Remember Bea Arthur? She was the wife in a successful sit-com of several years ago who was the 1970s representation of feminism on television. She was sort of the opposite of the verbally abused Edith Bunker. Zaftig, horn-voiced, and sarcastically-satirical, Arthur seemed nobody to mess with. She re-appeared in something called The Golden Girls with a slightly-softened demeanor. I hadn’t seen here in years except when my remote glides across some re-run channel.
But there was Bea Arthur, sitting at a Comedy Central Roast of someone(thing?) called Pamela Anderson that I spent a few uncomfortable minutes watching the other night. I barely recognized Arthur, who has lost enough weight to qualify for a bulimia poster. But it was hard for me to believe she would appear on what (and maybe she didn’t know it would be this bad) was, in my view, an example of all the worst that cable television can sink to.
Anderson, who appeared in about twelve pounds of teased, bleached and sprayed hair, and double that weight in silicone implants, earned some fame as a pair of water wings on the bouncing beach breast series Bay Watch, and greater renown as a porno star with some guy known mostly for his “size” by the name of Tommy Lee. He was also at the roast, which, I learned subsequently, became Comedy Central’s top rated program, and will be re-aired on several dates. The more talented Courtney Love was also there with Ms Anderson, apparently to wipe some of the sewage off of the roastee and get some of her own. What Bea Arthur was doing there is anybody’s guess, but she got splattered with some of the filth herself. There was plenty to go around, posing a “good fun” humor, but most of it stupid and mean-spirited.
I say “filth,” sounding a bit to myself like Tipper Gore or Rev. James Dobson, but if that wasn’t filth then the word has no meaning. I don’t mind excessive use of the Pesci word, even though I think it has now lost much adjectival effect, or even occasional, apt reference to body parts or their functions. (Hey, I’m no f*****g prude, dude!). But Anderson’s seeming pride about her porno tape must explain why she sat there grinning while one comedian tried to out-do the previous one in the filthiest jokes about her body parts and what she has used them for. It is noteworthy that her male co-star in the porn tape that received invaluable advertising, was only joked about, with a scarcely-concealed penis-envy. It was porn mocking porn. Even if there were a male equivalent for the word “slut” (which was liberally applied to Anderson), it was absent. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who must have known what was going to be said of her, but Anderson began to look like a porno-piñata after a few minutes. This was no Irma la Douce, but some disposable blow-up doll of a human being. The final insult is that each comic felt compelled to go over and give her a kiss afterwards, sort of the way a wife-batterer might get his dearest an ice pack.
This all-in-good-fun stuff has a dirty social underside that feeds the angers and assuages the egos of men who have not been able to handle the social changes that have given women more education, rights and power. (It also gives some nervous titters to the air-headed women who love these kinds of men, the sort of women, I suppose, who oppose Roe v Wade, because they are even afraid to “have the right” to their own bodies.) I begin to suspect that there are more similarities than differences between Taliban men and, what(?)— the “white- faced- blue -collared- red -necked” American male. One “flaunts” his woman by putting her in a burkha , the other by getting her a boob-job; both are putting her, and keeping her, “in her place.”
It is difficult to parse humor. Like it is said of pornography, you sort of know it when you see it. There is a discernable difference, I would allege, between something that can be “outrageously” funny and something that is an outrage. Comedy Central must know that there is such a line, because they crossed it with the roast of Pamela Anderson. We should be concerned about that line because what is a risk here is the desecration of an art form. Humor, is a way of looking at what is, or at least appears to be, the absurdities of the world, the meaning and meaningless of life, and it can express a truth that sometimes can’t be otherwise, or aptly, expressed. In consequence, we have to be allowed to err over censorship, but at the same time, we have to renounce the excess and intrinsically and gratuitously, pornographic—call it what it is.
I generally like Comedy Central. One of my favorite programs is Mad TV, which has some very clever satire and very talented comedic actors. Dave Chappel and South Park are funny, apt and clever, too. But the channel also offers garbage like a “blue collar” show that actually insults, in my view, people who carry lunch boxes to work, drink beer, and like tinkering with their trucks on weekends. So-called “red neck” humor is also part of this equation. This is sort of “guy humor” that categorizes women as the white versions of hip-hop’s bitches and whores. (Why do I have the suspicion that the Taliban has a lot of “guy humor” just like this?) So there’s a lot of lame stuff about breasts, beer, flatulence, bodily fluids and, of course, intercourse. Women in the audience are often the brunt of this, and one must wonder what desperation there is in such lives to sit there and grin without really getting that the joke is no joke. Maybe Bea Arthur knows, . . . now.
©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.19.2005)