Notes on bad taste: Anne Frank and George Zimmerman walk into a bar

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It’s rare that somebody does an adequate job of explaining the modus operandi of “edgy” 21st-century humor, but in defending his increasingly controversial “Anne Frank” routine to The Jewish Chronicle Online, Ricky Gervais just about nails it: I can see if you took this routine at face value as my real opinion on this profound and heroic tragedy, it could be deemed highly offensive. However, this is obviously an absurd comic position with the audience well in on the joke, fully aware that I am saying the exact opposite of what every right-minded person thinks Comedy comes from a good or a bad place and the problem is in its interpretation, with some people confusing the subject of a joke with the joke's real target. And that, my friends, is basically the ballgame especially the part about “saying the exact opposite of what every right-minded person thinks.” It’s sad how often this needs to be pointed out -- that much of the modern comedic discourse is presented entirely in quotes, demanding its reception not as something the speaker is actually saying, but as something a speaker of a certain type would or might say. Thus the dilemma posed by a Sarah Silverman, who is often clearly assuming the persona of a sheltered, bracingly clueless idiot, yet is taken in some quarters as a woman who either harbors a whole host of antisocial attitudes or who merely lives to shock. Those latter judgments, of course, depend on the respective ideas that there’s someone out there who actually believes the best time to get pregnant is “when you’re a black teenager,” or who has no opinion on it but knows that saying something inflammatory about it is a quick way to get noticed. In other words, for a certain portion of the public to well and truly “get it,” the latter-day comedian would have to spend her entire routine holding up a sign reading “An asshole says what?” The flip side is that, for this sort of humor to work, the speaker has to commit to it in every particular. Facial expression, gesture, verbal delivery they all need to be of a piece. If you’re going to take it upon yourself to act a part, you’d damn well better act it. Fred Willard is the king of this sort of thing: In just about everything he does, he’s pitch-perfect at signaling that the character he’s playing knows nothing about life on any substantive level, yet is absolutely certain that he does and is impressing everyone in the room by showing it.

That’s where, in my humble opinion, Gervais could use some work: Not because I think he really holds any unsavory thoughts about Anne Frank, but because his tendency toward giggly self-amusement sometimes undermines the bit. When he launched into a miniature version of the routine on The Daily Show, his delight in his own naughtiness was tragically palpable. You can’t sell the concept of toxic stupidity if you show the slightest hint of introspection; people who think and say offensively ignorant things don’t have a clue those things could ever be construed as absurd.

Fortunately, Gervais seems to strike the right note in a more typical performance setting: [youtube IMSkwGYgqLA] Obviously, deadpan is just what the doctor ordered here. But there’s an additional challenge to Gervais’ (correct) argument that certain types of comedy embody “the exact opposite of what every right-minded person thinks”: The world isn’t populated exclusively by right-minded people. Heck, they may not even be in the majority. So the risk the mainstream ironist runs isn’t just misinterpretation, but enshrinement by morons who take everything he says at face value. A musicology piece I once read stated that, when the Sex Pistols toured the United States, they found themselves “idolized by the very vermin they deplored”; I don’t know if Gervais has yet received any membership solicitations from the Aryan Brotherhood, but maybe he ought to pay somebody to open his mail for a little while anyway. Finally, all of this Friars’ Club navel-gazing rests on the basic assumption that the comic is acting in good faith, with the proper sensitivity toward that aforementioned “right-mindedness.” But what if that’s not always the case? What about humor that tries to exist in a moral and ethical vacuum, with commercial reward its only concern? For example, we’re now just three months away from the release of the outrageously ill-timed Neighborhood Watch, and nobody involved seems to understand why simple good taste demands that the film be shelved indefinitely. From the title on down, this comedy -- in which Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn lead a posse of self-appointed suburban peacekeepers -- is breathtakingly out of step with our current, Trayvon- defined moment. Yet the response of 20th-Century Fox has thus far been limited to pulling the film’s trigger-happy teaser poster and trailer from circulation -- and in Florida only. The studio’s apparent belief that nobody outside the Sunshine State has anything invested in the Trayvon case is tone-deaf in the extreme; obviously, their idea of “good taste” is limited to making the P.R. moves that dent their pocketbook the least. So nobody is talking about yanking the movie outright; it’s too important to Fox’s bottom line that the picture enjoy a legitimate theatrical run (read: get crushed by the second week of The Dark Knight Rises). And the more its stars are dispatched to declare full speed ahead, the worse the project comes off. Witness Stiller’s remarks to Entertainment Weekly: You’re talking to the guy who had the first comedy out after 9/11. We just put Zoolander out there. There were questions about whether it was too early for a comedy, but we couldn’t find a reason why there shouldn’t be a comedy in the world. Right right right: We all remember Zoolander. It was that picture about an oafish male model who lost his entire family in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Apparently, Fox, Stiller, et al are playing a game of chicken, hoping that the Trayvon controversy will blow over by the time the movie reaches theaters. I think it’s obvious by now that that’s not going to happen. And even if it does -- if George Zimmerman is exonerated tomorrow and all of America miraculously moves on to another true-crime fixation -- the concept of white civilians asserting control over their communities will remain loaded (pardon the pun) for years to come. In evading that reality, Fox is reinforcing the same party line it’s established via its “news” channel: that the death of one 17-year-old darkie isn’t anything for us respectable, law-abiding types to lose sleep over. What sets these clowns apart from the Gervaises of the world is that they’re not speaking ironically. An asshole says what?

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