"Life is a miracle. Death is inevitable. Everything else is hilarious." -- Stu Baker

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Are you a Wordist?

For me, Facebook serves as a decent medium for pure joke writing.  It's not a performance medium, the joke has to work from a written standpoint. For better or worse, I am like a lot of the Social Media Society today and gage my interaction with others by responses.  So, instead of hoping for laughs, as in stand up, I'm looking for "likes" or comments.

Social media is a restrictive format that forces the joke writer into the short form.  Attention spans and a 140-character limit on Twitter don't help.  At any rate, I have found if I throw enough material up there someone eventually might think its funny and hopefully it brightens their day.  Less often, I even think its funny.

Every once in a while you write a joke that is provocative for one reason or another.  This past week, I wrote such a joke and it seemed to have struck a nerve of social correctness (or incorrectness).  SInce most of my Facebook friends are comics, I enjoy a good back and forth as long as it doesn't get too serious.  

In this case, I tried valiantly to 'humor' those that were offended by the joke, but at some point (*sigh*), I felt it was time to do the long form of the subtext of the joke.  I can hit the pseudo-intellectual bullshit switch with the best of 'em, but typically like to let a joke stand for itself.  Still I couldn't resist at one point in the conversation mostly because someone mistook the point so dramatically as to pointedly say I was shitting on the disabled. Me.

So, as an exercise in joke writing, explanations and reactions, I've decided to archive this one in a blog post. Enjoy ... or not.

[For the record: I don't think this is a great joke.  It's not badly constructed and the social commentary imbedded in it is powerful (obviously).  But I have written better.  This one did make me laugh out loud after I wrote it, so it worked for me.]

The Joke:

"Paula Dean should know better. The only people who don't care if you use the 'N' word anymore are retards."

I captured the joke and comments in sections below but if they are too small to read here, I have also included a link.

My Response:

For all of you who are slow (retarded), I guess I'll have to explain this joke. *sigh*

If I can claim a word offends me, even if it wasn't meant to offend me, then I am co-opting language for my own selfish use. I am declaring your intentions in the use of the word as well as determining an exact single definition when there may be many. For example, as a disabled person, I could choose to decide that every time a person used the words "lame", "crippled", "handicapped", I should be offended even if it wasn't intended to hurt me.  "That's really lame, dude." "The inaction of Congress has crippled the economy.", "You golf? What's your handicap?".  You can't possibly know how deep my feelings are about the use of this language in casual conversation.   You can't know how being called a 'cripple' hurts when someone means to put you down with the word.  But, do disabled people have the right to insist that all these words be stricken from everyone's vocabulary because we choose to be offended by them?  I don't think so. Just because a person happens to use one of those words, doesn't mean they intended to harm me or any other person who is disabled. If someone says a word (any word) with the intent to harm, subjugate, or belittle another, then they are fair game to be taken to task.  

The 'N' word has enjoyed a special place in this regard because it is hard to make the case that any non-black person who uses it, can do so without it carrying the baggage and history of slavery and the inference that black people are less than equal to the user. As a comedian, Chris Rock made the point (as others have), that black people can choose to use the 'N' word among themselves (or the variation Nigga) because they are not using it to put down their own race. Non-blacks don't have the right to determine how deep that word cuts. Non-blacks, especially white people, use it at their own risk. Paula Dean found this out. So did Michael Richards. 

As an aside, artistic form allows use of certain, even offensive, words as commentary. Quentin Tarantino can write and direct a movie with the 'N' word all over it because it is reflective of the use of the word in real life. Comedy can have exceptional creative leeway. In a sketch on Saturday Night Live in the 70's, Chevy chase said "Nigger" and Richard Pryor answered "Dead Honky".

As far as the joke in question goes, the use of the word 'retards' was calculated.  It was intended to be provocative. While we are all ganging up on Paula Dean for using the 'n' word, the actor in the joke (me), uses the word "retard".  What did this word mean in this context? Slow and stupid, not developmentally disabled.

In the english language, retarded sometimes just means "slow".  When you slow a passage in music, you retard it.  Gary Baker pointed out: "They have a 'Jacobs Brake' (or Jake Brake) on trucks that retard the engine as it goes down a hill".  Subsequently, Mentally Retarded, simply meant mentally slow.  Calling a person a "Retard" in a mean way in order to hurt them (who would do that?), is wrong.  But people use the word all the time in casual conversation to describe someone who is a little behind. It is a colloquialism for slow and/or stupid. People use it in much the same way they might use the word "lame" or "gay'.  Its use is not intended to harm populations of people and those who insist that it is are word nazis who are putting intentions in the minds of people where it doesn't belong.  And before you argue effect instead of intent -- as in, "well, it's the effect the word has on these people" -- the effect is decidedly heightened by the attention the word now has when no ill intention ever existed.  Mothers, caretakers and friends of the developmentally disabled have decided to be offended on behalf of them.  They have done more harm to the developmentally disabled by teaching them to be offended when no offense was intended. That's just retarded. And, from an evolutionary standpoint, I mean developmentally challenged.

One defense for my joke might go like this: I am disabled and so are the developmentally disabled.  What we call each other is our business.  I can call another handicap person a gimp if I want. They understand I am not putting them down anymore than I would put down myself.  If you're not disabled, shut the fuck up. Just like as a white person you can't tell black people not to use the 'N' word when talking to each other, you can't tell disabled people what to call each other either.

But that's not my defense.  Instead, the joke stands as irony and commentary of words, their meaning and the people who get offended by imagined intentions they put in other people minds.  Using the word "retards" next to Paula Dean's gaff is irony (Thanks: Teddy Bearskovich).  

For future reference, if I say "Dude, that was lame!", I'm not intending to offend (other) disabled people. If I say, "Tom Sims is a fag", I just mean he puts his penis in another man's bumhole (in a good way).  If I say, "Ann Coulter is a cunt" (wait, that last one is just true. No offense to other cunts).

So, Danny Vega, The joke was not me "shitting on" on anybody. The fact that you took it that way is what the joke was actually about. It was actually bait for those people who choose to be offended by the word 'retarded' even though it wasn't directed at the developmentally disabled.  Your inference that my joke was intended to put down those people is patently offensive to me. In short, you a "wordist". This is a word that I just made up that means; a person who attempts to police other people's use of the language according to their own sensibilities and definitions of particular words. (And everyone should be offended that I just made up a word because that's just presumptive, self-indulgent and arrogant).

Lastly, if you think I used the word "retards" like a new comic uses a dick joke -- just to get a laugh -- you don't know me or my comedy. You're gonna need to step back, about an inch, maybe an inch and quarter.

P.S. Thanks to Myke Dehu for the input.