Monday, April 13, 2009

Humor - when is it too far?

First, let me say that I'm blogging angry, and I'm not sure that's a good idea.  I actually have been trying to sit, let the issue settle in my mind, get some feedback from a trusted source or two, then react.  That's just not working for me right now.

I'm visiting, indefinitely, family in West Virginia.  It's altered a lot of my life, including my TV viewing habits.  I'm missing shows I like, and find myself viewing shows I don't really care for.  Of the Monday night comedies on CBS, I really enjoy Big Bang Theory, and find that How I Met Your Mother has moments of brilliance.  Tonight, I didn't flip the channel before Two and a Half Men came on, I just kind of sat there and watched it.  It's produced by Chuck Lorre, the same guy behind Big Bang, and is insanely popular.  I've got the syndicated reruns, but tonight's the first time I watched a new episode.  That was probably a mistake.  Now it's after 10 pm, and my heart is racing, and I'm pissed off.

The episode was fairly normal for the show - focused on Mommy Issues.  Even occasional viewers will tell you the funniest episodes and when Charlie and Alan's mother, Evelyn, is on the show.  She's a self-centered, egotistical priss who dashes off one-liners trashing her family with aplomb - much like Christine Baranski on Cybil.  I love her.  The show was largely about her finding out Charlie is engaged long after the fact, and Charlie's fiance bonding with her over Charlie's objections that she's evil.  Some silly jokes, some one liners, no harm not foul.

A subplot runs that Evelyn is great, according to the fiance, and Charlie would be grateful for Evelyn if he'd ever met fiance's mother.  So of course, Charlie flies in fiance's mom secretly to have dinner with them.  Mom's from Illinois (Illinois citizen's really ought to protest this woman's existence as a character), and she's got less than 3 minutes of screen time to make you understand why she's worse than Evelyn.  Oh, does she deliver.

She talks about the "Jew lawyer yapping the whole flight" and follows that up with the flight attendant in first class being "a coloured homo" and she's glad "they make him use the tongs on the dinner rolls, because she can't risk the AIDS"

I'm not without a sense of humor - this woman had to be convincingly repulsive in minutes for the viewers to hate her more than they do Evelyn after a decade of her snark.  They had to make something about her repulsive.  So they made her a hick (Iowa) anti-Semitic (Jew Lawyer), racist (coloured - in 2009) homophobic (homo + AIDS joke).  Somehow this managed to go too far for me.

You can poke fun at me for being gay - there's truth to some of the jokes.  I may even tell a few myself.  I can't say that I was personally offended by the anti-Semitic and racist jokes (but they flipped my humanity alarms).  I could probably laugh at a well done gay flight attendant joke - I've known quite a few, so make the joke original, I'll laugh.

A joke about getting AIDS from a gay man handling your food?  Told in 2009?  Seriously? I'm sorry, but are you f&cking kidding me?  That wasn't funny in 1985, and back then we weren't sure how the disease was spread.  Since when is AIDS a punch line?  There's nothing funny there, not even coming from a character you're trying to paint as hateful.  That's just wrong.

For that matter, string together the other jokes, and that's pretty wrong too.  I can only imagine how I'd feel if a were a gay Jew of color.  My head would have exploded.

And don't get me started on the fact this is on CBS - which, while I have nothing against them, is known as the "old people's network" and while I don't think that's completely fair (I'm watching, after all), the older generation is probably more likely to believe something like this is fact.  I can probably throw a rock in any direction from my home here in WV and hit a person who thinks you could get AIDS from touching someone.  Education isn't the same everywhere you go on the subject.  And now the #1 sitcom, Emmy Award winning, thinks that's a joke.  

I love free speech, but where the hell was Standards and Practices when this got pitched?  Hitting craft services?  In the john?

Some irony here - Chuck Lorre's worked on some shows that have pushed boundaries, sometimes in big ways for minorities.  Grace Under Fire, Rosanne. They were groundbreaking in their time, and helped gays and minorities with some edgy humor.  Chuck puts Vanity Cards at the end of his shows where most companies put logos for 2 seconds.  They have his history, his politics, his thoughts laid bare - you have to pause the DVR to read them.  He's sent in cards for CBS, and had them refused - and he runs a "Censored" card and you go here to read them.  He's spoken up for women's rights, gay rights, gay marriage.  How the hell did he think this was funny?

To try and tie an angry mind to the title of this post - why can you make a joke about a taboo subject or minority group sometimes, and it's funny, and yet other times, it's incredibly offensive?  When does it step from laughing with us, to laughing at us?  And are some subjects, like AIDS, just off limits?  What is edgy humor, and are there actual rules people can follow so that this travesty from tonight on Two and a Half Men from happening again?

P.S. - The episode isn't online yet from a legitimate source, or YouTube for that matter.  I'll try and find it tomorrow.


  1. OK, my blog post would have been one long string of profanity, so I commend you for your very well written post! I'd say it turned out pretty calm considering the topic. (I wish I was awake so I could make a better comment.)

    I've been dealing with the "what's funny, particularly in a satire" question for a few weeks, trying to figure out if I should finish writing something and post it. How do you ridicule a character for being hateful without being offensive? I know there's a line, but haven't quite figured it out. Hence, it's still on my desktop. I guess I'd call it an angry satire...resulting from something 9 months ago. I'd say it's good that you got yours written and quickly posted.

    Still, I would NEVER make an AIDS joke and WV isn't the only place where people still think like that. :( and >:-(

    I hope you're feeling better.

  2. Great post. I think you are right on it with the issue of humor. I think having a character demonstrated as despicable using this technique would be different in a format not dedicated to pure comedy. It gets muddy for me in the sitcom format. This attitude can be construed as being endorsed as funny by appearing on this kind of program.

    I get what they were trying to do. I also think there is a possibility that if this Lorre person has the history you say, he may be smart enough to use the format against bigots and morons. If his viewers can process this character as laughable and ridiculous and intolerable, that could be good. But it gets risky making the ISSUE seem like a joke.

    Thanks for posting while pissed off. Good call.

  3. I've been debating this over on my Twitter account with some people. The initial argument seemed to be "what would I think if Cartman on South Park said it" and oddly, I found myself saying I'd probably laugh if Cartman had said it.

    Context matters, and I think that Two & a Half Men is too mainstream to get away with this. I've asked for a ruling by the folks at on whether I overreacted. We'll have to see.

  4. Hi! I was sent here by the EDG. Great post. Thought provoking.

    I'm thinking part of the problem may be that the character had such a short life on the screen. So we don't know if she's supposed to "just" be racist and bigoted or if she's also supposed to be a complete moron. If we had a history with her (god forbid!), and she was well-established as someone who regularly spouted out inanities believed only by the uneducated and/or close-minded, it might (might) have worked.

  5. I've also posted this issue on my Twitter account, wondering if HIV/AIDS has become funny. Even if HIV/AIDS has moved to the point where jokes are acceptable, was this particular joke funny? Suggesting that HIV can be transmitted by handling food shouldn't even be a relevant laugh line in 2009.

  6. First off let me say love your blog. I totally agree with you 100% when is it ok or when did it happen to ok to joke about someone having aids or even aids by itself? Like you I can take all the gay jokes anybody can throw at me hell like you I've even told a few myself but making jokes about aids so not right I'm glad I don't watch that show and now I never will. Thanks for the post!



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