that” line every time lead character Jerry used the word “gay” in an episode of the show. series.

The line between comedy and partisan political views began to blur when Donald Trump entered the scene. The comedians held back from poking fun at Barack Obama because they didn’t want to offend the first non-white president, but they let loose on Trump. Liberal late-night comedy hosts like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel continued their vile, rage-filled rants against Trump in the name of comedy. It was in stark contrast to the styles of great comedians like Dave Letterman and Johnny Carson.

The “MeToo” movement was a final nail in the coffin. We couldn’t even tell jokes remotely that were offensive to women, sexual or otherwise. It wasn’t just the comedy scene, male employees in the workplace were petrified at the thought of making fun of their female colleagues based on any of their characteristics. A large number of sexual harassment training sessions were rolled out to ensure employees were within their limits.

The grand finale of American comedy‘s decline took place on the 2022 Oscars night. It was a long drawn out occasion uneventful as usual until comedian Chris Rock took the stage to present the award for best documentary. Rock is a popular and well accomplished comedian. He was the host of the 2016 Oscars where his opening monologue was one of the best offerings I have ever seen. Actor Will Smith (WS) and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (JPS) were seated among the audience in the front row. JDS appeared completely bald. I later learned that his baldness was due to a rare medical condition of hair loss related to a disease called alopecia.

After a few initial lines, Rock looked at JPS and said “Jada, I love you. GI Jane -2, can’t wait to see it. Okay?” The reference to GI Jane was meant to emphasize her bald head which made her look like Demi Moore who had her head shaved in the film.

Smith initially laughed at the joke, but only seconds later he walked onstage without anyone stopping him and slapped Rock hard in the face, then calmly returned to his seat. Rock obviously wasn’t expecting this and said “Wow! Will just slapped the shit on me”. WS continued to yell at him from his seat, saying “Keep my wife’s name out of your f—-g mouth.” Rock was professional enough not to let the situation get out of hand and completed his task.

Remember, the show was broadcast live around the world with an estimated audience of over 15 million people. Everyone was amazed. The incident overshadowed the entire ceremony, even WS’ win in the Best Actor category. The Film Academy didn’t seem to know what to do. While I agree that wasn’t Rock’s best line, it wasn’t offensive humor. It seems to me that JPS came to the event with a bald head, with the deliberate intention of attracting attention. Whatever his condition, it was not chemotherapy for cancer. Rock simply hinted that she might be getting ready for a movie and claimed he didn’t know about JPD’s condition.

WS later apologized to the Academy, the public, and Rock, and resigned his Academy membership. The Academy banned him from attending the Oscars for the next ten years.

In any event, WS’ reaction was totally inappropriate. No matter how you look at it, it was comedy night in America that was killed for good. I don’t believe that a creative person can effectively create their production if there is a physical threat in addition to all kinds of censorship. It was a sad evening.

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