Over the line! “Offensive” comedy and my Walter Moment.
There is this scene in the recent documentary Joan Rivers—A Piece of Work. During a stand-up performance in Wisconsin, Rivers quips, “I hate children. Eww. The only child that I think I would have liked was Helen Keller because she didn’t talk.”
A man from the audience calls out that the joke isn’t funny, that he has a deaf son.
Rivers responds by ripping him a new one: “Oh, please. You are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot. My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a bitch. Don’t tell me! And just in case you can hear me in the hallway [as the man presumably leaves the performance], I lived for nine years with a man with one leg. Okay, you asshole? I was going to talk about what it’s like to have a man with one leg, who lost it in World War II and never went back to get it because that’s fucking littering.”
It’s a visceral moment and one that points to a certain line—when does something intended to be funny become so offensive that it has no redeeming qualities? Does such a line exist? And who should be more offended, the man with the deaf son, who is sensitive to his child’s condition, or Joan Rivers, because the man is attempting to deny her the opportunity to deal with the unease she feels from the issues in her life?
I thought about this episode after having a “Walter Moment” while watching a rerun of Family Guy the other night. The episode, “Welcome Back, Carter,” tackles an instance of infidelity by Lois’ dad, Carter Pewterschmidt. At one point during the show, Carter’s wife is trying to wake him. As she does, he mutters in his sleep, “Don’t worry Lois, Daddy’s just taking your temperature.”
Five years ago, I probably would have laughed at this joke. But not long after, my wife took a job working with child victims of sexual abuse, and my already low opinion of human nature went further down the crapper. Where I would have shared in the laughter before, I now can’t find the humor in those jokes.
As I thought about my own discomfort in regards to this subject area, I wondered if I was the only one. Fortunately not. As Jason Hughes of TV Squad commented, “It’s weird that while the pedophile character of Herbert doesn’t bother me at all, this potential admission really does. Maybe because it adds an element of incest, or seemed more genuine than Herbert’s over-the-top antics. But really, it’s just another throwaway gag in the world of Seth MacFarlane.”
I don’t know if I would go as far as Hughes in saying that it’s just another gag. An opposite argument could also be made. In that episode, Lois’ mom recounts how she and Carter met. She accidentally spills something on him at the beach, he gets pissed, punches her in the face, and then later compliments her for being able to take a punch while still seeming a vulnerable woman. Later in the retelling, he disappears from her life under the auspices of fighting a war in Alaska, a war that Barbara doesn’t seem to understand is fictional. When he returns from the “war,” Barbara is being wooed by a man who is nice, but unthreatening in any way, and therefore unexciting. Barbara ditches the nice guy for Carter. The unspoken message is: Women prefer shitheads.
All of these character elements serve to create a portrait of Carter that is troubling to say the least. Unfortunately, the Family Guy team really doesn’t develop this point in any significant way. So, perhaps Hughes was right, and what was supposed to feel like an important set piece eventually became a throwaway gag, serving no real purpose other than shock. And perhaps that’s why I can’t find it funny — it just doesn’t seem to serve a larger purpose.
For the record, I didn’t particularly think the Rivers joke was that funny, but I certainly didn’t feel like it was offensive. And really, much like Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm, while the jokes are sometimes “offensive,” they usually come at the expense of Larry David (the character). Isn’t Joan Rivers’ joke ultimately about her own shallowness? Isn’t it that the “shock” of the Helen Keller joke is really about how petty and small people can be, and not about poking fun at disabled kids?
And maybe that’s the ultimate point to be made about the ever-shifting line of “shock” humor. Context is everything. If the joke serves a larger purpose, so be it, even if people get a little offended.