Friday, April 27, 2018

Entertainers Struggle Through the Trump Era

by Neil H. Buchanan

Entertainers have been making the news again recently for their political statements, often not in good ways.  I will leave perhaps the biggest current example alone, because I simply do not possess the necessary background knowledge to say anything about Kanye West.  I did, however, publish a Verdict column earlier this week in which I discussed "The Simpsons" and the reboot of "Roseanne," both of which are in my wheelhouse.

My central argument in that column is that the recent controversies over those two shows have been hijacked by the right as merely another excuse to pretend that there is a scourge of political correctness that is ruining the country.  (I will set aside for now the difficult fact that there is no actual definition of that much-used term.  Why should that stop anyone from decrying it?)

With the Foxiverse in constant manufactured panic mode about "Stalinist" lefties who are supposedly trying to force people to think alike -- whereas conservatives are portrayed as beleaguered truth-tellers and free thinkers -- the standard cop-out in response to any criticism is to say, "Oh, you're just upset because I'm not being politically correct."  It is a perfect way to refuse to engage on the merits, as Donald Trump and his enablers have repeatedly demonstrated.

Even the beyond-belief videos that emerged from a fraternity at Syracuse University (depicting, among other things, the rape of a disabled person as a matter of entertainment and merry-making, as well as young men pledging hatred towards Jews and African-Americans) are not immune to the PC dodge, with "members insist[ing] they were merely satirizing political correctness and spoofing all things deemed off-limits."

Perhaps we all should seriously consider using this defense in every situation.  "So what if I said that you're stupid and ugly?  I'm not going to live by your standard of political correctness.  I tell it like it is."  It does not have to make any sense: "What?  You're angry with me because I cut in front of you in line at the grocery?  Stop being so PC!"  So why not go all the way?  "I paid my mortgage two days late?  I can't think of why, but I'm sure there's a way to make this about political correctness.  Let me call the White House and get back to you, you loser."

Beyond the anti-PC defense, which is nothing less than sheer laziness, it is alternately amusing and depressing to watch the ebbs and flows of the cultural discussion in the Trump era.  For a mild example, apparently the singer Shania Twain recently said she thought she would have supported Trump because he seemed "honest."  Leaving aside her subsequent attempt at damage control, what I found most bizarre about her statement was that her factual premise was so utterly at odds with reality.  Honest?

Seriously, Twain could have said, "I would have supported him because I want a president who is not afraid to insult people," and she would at least have been approving of something that is true about Trump.  (It is actually bad to have a president who does this, of course, but that is a separate matter.)  But instead she said that she might have supported him because he seems "honest."  That would be like voting for Hillary Clinton because "she didn't seem to really want the job, and we need a president like that."

It is not surprising when any particular entertainer reveals herself or himself to be an ignoramus, of course, even though many entertainers are anything but.  Beyond one-off, nearly accidental comments like Twain's, the deeper social issues raised by "The Simpsons" and "Roseanne" merit further discussion.  I will discuss the former here and return to the latter in my next Dorf on Law post on Wednesday (pending breaking news, of course).

For those who happen to have missed it, the creators of "The Simpsons" responded to a wave of criticism over the character Apu, the convenience store owner who is an undocumented immigrant from India.  Some South Asian entertainers and political activists have recently said that the character is a collection of hurtful stereotypes and have called on the show to move into the 21st century.  The show's response, in short: Stop being so PC.

In my Verdict column, I endorsed an argument articulated earlier this month by Wajahat Ali, a Pakistani-American journalist and playwright who wrote in The Washington Post that "The Simpsons" had simply taken the lazy way out.  His column is very much worth reading.

Interestingly, the actor who created the voice of Apu, Hank Azaria, was a guest on Stephen Colbert's show this past Tuesday.  I was actually hoping that Colbert would not ask about the Apu controversy, because I suspected that Azaria would toe the show's line and mouth some pablum about everyone needing to "get some perspective," or whatever.  To my surprise and ultimate delight, however, Colbert directly asked about the controversy, putting Azaria's feet to the fire.  And to his great credit, Azaria's response was essentially: "I see the point, and I hope the show comes up with a much better response ... soon."

Specifically, Azaria indicated that he had recently learned that Apu had inspired bullies over the years to tease South Asian kids in America, and he truly looked pained when he said that this "makes me sad."  He also responded to the criticism that he is a non-Indian actor and said that he would have no problem stepping aside from the role and to have the voice work taken over by another actor (presumably in a world where the show's creators have woken up).

What was especially interesting about Azaria's interview was that he was booked on the show to promote the second season of his show, "Brockmire."  I happen to have watched the first season of that show and loved it, even (or especially) because its humor is rather edgy, especially regarding sex.  (The show airs on the IFC channel, which is not HBO but does have less stringent broadcast standards that the show tests regularly.)

"Brockmire" is surprising because it finds humor in a character who is in many ways as un-woke as he could be.  A fifty-ish baseball announcer trying to make it back to the big time after an on-air meltdown ended his career ten years earlier, Brockmire is an alcoholic, a rough sex addict, and generally a mess.  He is a "boys will be boys" guy who genuinely knows what locker-room talk is all about, and loves it.  Note, however, that I did not say that he unashamedly loves it, even though he is not really sure if he is ashamed either, which is why this works.

This is dangerous ground, and it is especially difficult to have it both ways with this kind of comedy, depicting a reprobate whose version of the good old days involved going to men-only awards dinners where "hooker hour" was an expected part of the proceedings.  Yet Azaria manages to seem both pathetic and aware that he is the one who is wrong, even as he is unable to control his addictions.  Crucially, he is aware that people are laughing at his excessive drinking and drug abuse, and he knows that that is a bad thing (both personally and socially).

Even better, on the first episode of the new season, we encounter a new character, Raj, portrayed by the actor .  Raj is an up-and-coming sportscaster who wants the same job in the major leagues that Brockmire wants, and he has a way of making white people feel comfortable even as he refuses to pretend that there is nothing wrong.  The first scene in which we see Raj includes this brilliant exchange, with Raj smiling and happy and friendly:
Raj: I'm just happy to be joining your 'brotherhood of the booth,' and I must say, you're much less racist than I thought you'd be.

Brockmire: (Laughing) Well, my goodness, I wish I could take more credit for that, but ... uh ... the bar set by old white men in this great country of ours is just oh-so-very low.

Raj: Yeah, as soon as you raise it up a little bit, someone knocks it back down, huh?  (Laughing)  Man, you keep screwing up!

Brockmire: (Chuckling) We do.
Now that is how a show can intelligently find comedy in ongoing social tragedy.  I am not saying that the show gets everything right, and it is certainly possible to view it as glorifying the things that it lampoons, but the effort is there.  This is not: "Hey, I'm going to make some racist jokes and then say that no one should be offended."

In the end, being an entertainer is a very tough job.  It involves finding the sweet spot in a culture that is constantly changing, with material that is unremarkable at one moment becoming toxic seemingly only five minutes later.  But it can be done.  So far, the response from the creators of "The Simpsons"  has been to have Lisa (Lisa!) say: "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect."  That is true.  When she adds, "What can you do?" she asks the question that shows like "Brockmire" answer.