Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lisa Lampanelli and Hate Speech

Is obscene racist humor by defintion hateful?

My wife and I went to see Lisa Lampanelli in Kalamazoo Michigan last Friday night (Oct 7th). We’ve long been fans, so I knew what I was getting myself into. For those of you who are not familiar with Lisa’s act, she is called “the Queen of Mean,” and her act is characterized by the most outrageous of racial and ethnic slurs; profanity abounds, don’t watch it with your grandma. But is it hate speech?

Not at all. From what I can tell, Lisa is not a hateful person. The act who opened for her, a guy from the Howard’s Stern Show, and a man who well characterized that show, was also obscene and irreverent, but for me it was a big different. He seemed actually hateful.  When he made a crack against Puerto Ricans, the crowd murmured instead of laughed, at which point he said “you didn’t like that joke? Do you have any idea who is coming on the stage next!” But there is a difference between the two acts, a tone that makes one funny and one uncomfortable. The sense I get from the Howard Stern show and Howard Stern himself, is that these people seem to have a lot of resentment, bitterness, and hate, and the aggression in their speech verges on hate speech.

Not that I mind hate speech. I think we should be allowed to say what we like about abstractions, about groups, or ideas. There are libel laws for good reasons, but we ought to be be able to speak whatever else we want. What oppression it is for any group to tell me who I can and cannot hate. Nevertheless, to listen to a genuine racist rant – I don’t mean somebody who feels uncomfortable around whites or blacks, and I don’t mean any of the everyday racial tensions we all feel, but I mean somebody who identifies himself and his values in hating another group of people (homosexuals, blacks, Jews, Muslims, etc) – such a rant just isn’t funny. I think to “get’ the joke, you have to feel the same way about the group. It is hard to laugh when your sworn enemy makes a joke. Even if he kids with you to release the tension, it doesn’t work, you hate him all the more. In the same way, you can’t really hate somebody who makes you laugh. There is a union of souls (to use such language) when any two people laugh together. It’s not that I think the kkk, or Nazis, or certain groups of Christians are evil, I really don’t think any man is evil, but they do have bad habits, and that’s a start, but they also have a certain attitude that makes it hard for others to be sympathetic with. They have the right to their hate speech but it puts my nerves on edge.

So why is it funny (to me at least) when Lisa Lampanelli “pretty much says the same things as the racists”? Well she might literally say a joke a klan member would say, but the tone is fully different. In a way, Lisa takes the weapon of the haters away. The haters can say “look, other whites feel the same way we do about the blacks, otherwise you wouldn’t laugh at our jokes. We all know they are criminals, stupid, useless, etc., but only us klan members are brave enough to say what we are all thinking.” The service Lampanelli provides (to look at social discourse philosophically) is to take that weapon away, to say “well yeah, social stereotypes CAN be funny. But that doesn’t mean we have to hate each other. Why don’t we laugh at each other and NOT hate? After all, whites, Christians, men, women are all equally ridiculous when put in irreverent light.

Humor itself could be viewed as a play of dignity. It seems that the central WHAT of a joke is some pretense that is deflated. The butts of jokes are usually those who have some prestige, some vanity, some arrogance, or at least seem to have the upper-hand. A highschool bully mocking a retarded fellow student to the point of tears isn’t funny at all, it’s disgusting. I think the Bible was expressing good common sense when it said how disgraceful it was to put tripping stones in front of a blind man.

For this reason, the most interesting part of the show was the theme of it. Lisa pretty much “talked shop” the whole show. Yes, she picked on the audience, using some strong staple jokes (she picked on an old guy, a gay couple, and a “mixed” black man and his asian girlfriend), and added some  material new to me. And I will mention that I was in the sixth row and very nervous she would point me out and ask what I do for a living (“cake-designer” lends itself quite well to gay jokes, etc) – and for a man who used to skip class and take a zero rather than deliver a group presentation, I was quite relieved when the show ended, though I did enjoy it. Anyway, she talked a lot about her other shows, and some of the audiences she has had, and the “roasts” she has done for comedy central (where some celebrity is team mocked). She explained why she didn’t Roast Charlie Sheen. She said he was insane in a literal sense, and had drug addictions. I think she was saying the man’s life is tragic, or at least pathetic, and so, really, it’s not funny at all, kinda like picking on the retarded kid who can’t defend himself and just wants to fit in and have friends. I don’t know if this is a fair assessment of Sheen (I haven’t followed the news circus around him), but it tells me something interesting about Lampanelli.

I have mixed feelings really. In a sense, a roast of Sheen almost dignifies him, saying, in effect, yeah we all know he’s a little off, but even he can laugh at itm so its okay. That she wouldn’t participate seems to me to take away from his dignity, that he is too low to mock. So I’m conflicted. Is she a nice person for not picking on an easy target, or is she a mean person for looking at the man as below any respect? I wonder this because I’ve had my own mental health issues, I sympathize with others who struggle with it. I know Carlos Mencia would do shows even for an audience with retarded people in it, and with a sense of precaution, do his routine where he made fun of the way they talked. Hmm. I’m undecided how to evaluate this.

She also didn’t mock the WestBoro Baptist protesters, and I think its because she excludes them, she despises them. I also despise them, though sadly I don’t think their theology is fully antichristian. What I would like to see is a group of protesters follow them around, protest their protests, say the most undignified and cruel things about them, to their face, with picket signs.

My wife’s response is that I think too much. What the hell! Why not just sit back, laugh, go home, and not think of it anymore? I guess that’s how I am, I analyze everything. But I do recommend you checking out her act if you want to witness a virtuoso of insults. She delights in the cleverness of her insults, not because she hates (though she is fucking irritable), but because she likes being clever. I respect that. It’s better than using humor as a weapon to hate people. Outright mockery – perhaps the only real political critique the average man witnesses, and ditto the only religious critique – becomes, for me at least, unfunny when directed against individuals struggling to find a dignified place in the world.

Take care, Caretakers!

Daniel Christopher June

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