B is for Bad Taste – An ABC’s Essay

Part of the ABC’s Essays I’ll be posting here

Bad taste humor comes in many different flavors and varieties. Like any subjective art form, humor really is defined best as what makes people laugh. John Cleese once observed that “comedy is exceptionally brittle”, which he felt meant that comedy either works or it doesn’t. The infamous fart scene in Blazing Saddles is considered a comedy classic now but it was once considered the height of crude humor, just like the sophomoric antics of the Jackass crew (which I happen to find utterly moronic but to each their own cup of rancid tea). Comedy is an art form that can be both crass and enlightening, often in the same instant.

But the topic of this essay hones in on bad taste humor and it concerns those jokes that some deem as going too far. As my family and friends will attest, I enjoy bad taste (a little too much, depending on who you ask) but it is a comedy craving that I seek to fulfill a good portion of the time. Like most things I enjoy in this life, my appreciation (and attraction) for crass humor developed in my childhood.

The basis for bad taste is irreverence. Every step up (or more appropriately down) the ladder of humor-in-poor-taste starts from the fundamental lack of reverential respect for people, places, ideas, etc. This doesn’t entail a complete lack of respect. With few exceptions, bad taste humorists have a deep respect for all things in life, just not a sense of anything being sacred. Rape and religion (just to pick two hot-button ideas) are examples of subjects some consider too taboo (i.e. sacred) to ever allow them to be the basis of humor.

My taste for irreverence was first fertilized by Looney Tunes. I’m part of the last generation of kids who had regular, Saturday morning cartoons on all the major networks. In particular, I can remember watching the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes characters in their older pictures. From the irascible Daffy Duck to the irrepressible Bugs Bunny, the Looney Tunes characters captured my attention and tickled my funny bone in ways Mickey’s crew of tamed animals couldn’t manage. No subject, from Shakespeare to World War II, was off-limits. Some of the older Looney Tunes are now unavailable for viewing on network television due to the use of racial stereotypes and language. While one can argue the merits of such censorship, the decision is not an abnormal one where the topic of race and older forms of entertainment are concerned. For me, the racist caricatures created in the original Looney Tune cartoon serials shouldn’t be available for public consumption. They feed into the negativity and hate that is already too pervasive in our society.

I’ll even include the cartoons created by Tex Avery as well. Avery’s toons, which were often satires of the “Worlds of Tomorrow” displays popular in the 1950s, had an exceptional bite to them. This can be seen in the near-constant mother-in-law jokes in many cartoons. One particular depiction of this trope that still gives me chuckles involves the “House of Tomorrow”. In the cartoon, the mother-in-law receives a variety of ill-favored items such as a Keep Out doormat lined with explosives, a customized medicine cabinet filled with various poisons, and a relaxing easy chair that doubles as an electric chair.

Now some would consider such displays of humor as rather tame. Keep in mind that these cartoons were composed primarily for children in a time where humor was far different. While I don’t consider them inappropriate, others might and this ties into the subjective nature of humor. But Looney Tunes and Tex Avery were just appetizers for the bawdy bad taste I was given access to next.

The inimitable Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks remains one of my all-time favorite comedy minds. Both risqué and slapstick, the oft-puerile Brooks was my introduction into adult humor. My mother was and still is a big fan of Mel’s, having grown up with his early movies like The Producers (the original) and Blazing Saddles. She introduced me and my brother to Brook’s work with Spaceballs, the eminently quotable send-up of science fiction, and Young Frankenstein, the deeply sexualized homage to the Universal monster movies from the 1930s.

As mentioned above, Spaceballs is one of Brooks’ most quotable films. Every scene has a zinger or situation that either borders absurdity or runs screaming and on fire in absurdity’s asbestos-covered arms. From the classic Rick Moranis realization that he was surrounded by the extended family Asshole to the priceless merchandizing scene, Brooks managed to satirize the often inane and silly nature of science fiction (a genre I’m an enormous fan of as well). Interestingly enough, one of the most persistent slanders against Brooks is that he is anti-Semitic (which is funny considering Brooks is Jewish).

Aside from Mel’s oeuvre, my experience in bad taste truly expanded with my discovery of British comedy. It says something about a culture that is famous for the “stiff upper lip” that some of their most famous comedy greats had truly ribald taste. The Council of Cardinal Sins (as I’d call it) is the troupe of Monty Python. Python’s members brought wit and intelligence to subjects as far-ranging as cross-dressing to class conflicts to religion. Monty Python’s penchant for absurdity and obscenity were revelatory to my teenage mind, showing me that one could be both crude and smart at the same time. But one cannot mention bad taste British humor from yesteryear without mentioning Benny Hill. Hill excelled at hapless, lascivious humor and he still holds a special place in my mind for showing off the comedy gold the subject of sex provides.

Recently, I’ve cultured a profound enjoyment in the works of modern UK comedians like Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, and Tim Minchin. Shows like Mock the Week and Nevermind the Buzzcocks push the envelope on acceptable humor, slicing at public figures and celebrities with verve, panache, and obscenity. Mock the Week in particular (on which Frankie Boyle served as a panelist for many years) continually walks over the edge in terms of comedy output, making light of events such as Saddam Hussein’s execution to the near fatal car accident of Richard Hammond of Top Gear (another beloved British TV series). Boyle became during his tenure (and this doesn’t disparage the other fine comedians on the show) a gravity well of controversy.

Some would say that jokes about tragedies should not be made. I feel this prohibition is unnecessary. Taboos change as culture changes. Making an off-color comedic remark is (for some people) a necessary way of dealing with the immense perversity of tragic events. Consider how many people die on a daily basis in what can be defined as “tragic circumstances”. Were someone to do so, they would almost be inundated with tears. We shut out these horrors (for that is the only appropriate word for them) from our minds. Humor becomes a defensive posture this horror (which I consider to be something like what Kurtz refers to in Apocalypse Now) and bad taste humor, while uncomfortable, allows us to laugh at that which would otherwise make us weep. This includes material that pokes fun at racial stereotypes. The words themselves are not the issue. When you have someone like Michael Richard go on a racist screed on stage at the Laugh Factory, that should be condemned in the loudest voice possible. But when you get someone like Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock playing into the racial stereotypes to make observations, the jokes can be deeply funny and thought-provoking.

As someone who values free expression, I have to remind myself that speech that incites wrath (not violence) should be defended as vigorously as speech that empowers the better parts of our nature. Speech that incites violence should be condemned and shunned without a second’s hesitation. The easiest way to show someone’s true character is to let them speak in front of everyone. Then you can see them for all the tangled and nasty bits that they want to hide. Standing in one extreme or other of the speech spectrum can give one a delusion of moral superiority, which is not something to strive for in this regard. Laugh and do so often because there is more horror awaiting us on the next sunrise.

Remember, it’s all a joke. And a joke in bad taste at that.

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