Mae West: A 'History of Comedy' pioneer

Mae West was among the first stars to speak frankly about her own sexuality, making it universal.

Posted: Aug 21, 2018 5:45 AM
Updated: Aug 21, 2018 6:05 AM

"Comedy" is now the fall guy.

Every time someone gets busted for a horrific statement, he or she suddenly announces: "It was a joke!"

Uh uh. No. You are not going to cloud up our art form with your ill-conceived oral feculence.

My gifted comic pals and I work way too hard on crafting humor to allow you to come along and claim your unlicensed, misfiring sawed-off shotgun is actually a sharpened blade that cuts to the truth to illuminate understanding and brings out our shared humanity through laughter.

We now live in a political environment of such stunningly unbelievable rhetoric, we're constantly thinking, "You've got to be kidding." Yet the audience always knows, so if you're going to speak, or tweet, and fall back on comedy as a "get out of jail free" card, you probably won't get out of jail.

An "alt-right" activist said recently that people should start shooting journalists. When he was widely criticized in the wake of the Capital Gazette newspaper shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, he claimed his critics were taking his "joke" as a threat.

But that's not what happened. No one took a "joke" to be a threat; they took a threat to be a threat. They saw it exactly for what it was: a polemicist speaking without a punchline. Jokes are clearly jokes.

When Henny Youngman said, "Take my wife, please," no one came and took his wife. Jokes have a structure; many of these self-proclaimed "comedians" are just stating a sentence. And above all, a joke has to be funny -- the more controversial or edgy it is, the funnier it has to be.

I'll go anywhere with any good comic; down any conspiracist, conservative, liberal, Bible or soy-based rabbit hole, just as long as it's funny. What many fail to recognize is that they're no Bill Hicks.

Roseanne's racist tweet? Well, even professional comedians can miss the mark. In that case, they get to claim, "It was a joke," in the same way that a baseball player can say he batted today, even though he went 0 for 4. The only people who should be tweeting anything about "apes" are Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey's dead.

Comics don't get a pass.

You make enough money and have had enough practice at comedy to write jokes that are smartfunny, sillyfunny, or both. Leading with hatred and prejudice doesn't often lead to landing a punchline. If you really wanted to call Ivanka Trump a c***, well, there are ways to intelligently stick that landing and be funny.

What's the point of speaking if a wall goes up before you can be heard? Comedy's only tool is language. A message gets so much further across our current social divide when people are not recoiling from a motherf**kerdickc*** barrage that automatically shuts them down.

You can impart so much more smart, subversive humor when people are actually listening to you and not on the defense. We have all the words in the world on our palettes, why paint with only three or four colors? (Note: Comedy geniuses living or dead are exempt from this rule, because they know how to paint.)

If Louis C.K. had asked me to watch him masturbate, I'd have said, "Dude, I don't even watch your show."

Then there's last month's hilarious incident when comedian John Melendez — aka Stuttering John — called the White House pretending to be a US senator, asking to be connected to the President. Shortly afterward, John got a call back and was on the phone with the President. Talk about using comedy for good. Aside from the laughter, a comic pointed up the dangerous vulnerability to our country when a president thinks he doesn't need experts on staff because he "knows everything."

Our ambassadors are gone, our statesmen are gone, the smartest kids in the room are gone, and the country is vulnerable to any and all interference from those who would hack our democracy. One great comedy bit exposed the ongoing danger.

Pretty good for a joke.

I haven't seen the new Sacha Baron Cohen show yet so I can't comment on it. I can say only, if he is bringing reprehensible politicians back into our living rooms, I hope it's really, really, funny. And remember, when a comic dupes a politician, only the politician suffers. When politicians dupe the public, well, you know.

Vile statements are not "jokes." They're vile statements. You can't call them jokes any more than you can call vomiting "recycling." Besides, the hallmark of a true joke is that after you say it, you never have to say "It was a joke."

Haters, polemicists, politicians, rabble rousers, lazy comics, panderers; stop throwing the craft of comedy under the bus as a Hail Mary pass when you're busted for uncivil discourse.

No one's buying it. Leave jokes alone. And donate a pint of blood and say thanks to our free press.

Je suis Charlie. Je suis Annapolis.

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