There is a stereotype in our society of artistic meaning being total bullshit. You know what I’m talking about, someone wearing a French Beret in front of a blank canvas, telling someone how it is perfectly representative of the potential of humanity as well as the accomplishment (sometimes it’s a hippy instead of a Beret wearer). It’s a trope that we’re likely to think of when we hear someone is doing art that we don’t see the merit in (i.e. anytime genitals, or excrement or anything we consider vulgar are used or depicted.) In non-visual art there are other ways to dismiss art that doesn’t apply to our sensibilities, we refer to musical genres we don’t like as noise, films that have anything that we consider overly risqué tends to get placed—at least in our minds— in the category of pornography. With art, if we don’t get the point, or more importantly if we don’t think that we get the point, we assume that there isn’t one.
Around the time that Dave Chappelle ended his show, there was a lot of talk about the message of the show. People said that Chappelle walked off because white crew members were laughing in the wrong way, and Chappelle himself in interviews talked about people coming up to him and quoting the show in front of his kids. They would say the “N-word” to him, or any number of other jokes. A lot of the things that I’ve read on Facebook since the show ended have talked about the first problem, and said that there is not a wrong way to laugh, or that if a joke is only for one group of people that it is inherently racist.
Now the show started airing in 2003, at the time I was 19. By the time it ended in 2006, I was nearly 22. One of my favorite sketches was and remains to be the Clayton Bigsby sketch, which was the black blind KKK member. It’s one of the best pieces of sketch writing ever, and I ate it up—as did many others. It had a point, and that was that there is no real logic, or sense of continuity to racism (even after Bigsby learns that he’s black, his hatred of black people remains).
Here is the problem with the sketch, it’s arguably too smart. We hear about people getting outraged or offended by controversial humor, and often times it’s a matter of the offendees not understanding the point of the joke—you can witness this almost every week on Real Time with Bill Maher, when Bill makes a joke aimed at subject A, but mentioning subject B, and the audience groans thinking he’s making fun of subject B. It’s a problem that comedians have to deal with often, and it’s constantly being talked about. I’m not going to talk about audiences being offended to easily, because everyone talks about it.
What I want to talk about is the other side of the coin. The fans who don’t get the point, and that can be arguably worse. In the Chappelle’s Show example, we get to see a series of sketches with very funny sound bytes, and so we have people walking around yelling “I’m Rick James, Bitch!” despite it not being the truly funny part of that sketch, or we get people quoting Clayton Bigsby in his many “N-word” infused sound bytes. This get’s young people, or in the case of me and some of my peers, young white people. Thinking they have free license to use the quotes without thought, justifying the use of that word by reminding ourselves that we’re just quoting, and not using it with intended malice. Some of this will be solved with maturity, and better understanding, but the fact remains, sometimes the message is too smart for it’s audience—I do not blame Chappelle, or any other artist for this, just as I don’t blame Stephen Hawking if I incorrectly try to explain any of the subjects in A Brief History of Time. Ultimately it’s the job of the reader to work harder to understand the point, or to at least stop quoting it out of context.
In addition to fans, there is another problem with this type of misunderstanding. Whether you’re a rapper, a filmmaker, or a comedian, there are people in the field making their art in a pointed and specific manner, and then there are those who didn’t get it, but liked it and began to try to emulate it. The best example of this that I can think of is in stand up comedy, with rape jokes.
George Carlin had a bit, which I’m sure at the time many considered a rape joke, but I don’t think it really was. He said “Some people say you can’t joke about rape, rape’s not funny. I say ‘fuck you I think it’s hilarious.'” He continues on to talking about “it’s all about how you construct the joke.”
This is only the nine minutes that is specifically about rape, but within the context of the whole special/album, he talks about free speech, and language, and how we think in language. The album this appears on is called Parental Advisory, and the special is called Doin It Again. I recommend listening to/watching either.
The joke may not be for everyone’s sensibilities, and I certainly understand that, but the truth is in there. He brought it up to show that even the most sensitive topics can participate in comedy, and shows the power of it, he deflates and humiliates the rapist.
Now, it’s a pretty common topic that people talk about how the topic should be avoided by comedians, and it is usually said in such a way that sounds like a mandate. The truth is that it should be avoided, but not necessarily for the reason that there is no positive outcome. The truth is that kids coming up, and becoming comedians in their own right, want to be controversial, and emulate what they see, and the easiest controversy is rape. I don’t want to debate the validity of the best rape jokes (shows like The Daily Show, or SNL‘s Weekend Update can certainly talk about rape, because often they’re attacking a rapist, and that would still be a rape joke right? Whenever someone attempts to humiliate or knock Bill Cosby down a peg, it could be considered a rape joke? So I think it’s a different argument). But we get flooded with bad rape jokes, rape jokes that don’t have any purpose but shock. Ultimately, to some comedians, it’s just a word used as a type of controversy currency, and that is insensitive, and is offensive.
I’m sure the same can be said many other taboo subjects then just the “N-word” and rape, and it is definitely not exclusive to comedy, but we have a watering down of our art, because I think people are getting into it without the same forethought, the same purpose, as those who came before. The Carlins, Pryors, and Chappelles, are followed by people who only heard the sound bytes, and mimic it, like when a small child get’s a laugh after saying something ‘naughty’ and they do it every time without really knowing why.
I guess the point I want to make is, that we don’t just need deliberate artists, musicians, and comedians, but we need to be deliberate consumers of art, music and comedy. We need to —at least try to— understand things beyond the surface. If we do this, if we teach our children to do this, hopefully we’ll get more generations of good, strong messaged art, music and comedy.