Frank Rich on the visceral need for us to explore our unvarnished truths through humor.
It was two and half weeks after 9/11 that I heard the dirtiest joke I’d ever heard in my life. New York was still tossing and turning under its blanket of grief back then. Almost no one was going out at night to have fun, a word that had been banished from the country’s vocabulary. But desperately sad people will do desperate things. That’s my excuse for making my way with my wife to the Hilton on Sixth Avenue, where the Friars Club was roasting Hugh Hefner.
The ensuing avalanche of Viagra jokes did not pull off the miracle of making everyone in the room forget the recent events. Restlessness had long since set in when the last comic on the bill, Gilbert Gottfried, took the stage. Mr. Gottfried, decked out in preposterously ill-fitting formal wear, has a manic voice so shrill he makes Jerry Lewis sound like Morgan Freeman. He grabbed the podium for dear life and started rocking back and forth like a hyperactive teenager trapped onstage in a school assembly. Soon he delivered what may have been the first public 9/11 gag: He couldn’t get a direct flight to California, he said, because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
There were boos, but Mr. Gottfried moved right along to his act’s crowning joke. “A talent agent is sitting in is office,” he began. “A family walks in – a man, woman, two kids, and their little dog. And the talent agent goes, ‘What kind of an act do you do?’ ” What followed was a marathon description of a vaudeville routine featuring incest, bestiality and almost every conceivable bodily function. The agent asks the couple the name of their unusual act, and their answer is the punch line: “The Aristocrats.”
I bring up that night now because I’ve seen “The Aristocrats,” a new documentary inspired in part by Mr. Gottfried’s strange triumph. Unveiled in January at Sundance, it’s coming to a theater near some of you this summer. (It could be the first movie to get an NC-17 rating for sex and nudity not depicted on screen.) But I also bring up that night for the shadow it casts on a culture that is now caught in the vise of the government war against “indecency.” The chill cast by that war is taking new casualties each day, and with each one, the commissars of censorship are emboldened to extend their reach. When even the expletives of our soldiers in Iraq are censored on a public television documentary, Mr. Gottfried’s unchecked indecency seems to belong to another age.
The latest scheme for broadening that censorship arrived the week after the Oscar show was reduced to colorless piffle on network television. Ted Stevens, the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, pronounced himself sick of “four-letter words with participles” on cable and satellite television. “I think we have the same power to deal with cable as over the air,” he said, promising to carry the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Never mind that anyone can keep pay TV at bay by not purchasing it, and that any parent who does subscribe can click on foolproof blocking devices to censor any channel. Senator Stevens’s point is to intimidate MTV, Comedy Central, the satellite radio purveyors of Howard Stern and countless others from this moment on, whether he ultimately succeeds in exerting seemingly unconstitutional power over them or not.
I’m not a particular enthusiast for dirty jokes, but that freedom is exactly what I, and I suspect others, felt when a comic with a funny voice in a bad suit broke all the rules of propriety at that Friars Roast. But it was just three days earlier at the White House that Ari Fleischer, asked to respond to a politically incorrect remark about 9/11 by another comedian, Bill Maher, warned all Americans “to watch what they say.” That last week in September 2001, I’ve come to realize, is as much a marker in our cultural history as two weeks earlier is a marker in the history of our relations with the world. Even as we’re constantly told we’re in a war for “freedom” abroad, freedom in our culture at home has been under attack ever since.
Anyone who knows me knows that I go to great lengths to find humor in everything. I do have my limits, such as avoiding intentional cruelty, but other than that, there are very few times where I won’t look for the punchline or the bad pun. Nobody gets out of my office without laughing. (Admittedly I have a lot of help. I work in an office with a lot of straight men — not in terms of their sexual preference but as in vaudeville. I also have a sidekick who shares the same view of the world that I do.) Nothing puts things in perspective more than the ability to laugh at something, and nothing deflates pomposity and faux gravitas than the poke of wit. It’s not like we’re starving for things to make fun of, either. As much as I wish John Kerry had won the election, the prospect of four more years of self-important horses’ asses running the country and four more years of soft pitches right over the plate like Bernie Kerik and Gannon/Guckert is a slight comfort to ease the pain of defeat. It may be the only weapon we have in the face of the threats of ignorant tight-ass senators like Ted Stevens, but David slew Goliath with just a stone, and he wasn’t even wearing a jockstrap when he did it. (Talk about putting your ass on the line….) As Lord Byron once noted, “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ’tis that I may not weep.”