Three or four powerful energic forces collided last week to create a perfect cultural storm that ended in toppling one of the giants of radio entertainment from his current venue. The forces at work were a) the culture of offensive humor and its audience of millions of lovers of pie-in-the-face comedy led by Don Imus; b) the paranoid hypersensitivity of black, moth-eaten, demagogues Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and their grievance collecting, loser minions; c) tens of millions of dollars in advertising fees whirling around in the ether and in danger of encamping to safer venues; d) and billions of watts of hypocrisy radiating from CBS, which is no newcomer to Imus’s brand of humor, and the multitude of media people — whited sepulchers all.
Don Imus is a gifted entertainer who has been practicing his art — offensive humor — for decades, and has won a following of millions, and a salary estimated at $10,000,000 a year. His morning show, listened to nationwide, consists of commentary on sports and politics and interviews with figures in the news. Sprinkled in among these items is his Shock-Jock humor — his trademark. Nothing , no one, no group, religion, race, or class seems spared from his insults, if they are in the public eye. He’s very good at this kind of thing and he is almost never out of control, it never becomes a rant. That is what makes it entertainment rather than an assault. His tone is never mean — the shock part of his insult is only in the words and not in the emotion.
The humor of insult and shock is an art, a very old art. It goes back to a time when man learned that it was almost as satisfying to hurl an insult as it was to hurl a stone or a spear — and much safer. Almost all comedy involves the expression of hostility and even when it appears to be gentle it is only well disguised hostility, as the following example will demonstrate. Spike Milligan, the great Anglo-Irish writer of low comedy, wrote what is reputed to be the best joke ever created:
A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”
The humor of insult has its origins in Aristophanes’ Greece in what came to be called the “Old Comedy.” This was comedy that addressed itself to social commentary, using the language of farce, burlesque, and travesty. The point is to make fun of politicians, social institutions, and the foibles of the powerful. The “outsider” always plays an important role in this form of comedy. They may be slaves, non-Greeks, Persians, Jews, nappy-headed ones, ones with funny accents, and these “others” become the butt of comic insult or appearance. These “outsiders” always function as characters against whom the society measures itself.
The legacy of comic otherness is the legacy of ethnic humor and comic stereotypes like “Amos ‘n Andy” and Steppinfetchit in the thirties. By the time of Plautus, comic otherness had transcended the role of the target of insult to become the low comic hero like Pseudolus, the slave character in Plautus’ play which became A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, the fake, the liar, the trickster. In modern times it was Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp — the low comic hero, impoverished eternal outsider, who was always ready to stick his finger in the eye of the fat rich guy.
Old comedy seems to have its legacy in vaudeville, physical burlesque and farceurs like the Marx Brothers. Groucho, the modern champion of comic insult, has been replaced by comics like Jackie Mason, and the great British comics like Spike Milligan, creator of The Goon Show, and who once caused a stir by calling the Prince of Wales a “little grovelling bastard” on television in 1994. Instead of being fired he was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE). And it was the zany, obnoxious humor of Milligan and the Goons that inspired the Monty Pythons. Who can forget the hundreds of sketches targeting high and low alike — stuffy ministers, stupid policemen, gays, women. All human foibles were equal to them. Probably their ultimate and greatest example of the Old Comedy was The Life of Brian, a brilliantly witty satire on the follies of religion and a poke in the eyes of two billion Christians.
Whatever else Imus is or is not, he is a member of this tribe, this long line of social critics who are funny, irreverent, and ignoble.
PART OF WHAT MAKES IMUS funny in the context of his show is the unscripted nature of the interchanges between him and his claque. It takes a lot of courage and skill and a little luck to pull off that kind of routine day after day for years without crashing. Unfortunately, he ran out of luck that day. And, although he has uttered many more obnoxious insults and pseudo racist remarks over the years, two things went wrong in this case. The first is that the Rutgers Women were totally innocent of any fault — they are intelligent, educated, hard-working, gifted athletes, mature, and gracious. And what was worse, they were powerless — they had no access to a public voice — which made Imus into a bully-boy. It’s okay to insult big guys — celebrities, politicians, movie stars — they can protect themselves.
What Imus should have done that day was to call the women and arrange for transportation for them to come and meet with them for a private apology, and as an expression of good will offer a contribution to the team’s monetary needs. He should not have made any public apology, but handled whatever criticism came with humor. He should have made fun of the critics and of himself.
Instead he allowed two nappy-headed demagogues to crawl out of the woodpile — hos to their eyeballs — who then pre-empted the situation. Sharpton and Jackson, clever racist hatemongers who live on the misfortune, ignorance, and stupidity of their tiny constituency which is growing smaller every year as black America works its way into the middle class.
We have come to judge public events and motivations nowadays by subjective perceptions rather objective evidence. In Washington or in the media, more and more judgments are made on appearances rather than realities. Down the drain with “innocent until proven guilty.” And these changes in cognitive values and justice is what men like Sharpton and Jackson count on. Every day, somewhere in America, there is a perception or misperception (misperceptions mostly, since most perceptions turn out to be incorrect or incomplete) of injustice done to somebody of color. And there is always a small community of losers nearby — on the dole and “victims of the white man’s oppression” who will take up the cry of injustice and reach for their cell phone to call one or the other of these racial demagogues. And the next day Sharpton and/or Jackson are Johnny-on-the-spot with an angry demonstration making claims and threats just in time to get on the evening news.
That is the way these men operate, the Race Police, just as corrupt policemen work by selling their power. The Race Police can threaten politicians or businessmen — in this case CBS and their sponsors, by getting on the evening news no matter what the rights and wrongs of the matter are.
The most regrettable aspect of this matter was the strength that racial demagoguery achieved. Everybody lost but Sharpton and Jackson. And in this matter the fault lies with Imus for caving in to the real racists and CBS for allowing themselves to be snookered by the Race Police.
Everyone has already commented on CBS’s hypocrisy, no need to beat a dead horse, but their retreat in the face exaggerated accusations was a betrayal to their and Imus’s fans — their rightful constituencies. These folks were their first responsibility. They should have fought the good fight and told Sharpton and Jackson to buzz off and that they were still in command. And then perhaps they should have made a major public relations effort to give democracy a chance by letting Imus’s fate be determined by voting on the Internet. Should we keep Imus or not? Just the way the life or death of Tinker Bell is determined — by the love and applause of the audience.