Wednesday, February 15, 2012
WHEN CAN WE MAKE FUN OF WHITNEY HOUSTON AGAIN? THE MERITS OF A DEBATE AMONG FUNNY PEOPLE.
I heard about the news of Whitney Houston's death Saturday, about an hour after the news had broken. My thoughts were, conflicted, to say the least. I can't make any claim to being the biggest Whitney Houston fan, but she was somebody who for a good majority of my life was a huge and continuous presence in the media, music and entertaining world. Although I had opinions of her, I had no particular ill feelings of her one way or another. I like some songs of her, some I don't. She was however, great fodder. For people who write comedy on a somewhat regular basis (If not always here, often in my screenplays), and as the kind of person who enjoys devouring pop culture so he can twist and turn it into parlor-room wit, Whitney Houston was somebody who I could occasionally count on as a punchline or as least someone interesting to comment on. I was far the only one, and franky I had fairly enough ready-made material, and wit, that when the news of her death came around, I had a bunch of jokes lined up. No, the question became however, should I be telling them?
I thought briefly about some of these one-liners, but, while some of them, (Maybe 33% on the high end) were pretty funny, I didn't feel like telling any of them. The news of her death saddened me just enough that I felt that, I didn't particularly see a need to tell any of these jokes. Not that death has stopped me in the past, but I didn't want to tell them at that moment. I tweeted that "I had about 20 jokes on hand for this moment, but I'm not telling any of them. One more gone from my era. RIP Whitney Houston, sad day. :(." The only part of that statement that wasn't true was the number of jokes. It turns out I only had about 13 or 14 at the time. I found this out, because one of my friends on FB, who were just gonna "LP", for the purposes of this blog post (Not that it'd be terribly hard for anybody with mild internet research capabilities to find out who it is, but, I prefer to not name Lillian Pancakes name if I can. Ah, damn it! Oh well, just forget I said that) called me out on this. I don't want to get any of her words incorrect, so the next part of this blog will be part of an elaborate FB posting discussion we had, that was posted under the aforementioned twitter post.
LP: ...really from our era? She was big before we were born. And humor is the greatest form of flattery...or something that makes you feel good about telling a joke about recently dead people. Look man, I want no longer than 10 minutes to g...o by before people start making fun of me after I die. They already do. So many people made fun of her before, now they can't because she's dead? It doesn't make sense. If it is wrong now, shouldn't it have been wrong before? Tell us a joke David, it's okay. I laughed before, I laugh now.
ME: Okay, first of all, Whitney Houston was just a singer with a few forgettable pop/R&B hits before "The Bodyguard" in 1992! I was seven years old! (You forget I'm a little older than you sometimes), but it was then that she became a superstar, and a legend, and I couldn't turn on the a damn pop radio station with hearing popular, although far more insufficient version of "I Will Always Love You," which was #1 on the radio for 14 straight weeks, not topped until two years later when Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men did "One Sweet Day", and I know that, because those were the two of the most incessantly stomach-churning overplayed songs of my youth, with the third being Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On". Unfortunately, Whitney also had about 4 other hits off that album, and since then, everything she's done has been a major hit, whether it should've been or not. (Okay, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm being mean about "One Sweet Day," I actually do love that song, but not 17 weeks of nothing but it on the radio love it, but you get the idea) So yes, I consider Whitney Houston a product of our era. And, since you're insistant, joke #1: "Does this mean that we can stop pretending that screaming for a long period is singing?"
ME: Joke #2: If they start playing "The Preacher's Wife," every Christmas now, it'll triple the suicide rate.
ME: Joke #3: Man, 1995, imagine the odds you would've got by betting that Bobby Brown would outlive Whitney? $5 bet, I would've been rich! Damn!
ME: Joke #4: Whitney has no "just shut up, just shut up..." for good! Okay that one was mean.
[Note: I just now realized I wrote "no," instead of "now"]
ME: Joke #5: How Did Dionne Warwick not see this coming? (Okay that joke might be too old)
[Note: LP 'liked' that comment on Facebook]
ME: Joke #6: Does this mean no more "hell to the no", God I hope so.
ME: Joke #7: Whitney's acting career.
ME: Joke #8: Seriously, can we NOW stop pretending her version of "I Will Always Love You," is better than Dolly Pardon's?! Cause we really put up with that lie anymore.
ME: Joke #9: If she's every woman, that casket's gotta be fucking huge! (Little Steven Wright-ish that one)
ME: Joke #10: You think this is sad for us, Kathy Griffin just lot 1/10 of her material today, we should be mourning her!
ME: Damn, I forgot the word "can't" on joke #8!
ME: Joke #11: I'll be damn, the crack that killed her, she really did have a receipt for it.
ME: Joke #12: Whatdoya think did it, the crack in her lungs or the crack in her voice?
ME: Joke #13: Admit it, in our mind's we've rewritten history to think that Whitney screwed up Bobby's career by introducing him to crack? Admit it!
ME: Alright, I'm too tired now, but not bad for no prep time at 3:30am, oh and, eh, no, it's not that can't make fun of people immediately after their death, but it does depends on who and how, and when! You can't just do it willy nilly, and wh...ile I'm glad that I can please you with some jokes, some time should pass, and frankly, it's still pretty early for Whitney. We don't know how she died, we don't know what caused it, she does have kids and a family, and she did have enough good songs to merit mourning. Some celebrities death would be ripe enough to make fun of them after their death. Donald Trump, yes! George W. Bush, yes! Paula Deen, Oh definitely! I'm already writing hers! Ann Coulter, yeah! Few others. Whitney's is the almost category. Brief mourning first, but jokes right after, no extended time gap.
LP: Well, first, I am A YEAR YOUNGER THAN YOU. She had songs from the 80s, before our time that haunted their way into the 90s and had a rather large song in an already established singing career. We did not see her rise to fame so she is not... of our era. And we don't know yet (big eye roll) how she died, and she does have a family. But while she was alive, she had a wicked drug addiction that ruined her career and a family, and she was fair game. All I am saying is when people refrain from joking about someone who they would normally have laughed and contributed jokes when they were alive, it's pretty fake. It shouldn't suddenly start being wrong BECAUSE they are dead. It was either wrong from the start, and insensitive from the start, or it continues to be humorous. Don't be fake David. And who and how and when? That sounds rather subjective. That's not right that some people would get a grace period and others would not. Who decides that? Who has the right to? It really shouldn't be a grey area thing. It is all or nothing ya know. Either it is always wrong to make fun of someone's life or it's not, it's just a joke. Death shouldn't be the deciding factor in that. Joke #11 made me laugh for a while.
ME: Whoa, whoa, whoa Holden Caulfield! I am NOT being fake! If anything, I was brutally honest and REAL!!!! I was honest in that, yes when she died, a bunch of smart alec jokes came into my head, and I was also was honest, in that it seemed like now didn't seem like the time or the place to tell them. However, when you bitched about it to me, going all Biff and calling me chicken, like that, then it became appropriate. Yes, it's all subjective, everything depends on context, and timing. You know that about comedy as well as I do, and it wasn't time for comedy. I have made fun of many people's death when it was appropriate? My first response after Gary Coleman died was, "Oh, good for him." Some are fair game right after, some aren't. If somebody beats Naomi Campbell to death with a cell phone tomorrow, I'm joking about it, and so are you. I also cried for a month when George Carlin died. And somedays, I still have a hard time watching "Newsradio," 'cause all I can think of is the pit in my stomach when Phil Hartman was killed. All these are real emotions, and just because Whitney's an easy target, does not mean I'm playing the fake card by choosing not to joke about it at that time! It's not all or nothing, it's all based on circumstances, and yes, it's subjective, but you know, but my subjective view was, not the time to tell jokes.
LP: Hey, Whitney Houston was someone's Phil Hartman. Just as Phil Hartman was someone's Pauly Shore. It shouldn't be subjective who you make fun of in death, there shouldn't be a right or wrong time for that. It's all the time or no time, man. Why was it okay fo you to first respond with a joke for Gary Coleman but a poor Whitney for Whitney? And you are right, context and timing are key to comedy. So, in that case, if you tell a joke following someone's death (regardless who that person is or how you feel about them) then it has to be hilarious! Maybe that's it. Maybe most people use "don't joke about that, it just happened" not as respect (cause if it were an issue of respect you wouldn't make fun of said person in the first place before or after death) but because they don't have something funny enough to say.
ME: Whitney Houston was nobody's Phil Hartman (Nor is he anybody's Pauly Shore). Whitney was an erratic drug-addict, who's career peak was long past her, and whose death was shocking but surprised absolutely no one. Phil Hartman, out of the blue, was shot by his wife, right as his career and talents was at his highest. Until then, there was no report or warning, or anything that would've indicated to anybody outside of their circle of friends, and by some reports not even them, that somelike like that was about to happen. And that is why it is subjective! Everybody's death are different, just like everybody's lives are different, and why certain people we get to make fun of in life all the time, but not all the time after death. Why is it okay for Gary Coleman? Cause much of what happened in his life was out of his control. His heights, his illness, his parents for instance, and the quick-wit on his death was actually brutally honest. I heard he was dead and thought that might have been the best thing that's happened to him in a while. Whitney's life is a fall from a grace, that was really a little too high to begin with and instead over recovering, she flaunted her downward spiral even more to the point of out-of-touch delusionalment. I understand that you want to just make death an absolute, with standard set rulles that apply to all situations, vis-a-vis, death is funny means that one can still joke about those who died, even if they died immediately after. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Death is subjective, as is everything else. It's like the Mel Brooks joke about the difference between comedy and tragedy? Tragedy is when I get a paper cut; comedy is when you fall down a manhole into the sewer and die! It's subjective!!!!!!!!!
[Note: The "Pauly Shore," references here refers back to an earlier conversation not related to this one]
LP: You are really good at arguing...doesn't mean you're right. There is waay to much circular reasoning in what you are saying. I think you are having a disagreement with yourself, dude. Do what Whitney can't anymore, wake up and smell the ...crack. Funny all the time or not at all. Someone will always be offended no matter what. Be honest and embrace the dark side of comedy man, no grace period, no apologies. You think I'm going to apologize this year when I show up Vegas Zombie walk in Whitney Houston gear...okay maybe I'll apologize for the semi black face but other than that, I'll be struttin' my crakced out zombie diva shit! Why? 'Cause I made jokes before and I'll make em again! NO APOLOGIES!
[Note: The "Vegas Zombie Walk," is an event that's exactly what it sounds like, and it's sometime that LP has made a habit of appearing at]
Now, I would like to say after my friend LP conceeded that I was very good at arguing, that later conceeded that I was right. She didn't though, and she later took back that praise, and the argument eventually devolved into a bizarre discussion that involved such things as whether or not Jonbenet Ramsey as a zombie would be funnier that Heather O'Rourke as a zombie. (For those with short memories, Heather O'Rourke was the little girl in "Poltergeist". If you don't know what happened to her, I suggest looking it up on imdb.com, but it's pretty sad.) That was the most offensive part of the discussion which also included everything from discussion on the deaths of other famous celebrities and whether or not they were funny, and a even a quick debate on the ever-popular Steven Wright vs. Mitch Hedburg debate between stand-up comedy fans.
The main point being, that this is essentially the two sides of the argument that a lot of people are really debating within themselves. She got that part right, I was arguing with myself on this issue. That's no different than I typical reaction to Whitney Houston when she was alive however. I've always had conflicted feeling about Whitney Houston. Part of me likes song of hers like "Heartbreak Hotel (It's Not Right)," and "Your Love is My Love," while I can't stand some songs of hers like "The Greatest Love of All," and yes, I believe her version of "I Will Always Love You," is heavily overrated, and doesn't hold a candle to Dolly Pardon's original. I also think she was a fairly talented singer, on the other hand, I don't think she's the greatest voice of my generation, and she rarely if ever wrote any of her songs, so to me, she's somewhat, figuratively a one-note artist, musically anyway. She did act, and I never had anything particularly against her acting, but I haven't seen to many of her films. I haven't even seen "Waiting to Exhale," even though it was announced today that a sequel to that film, despite Houston's death, is currently in the works. It's also been clear for awhile that she hasn't been all there for awhile. For much of that time, it didn't seem to disrupt her career or talent though. Lately it has however. She was married to Bobby Brown for many years. From what I observed in their public lives, including the one or two episodes of their short-lived Bravo reality show, I don't think either one of them was particularly good for each other, but on the hand, I think they did love each other. I worry about their kids now, especially the one that really freaked out and had to be hospitalized after hearing of her mother's death. I highly doubt they were the winning any parents-of-the-year Awards before or after they broke up.
There's no issue in my mind of whether or not someone's death, or for that matter, any subject matter should be off-limits to comedy, even temporarily. I think every subject, when done well, can be funny. It's all a matter of how one chooses to approach the subject, not what the subject is. It has nothing to do with the fear of offending people. Hell, I write a blog about an industry that I hope to be more involved with in the future. That's scary enough. Every time I write a bad review of a movie could cost me a job if somebody read it and took it personally. I worry about that nightmare scenario every time I make a flippant Michael Bay joke. Sure I don't like his films, but if he offered me a job on one of his projects, I'd happily take it. Just because I make a joke and have an opinion, doesn't mean any offense, and I expect none. Yeah, those jokes came to me quickly, as well as a couple others actually. Some right when I heard of her death, others that came a little later, but so did all those other thoughts as well, and I don't think being conflicted about your emotions and thoughts is fake; even and especially when it involves somebody's death, it makes us all the more human.