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Elayne Boosler Headshot

Now That the Smoke Has Cleared

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Words won't kill you unless they are "Ready, aim, fire!". Now that some time has gone by since the Michael Richards rant, let's talk about the true victim of the "n" word; standup comedy. The L.A. Times continues to feature articles on the Laugh Factory, focusing on further "n" word developments, and on black comedians lamenting the loss of their use of the "n" word at the club. They're determined to say it, even though the clubowner is fining them for it.

When I watch the majority of black comedians on cable and in clubs, I am amazed the tv version of Amos and Andy was called racist, and canceled due to the main characters speaking less than perfect English in their rhythms. (We're not discussing the radio show, which was done in black face before television and which, by the way, was voted into the Radio Hall of Fame last week.) Those men had jobs, wore suits, had beautiful wives in earrings and pearls and ate at tables with tablecloths. They were a classy version of The Honeymooners, the ostensible white welfare show. By comparison, the "comedians" on cable seem to be making Klan recruitment films. There is such a dearth of dignity, but most of all, such a lack of comedy, that every time I try to watch I say out loud to the performer on tv, "Hey, I've got the Kingfish on the phone here, he'd like an apology". These shows have reinvented comedy as style over substance, rhythm over writing. I can't discern a joke, let alone root for the person up there. Between the "n" word, the "mf" word, and "bitches and ho's" (talk about insulting half the population every waking hour of the day...) they have annihilated standup comedy. Those words have made it possible for people to fill an hour set without five actual minutes of comedy. Maybe standup comedy could hire Gloria Allred to sue on its behalf, for a proper sum for not only hurting its feelings, but destroying its legacy. (Allred, what a great feminist. "We're going to find a retired judge and let HIM decide...")

The rule about heckling is this: you fire at a cop, get ready to die. Yelling "you're not funny" at a comic is firing with an AK. Hurt your feelings? Tough. Anything goes for hecklers, including excessive force. I lay myself bare up here, at my most vulnerable you shoot me in the chest, I will kill you if I can. You know why Richards looked so shell shocked at his own outburst? Because he's not a racist, he was simply in the zone. Comedy clubs are like Indian reservations. They are their own country. I don't think he should have apologized. You pay your money and you take your chances, step right up.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, far from demanding apologies, should have apologized to Bill Cosby, who tried to point out the heartbreak and social defeat of how some blacks are undercutting their own dignity and chances (did you see "Queens of Comedy"?). It's one thing to use the "n" word when you are an original, like Chris Rock or Bernie Mac, or if you're a genius, like Richard Pryor. It's another matter when you don't have the talent to co opt the enemy. These currently enraged black leaders are about ten years too late in their outrage, and they are mad at the wrong person. By the way, the best black comedian I ever saw was Marsha Warfield. She cut to the bone of race relations, was brilliantly funny, as well as intense, challenging, and seething with rage, and she never used the "n" word once.

Lenny Bruce did the first bit using the "n" word to try and diffuse its power, although the come lately historians bother to go back only as far as Richard Pryor. Lenny said he wanted to use it often enough so that any little kid called that word would never cry again because it would no longer have any meaning. And then he just said the word about ten times in a row, along with every other ethnic epithet he could think of. It was a funny, brave bit with good intentions, but it's now a failed fifty year experiment. Its usage is no longer a noble quest to gut its sting. It's become an intellectually lazy way to fill a job instead of using thought, talent, and skill.

When I started doing standup in 1973 the women working in comedy were the caricatures of their time; housewives who hated sex, loved jewelry, hated their husbands, hated themselves, etc. My oath to myself was that I would do nothing, no humor, no matter how easy it would have been, that propagated any of those images of women. I had to work harder, write better, face resistance, lose opportunity, to present a funny woman who was a worthwhile human being deserving of respect and dignity, and who could entertain not just a niche audience, but people. I don't see too many comics striving for that on cable. You can't legislate the end of the "n" word. Nobody can ever tell a comic not to say something, it runs against a comics soul. Don't take the "n" word out of your act because someone wants to ban it. Take it out because you are replacing it with actual comedy.

Boosler again sits in for Stephanie Miller with Merrill Markoe Dec. 18-22, 6-9AM live. Check your local listings.

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