Monday, July 16, 2012

Tosh's Point? oh.

So much has been written about comedian Daniel Tosh’s ‘rape joke’ controversy lately that I 
almost feel like I’m beating a dead horse in throwing in my two cents on the subject. Wow...a 
simile and a metaphor in  the same previous sentence. Can I be fined for that?

Daniel Tosh, for those of you who don’t know the name, is a fairly young, popular, American comedian who has created a great deal of controversy lately over a comment he recently made to an audience member at Los Angeles’ Laff Factory Comedy Club. During his show, Daniel made reference to the fact that rape jokes are always funny. An audience member who disagreed with him stood up and said that rape jokes were never funny, at which point Tosh turned to the audience and suggested that it would be hilariously funny if 5 men raped that woman at that very moment. At that point, the patron stormed out of the club, complained to the management and proceeded to post her account of the incident on the web. This, in turn, erupted into a veritable firestorm of strongly held opinions within the comedy community and the public at large over what is acceptable behavior onstage and  the comedian’s ‘right’ to free, uncensored, and unbridled speech.

Without a video of the incident, it is extremely difficult to understand exactly what transpired in those few minutes, and my goal here is to not judge who was right or wrong, although I do have an opinion on that.    

For the ‘civilian’ reader, it might be difficult for you to understand why this incident has raised the hackles of so many comedians, and so I’d like to share with you some of the reasons why (I believe) Tosh’s statements just don’t seem to want to subside.

To begin with, comedians take great pride in what they do. Most of us spend endless hours writing, editing, testing, polishing and performing our words for you. The fact that a professional makes his/her acts seem effortless and impromptu is a testament to that statement. Our acts are our children, our lovers, and our friends. We protect them from harm like mother wolverines would protect their cubs.

Many of us spend the better part of our careers seeking our own voice and our own truth up there. In most cases it takes years to find it, but by the time we’re in the business about ten years or so, we have a pretty good idea of how to write for ourselves. Hopefully, in that development period, we find a way to express ourselves in a unique way that sets us apart from our peers. With talent and luck, we work hard to find those audiences who latch on to what we have to say. Sometimes we become household names, but most of the time we live a life of relative obscurity. True, we can have our own fan base and build a nice career for ourselves, and thanks to the Internet, that reality is much easier to achieve than when I started in 1980.

Comedians don’t always agree on what’s funny, but we tend to respect anyone who gets on stage in the first place, though we don’t always like what we see up there. For us, like you, comedy is a very personal thing, and we are discriminating in our tastes.

But I think the one thing we almost all universally agree on is that the stage in a comedy club may be the last place left in America where censorship has not taken hold for the most part. Short of yelling “Fire!” in the room, it is understood that comedians have the freedom to say and do pretty much anything they want in the name of getting laughs and their own personal truth out to the world. And while that is true, it is also a fact that the comedy club is possibly the purest of the free marketplaces; if you don’t like what a comedian says, you don’t have to patronize her/his shows, or comedy clubs in general.

As professionals, we do a lot of self-censoring in both the writing and performance of our acts. We do it for personal reasons (the topic is not one we want to explore), or professional (we want to be on television and ‘nuns giving blowjobs’ jokes will not get us there). Some of us even do it because we don’t want to risk pissing off the audience. Whatever the reason, the majority of comedians, including Tosh, try to stay within their own personal boundaries.

Having said that, we almost all believe that there is no topic in which humor cannot be found. Nothing thrills a comedian more than stepping out on the ledge and making the piece work. The closer you get to the edge, the more skill you need.  On the subject of rape for example, George Carlin proved his mastery of the art of comedy in his piece on the subject. But as he so eloquently said,

“It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is. Every joke needs an exaggeration.” Carlin-Rape can be funny.

If Tosh is guilty of anything at this point, it’s for writing a shitty joke perhaps, or not having the skill level to pull off whatever he was trying to pull off. But it was not the topic he chose. Know that my intent here is not to analyze Daniel Tosh’s act. He’s highly successful, so he must be doing something right.

A comic friend pointed out on Facebook that

"A comedy club is not some sacred space. It's a guy with a microphone standing on a stage that's only one foot above the ground. And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have—wow, you can seriously say whatever you want!—is that audiences get to react to your words however we want.”

Our power on stage is there because you have trusted us with it. We in the comedy community understand that and take it very seriously. We also understand that you have the choice or not to come to our shows if you feel we have violated that trust. But in the end, it is the comedian who decides what’s going to be discussed up there....even if the subject is one as sensitive as rape. Your trust in our ability to find the humor in it is your gift to us; ours is the laughter we provide in return.

In Tosh’s defense, the offended woman saw him at a showcase club and not at one of his concerts. She probably had never had the ‘full Tosh’ experience, and he was most likely just one of many comics performing there that night. If she had known that he dealt with rape as a regular part of his act, she probably would not have attended.

Why, might you ask is this issue so important to comedians? Couldn’t he just have deleted the joke, or apologized for it? Well if you ask that question in the bar of your local comedy club, you are going to find yourself in the middle of a debate that makes the Republican and Democrat insanity look like a kindergarten schoolyard argument over a game of marbles. The fact is that comedians see themselves as the minutemen and women of free speech. It’s been this way ever since Lenny Bruce was first hounded by the police for his use of onstage language. Since then, comedians have pushed the envelope and challenged those rules, most notably by people like Carlin (the Seven Dirty Words), Kinneson, Hicks and a few others. Where it gets sticky and ugly is when the freedom to say anything goes the way of ‘Toshgate’; someone who believes they have the right to say something but doesn’t have the skill to pull it off finds themselves in a world of controversy. And trust me, Tosh is not going to suffer over this; his concerts will be sold out, perhaps picketed, but still sold out. His TV show will continue to grow in viewership. All things Tosh will be ‘hot’ for a while....until the next comic says something equally offensive to an unsuspecting audience member.

Not much has been made of the way this customer got her message out. She apparently either tweeted or put it on her Facebook page, and it went viral virtually overnight. Why does this matter and how does it affect comedians? Well, in my opinion, it used to be that comedians spoke for those who had no voice—Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Carlin were on the forefront of finding the humor in the pain of pressing social issues. Comedians looked to these guys as role models, and audiences felt simpatico with them. They got on the stages and spoke out in a humorous way about really painful stuff. They were more than just like the comedians of the previous Ed Sullivan generation-they were orators who broke ground and touched on subject matter that had remained taboo until their arrival. And they spawned a couple of generations of comedians who picked up the torch and carried on the message. That was before the internet.

What’s happened, I think, is that with the advent of Facebook and Twitter et al., the voiceless suddenly had their own platform in the town square and a place where they could be heard. They began to understand the power that used to be the sole property of the comedian and they are using it. And so when they feel slighted or insulted as in the case of this woman, they now have a venue to spout off, along with the public support to go with it. They have freedom of speech... and that is very empowering. It is so empowering, in fact, that you are seeing what I believe to be either the beginnings of a revolution in comedy, or its ultimate demise in the traditional sense. Combine that  with the endless onslaught of reality TV mentality, with its endless onscreen ‘fights’, whether staged or not,  and the result is that we no longer have discourse--we swing first and deal with the consequences later. We’ve already seen incidents where audience members are starting to react in a ‘reality show’ way (violently)-throwing drinks, attacking comedians onstage, etc.

Perhaps the rules are changing for stand up comedy; I don’t really know. But I do know that those who practice the art hold it in high regard, including Daniel Tosh, I’m sure. I don’t believe that there is a topic that is off limits, including rape. But like Carlin said, “It all depends on how you construct the joke”.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza! 


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In Search of America—Mayberry, NC and Fairview, NJ

I promised myself I wouldn’t do this because it seems sappy and kind of mentally ill, but one day after learning of Andy Griffith’s death, I find that I am sadder than I was at my own father’s passing, and the urge to write about it can only be eased this one way.

Let me begin by saying that I did not know Andy, except through his work, which was substantial and diverse. From his early years as a successful standup comedian, to his brilliantly dark portrayal of the troubled “Lonesome Rhodes” in Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd to the Gomer Pyle prototype Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants, Andy Griffith’s talent ran far deeper than his easy screen demeanor would have an observer believe.

But it was the Andy Griffith Show, and the creation of Mayberry, for which I and millions of others will always remember and love him.  

In 1960, the show’s pilot premiered as part of Danny Thomas’ hit show Make Room for Daddy. I was 8 years old. My father and mother had divorced two years earlier, and my own Dad was already on the downward alcoholic spiral that would eventually kill him. My mother, a single parent at a time when such a thing was a rarity, had her own demons chasing her. The mental illness which would hospitalize her in eight years was already manifesting itself in violent ways toward my sister and me. Lost and constantly in fear, some of these television characters became my family and comfort, the sanity I needed in the midst of the chaos in which I was living.

Up until Make Room for Daddy, Bonanza, and the Andy Griffith Show, sitcoms revolved around nuclear, well-adjusted, and prosperous families--- three things I had little or nothing in common with. As much as I wanted to be a part of that type of family, I can clearly remember being resentful, jealous, and ever more alienated from my peers as I watched the Andersons of Father Knows Best or the Stones of The Donna Reed Show. They had sane, working parents who took the time to care for and love their children. I had crazy #1 and crazy #2.  Keep in mind that back then, we didn’t have the Internet or cable TV. We had 7 TV channels to choose from. That was it. With no role models at home from which to learn the lessons of life, I (and I suspect a good deal more from my generation) turned to the infant television for my morals, ideals, and guidance. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but it was the only one available.

As much as I liked Danny Williams (Danny Thomas) and Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), I still felt a distance from them; both were successful with plenty of money, and both were men. Though they were both single parents, their prosperity made their lavish lifestyles distant, foreign, and unattainable in my eyes. None of them had the simple charm, wit, love, and values as Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina.

1960 was the beginning of the Kennedy administration. The entire country was caught up in the glamour, beauty and pageantry of Jack, Jackie, Caroline and John-John. It has been romanticized to nearly mythical status over the decades for good reason. The Kennedys were young and beautiful. They represented the best vision of what post-war America could be to the baby-boom generation that was beginning to mature and be aware of its surroundings. America was on the verge of becoming Camelot; a fictional utopia where even the elements bow to the whims of the king. The Kennedys had movie star status and everyone wanted to be one.        

For me, the child, Camelot was in the opening credits of the Andy Griffith Show.  Andy himself once described it as “all about love” and that is exactly how I felt listening to that simple, whistled melody and watching this loving father and his son strolling along a dirt road to the fishing hole. I remember thinking gee; this guy took off work to fish with his son. How cool is that?  I used to love to watch Andy’s patience as Opie stopped to skim the rock across the pond. More was said in that 30 seconds about love, passing down the joys of childhood, and the things that really mattered in life than in anything the Kennedys ever did.

Like my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey, life in Mayberry was simple by design. Unlike Mayberry however, Fairview was composed mostly of immigrants and first generation Americans. Life was simple and everyone knew everyone. Like Floyd’s barbershop, the old Italians in my neighborhood would congregate in either Libo’s (pronounced Lee-bo) or Romano’s barbershop and solve the world’s problems. Two blocks away, instead of Ellie Walker dispensing prescriptions and ice cream sodas, we had Mr. Raymond Platoni’s Drug Store and Mary and Tony Famigliaro’s Candy Store handling the chores. Brothers Butchers supplied the meat and Willy’s Fruit Stand (owned by Nunzio Caruso) supplied the produce. On Sundays, after an hour of being tempted by the aromas of fresh baked goods wafting through the stained glass window of St. John the Baptist Church on Walker Street, the parishioners would stream out quickly (but not so much as to seem irreverent) and rush to get the magnificent crullers and jelly donuts at Schenkel’s Bakery before they were sold out. One block up and down Anderson Avenue, the delights of Vito’s Bakery and Pedoto’s Bread awaited those with a more ethnic penchant.

Aside from language and culture, the people in Fairview and Mayberry knew what they had, and except for the Mayors of each town, there were few who wanted to change it. No one was rich, but everybody worked. Kids as young as ten had paper routes, shined shoes, worked in bakeries, wherever they could to earn money for themselves and their families. We had feasts, carnivals and parades, just like Mayberry. Instead of baseball, we played stickball in the street. In the summer, instead of the pond, we had Smokey, the old fire house guy to hose us down occasionally or the local kiddie pool or as we liked to call it, Pop’s Piss Pool Park.

Like Mayberry, we had our 'characters', those folks to whom life wasn’t all that kind. Where Andy had Otis the town drunk, we had Gustavo, who was brain damaged at birth. He would walk up and down the streets of Fairview, grunting, waving and smiling in his own harmless way to anyone who paid attention to him. And while I’ll admit that he scared the bejeezus out of us as kids, we came to watch over him as we got older and he didn’t. We made sure that no on bothered Gustavo. No one had to tell us to do so. That’s just what you did in Fairview. Like Mayberry, we watched out for our own.

What was missing for me in those years was a real life Andy Taylor. I wanted so much to be like the other kids who had parents that loved them, but I wasn’t that lucky. In Andy, I found a warm loving father whose discipline methods didn’t automatically include a metal vacuum pipe or being dragged to a lit stove burner, an aunt who didn’t lock me out of the house from time to time, but who made great pies and lousy pickles. I didn’t have extended family members like an "Uncle" Barney, who loved me like I was his own. Instead I had an uncle who felt he could beat me when he thought I was out of line. That was my mother’s idea of a ‘manly’ influence in my life.

In Mayberry I found peace and contentment on the front porch at night, just enjoying the quiet which was punctuated by the occasional song from Andy’s guitar. And when it was bedtime, I could be assured that my parent would not be dragging me out of bed by my hair in the middle of the night because I forgot to empty the garbage. When there was trouble in Mayberry, it usually involved Ernest T. Bass or the Darling Family coming down from the mountains. Even the moonshiners loved and respected Andy. When there was trouble in my house, someone usually got hurt.

As I said earlier, I didn’t know Andy Griffith. From all accounts he was a genuinely nice, kind soul in real life. I’d like to believe that. And I’d also like to believe that he knew there was a little bit of Mayberry in all of us; that somewhere deep in our hearts we yearned for the simplicity of life and the joys of knowing love, neighborliness, and kindness in our daily lives. I believe that is why, more than fifty years later, the Andy Griffith Show endures in popularity to this day and Camelot is a distant, dying memory.

The real Mayberry was based on Andy’s home town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. I’m told that there is a museum there dedicated to the show. I have considered making a pilgrimage there. But I’m afraid I’d be disappointed, because there probably won’t be a 5 and 10 cent store, but a Wal-Mart. And a CVS or Rite-Aid has probably replaced Walker’s Drug Store. Wally’s Filling Station probably has a mini-mart now that doesn’t even repair cars. Naw, nothing stays the same, I guess. But thanks to my surrogate Pa, Andy Griffith, I can remember life the way I had hoped it would be. Thanks to Fairview, New Jersey, I had most of it.

Rest in peace Andy.