Friday, September 29, 2006

Can Comedy Go Too Far? Daring to Offend

UPDATE: I read the Washington Post story Borat, Kazakhstan's Mighty Faux this afternoon. Just as the president of Kazakhstan was in Washington yesterday, Borat was holding a guerrilla news conference outside the Kazakh embassy. From the Post: "He called out Kazakh Embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko as "an Uzbek impostor" ("pliz do not listen to him") and threatened to attack Uzbekistan "with our catapults." Anyone, he added, "who claims we do not drink fermented horse's urine, do not have death penalty for baking bagels," is lying."

I planned to write about Borat after reading yesterday’s New York Times article, but I opened the Montgomery Advertiser’s on-line edition to see the story SPLC: Cross-dressing, Blackface Comedian No Laughing Matter and changed my focus. I’ll get back to Borat. There’s a connection.

Based in Montgomery, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is recognized internationally for its advocacy of justice and equality issues and for its Teaching Tolerance programs for schools—my Scottie’s school, Booker T. Washington Magnet High School, for one participates. SPLC co-founder Morris Dees took on the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and pretty much wiped them out financially at least. Supporters of these to the right of Right-Wingers hate his guts, and there’re all sorts of ugly Internet sites devoted to Dees bashing—another story, another day. Anyway, the SPLC has fought many battles that needed to be fought (Roy Moore), and I have respect for their work on justice issues.

Nobles Bar here in Montgomery scheduled a comedian, Chuck Knipp, to perform Saturday night. Richard Cohen, the SPLC executive director, sent the owners a letter saying the SPLC was pulling their business from the bar because they found Knipp’s act and characters “grotesque and demeaning stereotypes of black people.” Cohen is quoted in the Advertiser as saying, “The owners have been great supporters of progressive causes in this community and that’s what makes me particularly dismayed about them having this act this weekend.”

Both the owner and the comedian deny it’s racist although Knipp performs in blackface and has apparently had a performance cancelled before. “Every time you are going to do something besides just stand up and tell knock-knock jokes you are going to take a risk,” he said to the Advertiser. Keith Boykin’s Web site has a few more details about the act with the Shirley Q. Liquor character and recounts Knipp’s trouble with New York activists. The comedian’s Web site has plenty if you want to judge for yourself. I watched a YouTube Church Slave and listened to Go Greyhound where Shirley (a.k.a. Knipp) calls Greyhound to find out about tickets for her and her 19 children.

Switching gears and getting back to Borat. As I mentioned many words earlier, Bill was reading me Steven Lee Myers New York Times article entitled “Kazakhs Shrug at ‘Borat’ While the State Fumes” about British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (I don't think he's related to the SPLC's Cohen) and his character Borat, a “bumbling, boorish, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic Kazakh television reporter.”

Kazakhstan, a real country and one without much of a sense of humor, has tried to set the record straight that it is not anything like Borat’s version. I think they should also talk to the Lonely Planet folks who describe the country as "bleak, but those who enjoy remoteness, wide open spaces, lunar landscapes, long hypnotic train rides and horse sausage will definitely be in their element." Strangely, last night during Wolf Blitzer’s CNN show, up pops a real ad for Kazakhstan showing lovely vistas and charming sites. You are going to be hearing a lot more about Cohen’s Borat and Kazakhstan because he has a movie coming out November 3, called “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” If you go to Cohen’s Web site, you can see his response to Kazakhstan’s concern wherein he “fully supported my government’s decision to sue this Jew.”

And from Europe comes the news via the Times on Line that an opera by Mozart has been cancelled for fear of upsetting Muslims. “The bloodstained King of Crete stumbles onstage and holds aloft the decapitated heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad. “The gods are dead!” he calls out to the audience,” thus begins the lead. Continuing, “For fear of Muslim anger, the bosses of the world-renowned Deutsche Oper in Berlin have cancelled performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo. The decision has unleashed a storm of disapproval from politicians and writers, who claim that Germany has fatally compromised the freedom of expression.”

So, I ask you dear gentle readers, can those who create comedy, drama, opera, music, books, paintings, or other methods of expression go too far? Who will decide what is offensive? Will you for me? Or me for you? Just my thoughts.


jayhey said...

Blackface? There's no excuse for that, these days. None at all.

On another board it was said that the Southern Poverty Law Center was trying to shut down this guy's act. That is not true.

They just are not going to attend his act. Lots of events I don't attend, either.

Sheila said...

Thanks for your perspective, jayhey. Yes, you are correct that the SPLC folks were voting with their feet not attempting to ban the show. Thankfully, we all have that option. I'd rather live in a society where offensive material may be viewed (as along as there is no exploitation such as with child porn or discrimination) than live where others decide for me. Yes, the stereotypes are crude and offensive. The comedian also does a white Southern woman, Betty Butterfield, who visits all sorts of churches. I'm sure she's (he's) offended the Mormans, Catholics, Baptists and all other religions in between, but the skit on Unitarians was fine with me since I think I can take the ribbing. I guess that's strange coming from a Unitarian isn't it?

Kilroy_60 said...

I don't often tip toe through people's archives. And I am, I promise you, doing my best to limit comments. Interesting coincidence, though, that TheSpecialOne supports The Southern Poverty Law Center.

If you see the # 0f 1,000 reference in the bottom right corner of my posts, I'm writing 1,000 comments. I conducted a Commentathon to commemorate my one-year blogiversary. Came just short of my 365 comment "goal" over about three weeks.