I have a passing interest in stand-up comedy and bungled responses to natural disasters, so of course I stayed home this evening to watch Comic Relief on HBO, since they're donating the money to Hurricane Katrina recovery.
At some point I changed the channel to try to chase down a stray episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Otherwise known as Vincent D'Onofrio's Jerk-a-Neck and Spasm Showcase.)
I switched back to Comic Relief: Billy Crystal was standing alone on the stage wearing a pork pie hat and holding a clarinet. He was speaking with a southern drawl. My heart leapt: Billy Crystal, that master thespian, was delivering a monologue about Hurricane Katrina in the character of an elderly Black jazz musician.
You know how old Black men kind of puff out their cheeks and chew on their tongue when they're not talking? Billy Crystal nailed it!
You know how old Black men squint and smile those delightful, toothy grins? Nailed! By Billy Crystal!
You know how old Black men don't walk like regular people-- they shuffle in a sort of heartbreaking, humble-yet-dignified way? Shuffle... Shuffle... Nailed! By Mr. Saturday Nightl!
You know how old Black men end 90% of their sentences with some sort of folksy, jazzy rhetorical flourish? This cultural signifier, also, was nailed by the incomparable Billy Crystal!
(His character's catchphrase was, "Can you dig that? I knew that you could," to which I replied "If, by asking me to 'dig it,' you are referring to the deep, deep grave in which your career should be buried post haste, then I shall indeed reply in the affirmative." But I didn't speak in a southern drawl-- I chose a grotesque Irish brogue to prove I am the dramaturgical equal of Billy Crystal.)
But now I am speaking with my totally sincere accent, and I say: It was jarring and dispiriting to see, on a 21st-century evening devoted to a disaster that forced America to confront the sorry intersection of race and poverty, a witless white American millionaire's crappy impersonation of a black American. My wife remarked (after retrieving her jaw from the floor): "This is worse than a high school play."
Billy Crystal must have prepared for his performance by watching old Louis Armstrong footage and carefully maintaining an absolute lack of self-awareness. I was tempted to call 1-800-528-1000 and demand they give me money. To help repair my bleeding eyes.
Of course I have no beef with Comic Relief; It's cool Billy Crystal raises money for charity. And if it turns out he was NOT impersonating an old Black man, I'll happily eat this digital essay with my cybernetic mouth. Who knows? Perhaps this just proves once and for all that I'm an over-sensitive condescending PC jerk who can't let an innocuous cultural moment pass unattacked.
Anyway, Billy Crystal's earnest minstrelry, which many viewers probably found moving and powerful (said viewers are either 380 years old or insane) was preceded by the controversial Sarah Silverman, whose post-ironic, "racist" material didn't seem to go over well with the crowd. A cultural critic with a big vocabulary and lots of op-ed real estate could write a hell of an essay about how these two white performers deal with race--and what their different approaches reveal about their generations' sensibilities. (*cough cough* Frank Rich call me at 1-800-IDEA-4YOU!)
PS: As a self-conscious comedy snob, I was mortified to see Dane Cook kill with the angriest, most appropriate bit of the night. Will wonders never cease?
UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!
Well, it seems I really put my foot in it this time! Thanks to those readers who pointed out that Billy Crystal has been playing this jazzy character for years. It's true, I didn't do any research on Billy Crystal's performing history before writing this post. (I should have googled "Billy Crystal" + "delightful jazzman impersonation" + "is it racist") I thought he developed the monologue especially for the Katrina benefit-- as if he was the best vehicle for conveying the pain of displaced New Orleanians. I mean, he was followed offstage by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the imprimatur of authentic New Orleans-ness. However, we now know I unwittingly made an ASS of U and ME! I apologize.
So the issue is not whether Billy Crystal is so crazy he developed this character specially for the benefit-- the issue is whether a performer as sentimental and mawkish as Billy Crystal is the best choice for portraying an old Black man, since our cultural history is so full of weird, creepy sentimentalized portrayals of the archetypal, Simple-Yet-Wise Old Black Man. That question, I think, is still valid. I myself didn't see anything in that performance deeper than affectation. But maybe my eyeballs work differently from Billy Crystal's. Anyway thanks for reading!