Biff America: Ghosts of bad taste
September 2, 2016
It was an embarrassment and a point of pride. To be clear, I was proud to be embarrassed.
Recently, I was sent a recording of a bar show I did in the mid-'80s. It was so bad it was painful. When I say "bad," I mean loutish, sexist, homophobic and cruel — but, in the warped sensibilities of the time, it was funny.
The crowd seemed to enjoy it, as there was laughter in the background. The laughter did little to make me feel better. Today, if I were I to hear someone repeating my words of 1983, I would be offended. And hearing my own voice say that stuff was embarrassing. But on the bright side, the fact that I was embarrassed was encouraging because that shows me how far, in the way of understanding and sensibilities, both I, and society, have come in a little more than 30 years.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Certainly 1983 wasn’t exactly the dark ages, but it was a time where white men ruled and people thought a jerk like me was funny.
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Now to be clear, it was a mixed crowd of adults and I wasn't using a lot of profanity, but the subjects that I felt comfortable making light of and the fact that the audience seemed to enjoy my observations was indicative of the maturing and enlightening of both this nation and me.
In 1983, Ronald Regan was president, gas was $1.59 a gallon, average home price was $23,000, a pickup cost $5,400 and "E.T." was in the theaters. On the not-so-bright side, a severe recession began in the United States, Carlos the Jackal began a wave of terror attacks in France and the Provisional Irish Republican Army continued its bombing campaign in London. And, if the recording of that bar show is any indication, people thought stupid, sexist humor was funny.
My point of all this isn't necessarily simply a mea culpa. I don't think I was any more ribald and insensitive than most other young, white, straight dudes of that era who were trying to break into comedy, but rather, perhaps "the good old days" weren't that good after all. Now certainly they were pretty stinking good if you were a white, straight male but not so much if you were part of the other groups whom I was making fun of that night.
Doing a quick Google search, I came up with the fact that in 1983, there were two female senators. Now, there are about 20. There were no black U.S. senators, and now we have a black POTUS. Being openly gay was the kiss of death for a politician or public figure. Certainly 1983 wasn't exactly the dark ages, but it was a time where white men ruled and people thought a jerk like me was funny.
It is easy to fondly reflect back on days of yore with a Pollyanna naivete. Now certainly, there was much good that could be said about the '80s, '70s and '60s. America seemed to have a stronger middle class, children weren't afraid to play in the streets or talk to strangers, and we spoke to one another and wrote letters instead of sending texts and trolling on the internet. But it is important to note that the glass ceiling was firmly in place and women and minorities often faced less opportunity and even hostility in the workplace. We as a nation have steadily gotten more open to diversity, but it is a fact that it took until 1967 for the Supreme Court to legalize interracial marriage.
So I guess this is just my roundabout way to respond to Donald Trump's rallying cry of "Make America Great Again." I would argue that America "was great back then and is still great" and, in many ways, getting even greater. Yes, in some aspects I wish the world were more like the one I grew up in, but there are many facets of the world back then that needed to end or be improved.
It is only natural to look back on yourself and your world through a filter of optimistic delusion. I remember a younger me as more athletic, tough and wild than I probably was. Fortunately, there are no available recordings to show me otherwise.
When I consider my country, I think of our nation then and now, and I think it was worse in some ways, better in many ways. It was and continues to be a country of hope, opportunity and forgiveness.
And when I listened to that scratchy cassette tape-recorded in that bar, I'm particularly grateful for the forgiveness part.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com. Biff's new book, "Mind, Body, Soul," is available at local shops and bookstores and at http://www.shop.holpublications.com.