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Comedy’s Test of Time

I love a lot of old things. I like listening to Jack Benny, I watch old Danny Kaye movies, I think black and white comedy is the funniest. Uncle Miltie makes me laugh so hard I cry. I’m basically set for comedy in the wrong era, but that’s okay.

The problem with it is that the comedy I like can be offensive. Take Zorro: The Gay Blade for example. I recently had a gift cert for DVDs on Amazon, so I grabbed that one along with La Cage Aux Folles and The Birdcage. I’m sure you picked up on the theme there, I needed some more gay comedy in my life. But the problem with all three movies, even the modern one, is that they can be terribly offensive to people. They’re campy, they’re racist, they make brutal use of sterotypes and I find them absolutely hilarious.

I describe Zorro: The Gay Blade as follows: Don Diego de la Vega finds out that his father was the great Zorro, but has died. Don Diego takes up the mantle of Zorro only to break his leg and calls on his identical twin brother to help play Zorro … Bunny Wigglesworth.

We have the limp-wristed gay stereotype, exacerbated by the fact that Bunny is in the British Navy, which is bad enough, but then we add in the fact that George Hamilton is playing Zorro. Spanish he ain’t. He plays Don Diego with a heavy accent (there’s a whole thing about how he says ‘people’ so thickly, Lauren Hutton’s character is confused) and Bunny with a prissy British one. It’s not at all what one might call sensitive. And yet when I watch it, I find it hilarious in part because of those things.

Part of the point humor is to make us laugh at ourselves and give us the moment of self-reflection that requires. We laugh at Jack Benny being cheap, and knowing Jack was Jewish in real life may make it funnier. But Jack never played it that way. It wasn’t ever Jack-the-Jew was cheap, it was that Jack-the-character was cheap. Jack made us laugh at cheap people because we all knew people like that who thought too much about things that don’t really matter. The hilarity of the byplay between Fibber McGee and Molly wasn’t just because they were living up to Irish stereotypes, but because they were people we knew and could have been anything.

Older works are always products of their times. They reflect the way we were and show us how we got to be where we are. Older comedy is often hard to stomach because you look at Holiday Inn and see Bing Crosby in blackface and, even though I think it’s mostly a better movie than White Christmas, the latter remains popular because it’s less offensive culturally. The movies have the same, basic, concept, but one is more palatable. That’s all.

It does make it harder sometimes for me to enjoy old comedy. I feel bad at laughing at things that are situationally comedic to the time. I worry how people will interpret me getting a giggle fit at Milton Berle in a dress, or how they’ll take it when I guffaw at Jack Benny wearing Don Wilson’s pants when they’re many sizes too big. Does enjoying that make me insensitive or worse?

I choose to think it does not. The simple fact that I’m aware these things aren’t socially acceptable anymore doesn’t detract from my ability to derive enjoyment from them. It’s like Cards Against Humanity. I have people I love but would never play that game with, simply because it’s too offensive to them. Similarly, I have movies and TV shows I watch and enjoy that I don’t share with just anyone, because I know they would immediately go to the worst possible place and be horribly offended.

Nothing we like is perfect. Nothing we like is safe to be enjoyed by all. Nothing we like will entertain all. Nothing we like will be ‘correct’ to all.

We’re all different and that’s okay. It does mean some of you won’t know everything about me. And that too is just as it should be.