"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Swearing More But Enjoying It Less?

I swear a lot – or at least I thought so until I caught bits of the comedy specials aired on HBO where the f-word is used frequently, persistently, and without regard to context, timing, or impact.  What used to be shocking no longer is and has become a facile prop for very unfunny comedians. The word has become the stock in trade for all stand-up comedians, de rigeur for the young comic, women out to claim their street creds, and even older guys who don’t want to be left out.

I grew up in an era where swearing on radio or television was totally verboten.  This did not affect the humor of Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jack Benny, or Carl Reiner. Even today, one of the funniest stand-up comedians in the business – Robin Williams before he turned to serious acting – never had to resort to swearing.  His monologues, many completely impromptu, ranged from one perfectly-captured character or sequence to another without pause.  He changed personality like Jonathan Winters or Lily Tomlin but in split seconds.  He had a genius for observation, mimicry, and for understanding the funny and the ridiculous.

Melissa Mohr writing in The Guardian (5.29.13) agrees that we are swearing more but that the impact of once shocking words is waning:

Today, the same pattern is being repeated with our sexual and excremental obscenities. They are very slowly losing their charge, as oaths did, becoming more acceptable not just on YouTube but in college classrooms, newspapers and literature. We won't ever face a lack of really powerful words with which to shock and offend, though. Epithets are picking up the f-word's slack and becoming more and more taboo.

This is only partially true.  While the f-word has become a staple on television and the social media and has become part of the popular lexicon, it still retains its power and its particular ability to enrage.  Under the right circumstances, ‘Fuck you!” is guaranteed to spike the blood pressure and jack the adrenaline.  ‘The finger’ is no less provocative.  See what happens when someone cuts you off on the road.  You flash your lights and blow your horn, he gives you the finger, and without thinking you clamp your hands down on the wheel and enraged take off after him.

There is a Facebook post - ‘I Love Fucking Science’ – now circulating.  It features unusual scientific tidbits – frogs that quack, mating behavior of genetically modified chickens, etc.  The title is a throwback to the Sixties (“Wow, fuckin’ groovy”) to express admiration and surprise.  ‘Fuckin’ awesome’ or ‘Fucking incredible’ are modern turns of phrase – innocuous intensifiers that have dumbed down the language, but harmless nonetheless.

Overuse kills usage; and soon the audiences of stand-up comedians will realize that they are not getting their money’s worth – especially if they tune in to an old Jonathan Winters or Sid Caesar and Imogen Coca sketch.  Comics will change their tune and turn to other more offensive ways to get a rise out of people:

In our current PC environment, it is hard to do the things that made people laugh in the past – the burlesque of the stumbling blind person; take-offs on stone-deaf old people; and ethnic jokes.  It is perhaps true that scrubbing language clean of ‘offensive’ remarks may well encourage tolerance and acceptance; but more than likely this type of humor has simply gone underground.  There is plenty of academic research about why people laugh when they see an awkward stumble – the classic slipping on a banana peel – and laughing at stereotypes is an affirmation of one’s own supposedly higher status.  We are not clumsy, money-grubbing, or swish. 

In fact, pejorative jokes play a small but important role in reducing stereotypes. My  first generation Italian-American parents did all they could to expunge all traces of garlic, parlor sconces, and guinea-wagons from our house and driveway.  I had no choice but to shop at Brooks Bros. and J. Press.  They knew that the WASPs in our neighborhood looked at us as meatball-eating slobs who wore wife-beaters, swilled rotgut, and smoked cheroots.  If all Italians cleaned up their act, my mother reasoned, we wouldn’t be called guineas and wops. Jewish jokes are less common today than before because Jews are far more assimilated and inter-married than a few decades ago.  Italians, Irish, and Polish Americans have long been part of the mainstream.

So, I see nothing wrong with joking about the non-assimilated.  Latinos and blacks by and large are still very homogeneous groups with very distinct cultural characteristics.  While there is a black man in the White House and one on the Supreme Court, there are still millions of blacks wearing bling, doing the pimp walk, and bustin’ rhymes. If you have ever seen Eddie Murphy imitate an uptight white man, then you can imagine the potential for parodying ghetto behavior.  Public joking simply expresses what most people say in their own living rooms.

The only class of people who have not escaped PC opprobrium are fat people who are now fair game.  I have seen comedians lay into fat people with a vengeance, happy that they for once have a juicy, still acceptable and funny target.  All the racial, ethnic, and sexual jokes they have been suppressing for years come out in a circus show of fat-animus.  These jokes are understandable – obesity is a no-no.  Fat people are on the margins of cultural acceptance.  They are far from the social norm, and like every other marginal group before them, are legitimate prey.

Returning to completely free speech regarding racial, ethnic, and other social disparities is unlikely, given the harshness and implacability of the PC thought police and the beneficiaries of easy-come lawsuits for ‘harassment’; so we will have to suffer through more f-word clowning onstage and even more f-word currency in everyday language.

One day many years ago, I visited my parents with my 2-year old daughter.  They had no crib, so we fixed up a sleeping area for her in the corner of their bedroom. We tucked her in, gave her her blanket (Bobby), and kissed her goodnight.

The next morning my mother said, “You know, your daughter woke us up last night because she couldn’t find her blanket.”  I knew this wasn’t all.

“Do you know what she said?”, my mother asked.

“Where’s my fucking Bobby?”

I realized then that I swore a lot, but made no effort to stop.  I knew that my daughter would soon understand the difference between ‘Where’s my fucking Bobby?’ and ‘Fuck you!”

So the f-word will become more and more diluted in common parlance, and become an expletive, an innocuous intensifier, and an interjection; but will retain its incensing power for many years to come.  Comedians will soon find some other way to get laughs as the word loses its shock value entirely; and without bad stereotype jokes to fall back on, they may actually develop some funny material. 

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