THE BLOG
07/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Should Comedy Be Politically Correct?

Arnold Schwarzennegger announced his candidacy for governor on the Tonight Show. John Edwards announced his candidacy for president on The Daily Show. And now Sarah Palin has in effect announced her candidacy for president in 2012 by denouncing Late Show host David Letterman for a joke about her daughter--the wrong, younger daughter, it turned out--being knocked up by baseball star Alex Rodriguez.

Palin accused Letterman of promulgating statutory rape. He apologized for the joke. Neither Rodriguez, who was once Madonna's insignificant other, nor the flight attendants' union, made any public objection.

Palin also objected to being compared to a "slutty flight attendant," though Letterman didn't apologize for that one. Palin never complained when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert--separately but equally--compared her to the generic librarian in a porn movie who removes her glasses and lets down her hair. When Jay Leno told a joke about John Edwards and Bristol Palin, implying that they had sex, Sarah never mentioned that. And she didn't say a word about Larry Flynt's porn movie, Nailin' Paylin.

But this wasn't the first time a comedian has been accused of telling a joke that could be blamed for the possibility of instigating a criminal act. In his book, Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, Paul Lewis quoted a Leno joke from January 2005: "Do you know what week this is in our public schools? I'm not making this up. This week is National No-Name-Calling Week. They don't want any name-calling in our public schools. What stupid dork came up with this idea?" Lewis then wrote:

No doubt staying with his fixed role not as a satirist but a comedian, Jay Leno sent this joke flying, along with tried and true observations about Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton. Anything to avoid 'preaching' to his audience, anything for a joke, a laugh. Leno may begin his routine by asking 'Did you see X or Y,' but affecting how viewers see anything is the last thing he intends.

It appears not to matter that, however ridiculous it sounds or can be made to seem, National No-Name-Calling Week might just be a good idea. A step away from a culture that leads the world not just in gun violence but specifically in school shootings. Not taken into account by Tonight Show gag smiths was the fact that there were 23 fatal shootings and six fatal stabbings in American schools during the 2004-5 school year, climaxing in the Minnesota Red Lake High School murder/suicide that left nine people dead and 13 others wounded a mere two months after Leno enjoyed his dork putdown. Does it matter that Jeff Weise, the junior who began this killing spree by murdering his grandparents and ended it by killing himself was, as Red Lake students told MSNBC, 'regularly picked on him for his odd behavior,' that he was 'terrorized a lot by others who called him names'?

'Hey,' I can hear you thinking, 'take it easy. Lighten up. It's just a bleepin' monologue.' It's the 'just' part that gives me pause. The Red Lake teen jokers, the ones who found, perhaps, an outlet for their aggressive instincts or were also, perhaps, just enjoying a joke or two at Jeff Weise's expense: should we lighten up on them too? Unlike Jay Leno, their humor was spontaneous, an expression of what was running through their twisted little adolescent brains.

"Perhaps they were feeling anxious, insecure, depressed, stressed out; perhaps the ridicule they served up was therapeutic, not for their target obviously, who would eventually acquire a more lethal weapon but, in the moment of laughing, for them. That the overlap of healing and hostile impulses...in cases of adolescent name calling, can be fatal appears not to have factored into the creative process followed by the Tonight Show staff. As Leno told the Los Angeles Times, members of his audience have a simple desire: they 'want to hear a joke.'

A January 2005 press release issued by the No Name-Calling Week Coalition stated: "Results from 2004 bullying surveys in schools indicated that students reported a significant decrease in the amount of bullying and harassment in school after taking part in the first No-Name-Calling Week and its activities. More than 5,000 educators and administrators have officially registered to take part in the [2005] week."

OK, then. So a priest, a rabbi and a bully, all fully armed, walk into a bar to hunt down a punch line . . .

Paul Krassner is the author of Who's to Say What's Obscene: Politics, Culture and Comedy in America Today, with a foreword by Arianna Huffington. Reserve your copy at paulkrassner.com.

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