Wissot: Why comedians can make fun of some people and not others (column)
October 10, 2017
A friend of mine and I were having a conversation about race. We're both white. He said, "Jay, how come black kids can use the 'N' word in referring to each other, but if a white person uses, it's considered racism?"
Not wanting to get into a lengthy discussion on the slave trade, slavery, segregation and the ongoing issue of racial discrimination, I simply blurted out the words, "blood permission." The look on his face was priceless. What in heaven's name was I talking about?
It's simple, I replied.
Blood permission is the right any member of a particular group — be it racial, cultural, familial, gender, sexual orientation-related or, in the case of the disabled, not of their own choosing — has to make fun of themselves and deny the same privilege to outsiders. It's why a gay person can say about another gay person's behavior or manner of dress, "Oh, that's so gay," whereas I being straight cannot. More pointedly, it's why I can make fun of my mother and you can't. Just as you can make fun of your mother and I can't. Membership has its privileges. All outsiders need not apply.
The black kids' promiscuous use of the "N" word was just their way of yanking white people's chains, ironic as that might be. Its origins as a term of disparagement can be traced back to early 19th century America and was not exclusive to slaveholders in the South who used it to beat their chattel into submission ("The 'N' Word: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," by Randall Kennedy, Pantheon).
It implied that blacks were inferior to whites in every way imaginable, a subhuman race under the control of a superior race. All the black kids are doing is enjoying their revenge against the race of people who demeaned them by coining the term in the first place. Payback can be sweet — and funny, too.
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How do I know so much about this subject? Well, I certainly didn't learn it by reading books.
I spent 16 years earlier in my life as a stand-up comedian. Please don't glance down to the bottom of the page to see if you recognize my last name. You don't. The truth is, I wasn't a very good comic. I played mostly bars, hotel lounges and lousy comedy clubs in the Midwest and the West. Clubs with names such as Shagnasty's in Cedar Falls, Iowa; Froggybottom's in Lubbock, Texas; The Velveeta Room in Austin, Texas; and venues like the back of a John Deere store in Torrington, Wyoming.
If there was a "D" list for comedy talent, my name would have been on the "F" list. I once had a club owner tell me I could always come back and work for him as long as I was willing to work for less money each time. Ouch.
Blood permission is not the only rule I learned doing comedy. I also learned the equity rule. Making fun of the advantaged and fortunate is OK. Making fun of the disadvantaged and unfortunate is not. This is why President Donald Trump's ridicule of a disabled reporter in the past presidential campaign was greeted with so much criticism.
You want to make fun of "Little Marco" or "Lyin' Ted" or "Crooked Hillary"? Go right ahead. They can handle it. But not a poor reporter with a congenital joint condition just trying to do his job.
The make-fun-of-yourself rule is important, too. You only pick on others after you have made fun of yourself. I often envied fat comedians not because they were fat but because their size gave them a perfect opportunity to make fun of themselves as soon as they walked onto the stage. The audience can see they are fat. Why not take advantage of that? What the fat comic is saying, in a sense, is that I'm just like you only worse.
Sarcasm is the heart and soul of comedy. It's what comics do. They pretend to be serious when they are not. Most of what comics say is a pack of lies. We don't go to a comedy club seeking truth. We go there for laughs. But what works on a comedy stage sometimes doesn't in real life. The people we love are often hurt by sarcasm, especially when we deflect criticism of ourselves by retorting, "Can't you take a joke?" or "Stop being so sensitive."
Here's the standard I use in my own life to decide whether telling a joke at a loved one's expense is worth doing. I ask myself this question first: Would I say the same thing to a total stranger? If the answer is no, then I don't. I think affording an intimate the same respect I would extend to a stranger is something I should do. Don't you?
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail.