Full disclosure: I worked full-time as a stand-up comic from about 1980 to 1990, and it was a great period in my life. I was traveling all over America on somebody else’s dime, my peers were people who later became big stars, and I got a pretty good education in the relationship between audience and entertainer. I embrace and feel grateful for those years, and I have no axe to grind.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t despair when a trade I used to ply suffers some denigration in quality. And it’s important to note that even when stand-up was enjoying that golden boom in the 80’s and 90’s (comedy on cable, comedy clubs everywhere), there were a lot of terrible and unfunny performers. Many of them are still out there somewhere, working.
Whether on film or TV or live on stage, comedy can sometimes function like the Emperor’s New Clothes: There’s a presumption that something funny is going on until someone in the crowd shouts out “This isn’t very good.” That appears to have taken place well in advance of a disaster when a decision was made to cancel an appearance by “controversial” comic Carlos Mencia at a benefit for the Edison School. An educators group planned on picketing the event, but it just as easily could have been picketed by anyone who has experienced fatigue watching lame material and racial button-pushing alleged to be “comedy.”
In the lapidary of popular culture, where the rough is often but not always made smoother, we sometimes feel uncomfortable in objecting to things we find mediocre and regressive. We’re anxious about appearing less than hip or even wrong because something is popular. We angst over whether there might be some thin tissue of cultural bias in just saying “No” to something that strikes us as vacuous and weak. If a car made in Sweden simply wasn’t to your liking, you wouldn’t buy it and no one would accuse you of having a problem with Swedish people. Somehow, with entertainment, it can be a different story.
Whatever forces of good sense and taste colluded to pull the plug on Mencia, everyone involved can feel just fine about it. Not because this particular entertainer presents a sandwich made up of two slices of racial stereotype with some fatty dumb meat in the middle, or because comedian / TV host Joe Rogan has gone to great lengths on the Internet to prove that Mencia steals a lot of his material from other comics. Santa Monica should feel good about rejecting Mencia because there’s no imperative to embrace banality that seeks to defend itself as “controversial.”
Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was controversial. Here are some things that are not controversial: Anything Madonna does, any cable TV show that says it’s “controversial”, the fake accident with Janet Jackson’s dress at the Super Bowl, “The View”, any YouTube video depicting the Pillsbury Doughboy in a compromising position, any movie award or award nomination, anything about Nancy Grace including getting her fired, any video of David Hasselhoff drunk, any episode of “Dr. Phil, anything from Rush Limbaugh… and the racially charged juvenilia of Carlos Mencia. As the philosopher kings Huey Lewis and The News once stated, “Sometimes bad is bad.”
And it really is that simple. In 1989 there was a sustained effort to sell the “comedian” Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay as one of those avatars who tells it like it is. He was “controversial.” Now Clay is banging around at the bottom of the reality show “celebrity” lists. A review of some of his old concert video will make you wonder what was going on with us as a nation that Clay got as far as he did with his spew.
The LA Times used to print family film reviews where the potentially troubling (to a parent) passages of a film rated PG or PG-13 were described in detail. Any weekend show in any comedy club would not stand up well to the same kind of review. That doesn’t imply that comedians have to meet any kind of standard. After my years on the road, I can assure you that will never happen.
But it does mean that organizations looking to raise funds can make a decision about entertainment and then, in reviewing the work of the artist involved, change their minds. And it most definitely has nothing whatsoever to do with censorship. As for taste, you can’t impose standards there, either. But you can feel good about demonstrating that you have some. I’d love to think more of that was on the way now that we’ve moved Larry the Cable Guy out of the White House. Our new President recently reprimanded executives who took big bonuses from their companies while those same companies were being bailed out with taxpayer money. It’s wrong, and Obama rightfully got angry. But those bonuses are also in bad taste. And they definitely aren’t funny.