Monday, December 6, 2010

Freedom (in Comedy) and a Call to Arms

“ has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense.” -- Noam Chomsky

[Note: The idea of “free speech” presented here is NOT the technical legal “right” to it. Obviously we all have that “right,” in theory. However, in our society and more specifically the industry of stand up comedy, censorship is accomplished through systemic means in the name of “business” or “industry.” I would like to combat those forces.]

Let’s not bullshit ourselves: free speech is a farce. Freedom of press, ditto. These “freedoms” are ideological platitudes that we ascribe to ourselves and our society simply because we exalt them in theory, but in practice we are often their hypocritical opponents.

While I believe that all people should defend freedom of expression, I can not stop anyone from opposing it. But I can respond to that opposition. Journalists, writers, comedians, editorialists, actors, painters, or anyone whose very existence implies and relies on freedom of expression should all be vehemently defending these rights without question. The fact that there is not a united front on these issues is the reason those “rights” are eroding under various guises of “national security,” corporate interests, “political correctness,” “offensiveness,” etc. These masks are all fraudulent platforms and they need to be systematically castrated.

As a stand up comedian, I am presenting this community - and any other interested parties - with a call to arms. Our rights are being violated not by a fascist censorship, but rather a systemic one with the drive for money at the heart of it. I will start with two personal anecdotes.

Comedy Club on State - Madison, WI

In May 2010, I had an incident with a heckler. I have covered this story before, so I will keep it brief. It’s mostly included in the video. If you haven’t seen this, please watch. If you have already seen this, just refresh yourself with my closing comments on it. There is no need to re-watch me calling someone a cunt, unless you get off on that sort of thing.

After this video was up for a few days, I decided to take it down. (I’ve recently reposted it to assist this particular story.) Not because I didn’t believe in its content, but because I was ready to bury the hatchet. (This is months ago, back when I still believed in the potential of diplomacy.) I decided to accept the ban, and try and mend fences after the year expired. So, a few months later, I emailed the club, telling them that I accept their one year ban in hopes that we can continue our great relationship next year. Four months later, they still had not responded...

I called the club on Friday, December 3rd, to follow up on that sentiment. I was told that because I posted that video I was banned for life. They said it was disrespectful to the club. I argued that to accept a banning without explaining my side of the story would be disrespectful to MYSELF. Eve, the general manager, said more or less that she didn’t care and I will never perform there again. She then told me to never call that number again. Then she hung up.

First of all, the video was factual. However, since it was inconvenient to the club’s business, I was banned for it which is a deeper example of opposition to freedom of speech. My “banning” has consequences. The booking agency of that room books many other rooms and values this room’s opinion. So, given that they banned me, I now have a reputation based on that opinion. However, the agency was not privy to the actual events, nor was anyone else. So, I posted the video which is the truth. Certainly people will think what I did was wrong, however nobody should deny my right to do it. My intention was to be funny, even if it was at the expense of the heckler. Regardless of your opinion, that was my intention and there were many people who found it funny.

That video, when it was posted, was littered with comments of token support. “Hilarious, Drew. Fuck them for banning you.” These were mostly written by comics, many of whom continue to seek work from and therefore support that club. Now, on an individual basis, I don’t necessarily blame them. There are many who subscribe to the belief that “this is a business and you made your own bed, and while I may agree with your sentiment I shouldn’t have to pay the consequences for YOUR actions.” And sure, there is a point to that. However, that is precisely the attitude which allows the erosion of our freedom and power.

We are fragmented and isolated and the clubs use the power of opportunity cost against us. We are all trying to “make it” in this business and it is one such that any missed opportunity could be catastrophic. Everyone is afraid to stand up to a club because it might mean a banning for them as well. I understand that. But if everyone is this afraid then they will continue to wield their power against us.

It is only by the process of unification under a fundamental banner that we can continue to exist with some level of autonomy. Marxist shit. (To those who say we should start our own comedy clubs, I want to note that this process is not JUST about comics vs. clubs but rather the battle for freedom of expression against those who oppose it (the public, the media, etc.) as we will see later on. Also, I argue that one should not have to validate his/her right to opinion by earning enough money.) With respect to the clubs, this idea of fragmentation/isolation is why comedy unions were tried in L.A .at the Comedy Store in ’79 and the early 2000s in NYC. I believe there was a movement here in Chicago as well back in the 90s.

I’m not necessarily advocating for a labor union (yet), but I AM advocating a united front on specific issues, namely that of freedom of expression. In this specific case, if the club in Madison received numerous emails from my supporters, comics and audience alike, my fate would not have necessarily been sealed (or at least not so rapidly). Of course, not a single individual sent such an email. I was completely isolated and therefore easily defeated by a much more powerful opponent.

Red Bar Comedy Club - Chicago, IL

That Friday was a rough day for me. Later that night I performed at the Red Bar Comedy Club in downtown Chicago. I was doing a short, 10 minute guest set. I had worked on a new bit earlier that week that I was going to do at the club. The bit focuses on the word “nigger.” The premise behind it being that since there is such high emotion, high octane emotion and sensitivity among blacks and whites alike surrounding that word, we are constantly told that it is FORBIDDEN to say. Basic human principle is such that when we are told not to do something, we immediately want to do it. So, I claim that by being told not to say the word, it makes me want to say it. And yes, I say the actual word, nigger, because I don’t believe in copping to its euphemisms for the sake of others.

Anyway. I performed my new bit to a great response on Thursday, the night before, at an open mic in front of about 40 people. Here is the audio:

After that set I was told by people, black and white alike, that the bit is great. Even Dave Odd, the producer of the room, said “good work” and I think he hates me more than anyone. I’m not an idiot: I know the use of the word “nigger” is dicey and will cause issues with people. So, given its success, I was that much more excited to do it at the club on Friday night. I did. Here is the audio:

Okay, awkward silence. Nobody heckling, decrying what I said. Nobody even seemed offended, just upset that that I wasn’t being funny. (It’s possible that they were offended, albeit silently, but it honestly felt different than that.) That’s fair. It’s possible that I performed the bit differently than the night before, different timing, cadence, or attitude which led to its failure. It’s possible that the bit is not quite ready, or simply unfunny. Regardless, the audience responded how they did. I finished on a more time-tested bit and got off stage. That’s when the mayhem started. The owners of the club were angry with me for doing a risky bit that had not been worked out long enough. Understandable. I apologized for that. However, given the response it had gotten, as well as my conviction in it, I honestly thought it was ready. Error in judgment.

After this, I was sold out by a fellow performer who was in attendance. Brian Babylon, a Chicago comic, posted slanderous things about me on his Facebook page which was received by many other comics, bookers, et al. This hurt me. For one, it was a fraudulent allegation which had actual negative consequences. People read that post/thread and now have a perception of me as a racist or a “bad seed” without knowing the facts. One local producer even threatened to “handle” me on a morning radio show. It was insane. I understand that some of those people are Brian’s close friends and they will take his word over mine any day of the week, but that is why I’m firing at Brian. HE chose to sell me out and for that I am criticizing HIM. He started a chain of slander that will make it basically impossible for me to work the South Side of Chicago. Not that I worked it much anyway, but still, this is horrendous given that it is censorship WITHIN the community.

Secondly, we are supposed to have each others’ back in this fight. Whether or not one agrees with what I said on stage does not take away from my right to say it... especially when I’m someone who has at least SOME credibility in stand up. I am clearly not clueless on stage. I headline the club. What I was doing was clearly in the interest of comedy, especially given the response the bit got the night before. It’s offensive that one would try and limit my opportunity to experiment, no matter how “risky” the territory. We can’t be judging solely on the basis of whether or not the jokes get laughs, but rather if they were INTENDED to get laughs. EVERY joke has gone through a process of not getting laughs at some point. That doesn’t take away from one’s right to say it and work through it. The subject matter of the joke should not limit its ability to be tested. Anyone who believes otherwise is an opponent to free speech.

The Michael Richards (“Kramer”) incident was mentioned a few times. Now, obviously I don’t believe that he and I are even in remotely comparable territories, but I will go ahead and assume that comparison because it doesn’t change my stance. I will defend Richards with pleasure and ease.

The Michael Richards fiasco was a failure. Not because of the tirade he went on, but rather because he was sold out by the hypocritical community that should have supported him or at least supported his right to do what he did. He was isolated and therefore easily defeated.

Obviously you will be hard-pressed to find someone who agrees with the CONTENT of his tirade, but that doesn’t deny his right to say it. Imagine he was yelling at a pro-lifer or somebody who didn’t believe in gay rights. All of the hypocritical liberals would be posting that video on their Facebook pages, calling the guy a hero. It’s insane. Or what if he were yelling at a woman? Case in point: look at how comics responded to my clip from Madison and/or how everyone exalts Bill Hicks’ Funny Firm tirade.

Is it only because these are funnier or get more laughs than Richards’? Maybe, but maybe people only laughed at Hicks or at me because they agreed with the sentiment. I bet a bona fide racist would have laughed his ass off at what Richards said. In fact, I bet many of YOU laughed your ass off at how insane it was while you watched it on YouTube behind the safety of your Macbook screen. But regardless, whether or not something is funny does not change the validity of its message nor the comic’s right to say it.

We have to assume, especially with an immensely credible comic-actor like Michael Richards, that the intention was to be funny. It doesn’t always pan out. However, it is only when the performer does something with which we disagree (or think we’re supposed to disagree) that we strive to deny him/her the right to say it. But that just goes back to the initial Chomsky quote: our real commitment to freedom of speech is only tested when confronted with “horrendous” ideas, as the good and palatable ideas require no such defense. It’s a hypocritical stance.

Richards should not have apologized to anyone except possibly the club owner for not making the crowd laugh, thus failing to do the job for which he was hired (a task at which many people fail, and one can argue that no such apologies are necessary in each case). It is for precisely these reasons that I refused to apologize to the woman from Madison nor will I apologize for anything I say on stage, ever (unless I misstate a fact or statistic or something). These should be TRUISMS, especially in the stand up community. We are already fragmented and isolated by the “industry,” whether it be by clubs, television, management, NACA, whatever; to permit or advance infighting is exponentially disastrous and possibly fatal.

Imagine what the aftermath would have been if every single comic came out in support of Michael Richards. People called him racist. Even if he is, so what? Does that mean he can’t perform? You think he’s the only racist in comedy? You think you can eliminate all the homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, etc. from comedy by banning people if they say something that’s not PC? That’s insane. That will just stop the vocalization of those thoughts, but the thoughts and feelings will prevail. The only way to reach a higher state of collective consciousness is by discussing these things openly and honestly. In order to do that, we have to allow people the right to say what they’d like, even if we disagree with it. One’s ideology should not disallow them from performing unless you believe in Stalin-like censorship. Again, irreconcilable with freedom of speech.

What do we do?

There are endless numbers of cases like this in comedy (Bill Hicks vs. David Letterman) and otherwise. This is a call to arms. Stand up for these ideals in which you claim to believe. (Pun unavoidable, sorry.) Don’t fall into the category of every other hypocritical American - speak up. Freedom of expression is a very basic, relatively black and white issue. You either believe in it or you don’t. Yes, people have the right to react however they do as well. That’s their choice (or socially programmed response). But we have the right to respond.

To anyone, especially those who do stand up comedy -- which is supposed to be a beacon of free speech, a field in which we are supposed to QUESTION the boundaries we are given -- if you claim to support free speech but don’t actually stand up for it, then you are a hypocrite. (Conversely, if you DON’T support free speech, then admit that and own that position.) Don’t just support it tacitly with Facebook “Like”s, etc. Defend it. Fight for it. If someone infringes on this right, be rabid and vocal in your response, ESPECIALLY in cases like Richards where it’s so easy to hate him.

This is a VERY SMALL community (stand up in general, not just Chicago) and one in which we can all actually make fundamental differences. Due to the stresses of business and money, freedom of expression and freedom of press is eroding and rotting in front of our eyes. But most of us would rather ignore it because that might open up an opportunity to do a 6 minute guest set at [insert any of the plethora of parody comedy club names]. The only way to prevent it is to fight back in droves.

You will see many detractors who mock this as a juvenile fight for the right to say “cunt,” but this is much more than that. Many rooms limit what you can say, what topics you can talk about. It’s insane. People will say, “Well it’s a business!” Yeah, but that business mentality only helps the club owners and promoters. Bill Hicks was cut from Letterman because their pro-life sponsor didn’t approve of his pro-life joke. Is that freedom? It’s a business... yeah, a fucking soulless one. The clubs and networks do it for their sake, so they can maximize the number of nacho “munchies” they sell alongside their daiquiris or the number of minds they can numb with their cathode rays so they can make a stronger presentation to Tide. The comics don’t see shit from that. All they get is an opportunity to take part in a bastardized, left-field-wall version of the art form for which they sacrifice and if they play the game right, they can earn a few dollars and maybe have their own TV show, consolation prizes which amount to nothing when compared to their stifled creative freedom.

If we are unified against these powers, the industry would adapt. We have to force the industry to recognize this right. Imagine if every comic came out in favor of Hicks and said, “In the name of free speech, we won’t do your show unless you air his set.” Now we have a battle between ad dollars and righteousness. (To take it further, what if every screenwriter, TV writer, etc. refused to curb THEIR content. What would TV advertisers and networks do then?) At least it’s a fight. Of course, nobody spoke up and defended Hicks because they were hoping they would be the replacement comic. Just another example of how our current system pits the people against each other.

How can the clubs or TV reconcile a free speaking comic with the public’s desire for “safe” entertainment? One possibility is BE FUCKING HONEST. Tell them it’s impossible to make everyone like everything. If the industry is the liaison to the public, then have it explain, “Look, you might be offended by this or that, but understand that the thing you were laughing at might offend somebody else. We can’t draw any lines because if we give in to every single complaint, we will have people up there only talking about clouds or sandals. And even then, you’d have people complaining about how the comic made fun of MY favorite brand of sandal and that’s not right...” Treat the public with some fucking respect and tell them the truth. Don’t give in to the fear of losing their money.

With a united front, we can force the industry to either adapt or collapse. Both outcomes are good things because in its current form it is unacceptable. If the stand up industry collapses under pressures that demand for free speech, then perhaps we need to look deeper and direct our efforts toward the system as a whole (something we should be doing anyway).

Perhaps I overestimate the potential of this field and/or its constituent people. Maybe stand up is just another cog in the Entertainment wheel and we should all be shooting for Hollywood. Maybe we should accept our fate as the limited, social jester-hamsters, free to do all of the things we want so long as we keep people spending. I don’t think I want to support an industry like that. This is a cry of hope.

Until we are united and in lock step on this issue (and perhaps others), we can’t fight these basic infringements. We need to shatter the illusions that pervade our communication and infringe on our rights in society and in our chosen “field.” What would the comedy club business do if every single comic vowed in unison to never capitulate to language requirements? What would you say on stage, in the name of comedy, if you knew that every single comic had your back and would defend your right to say it?

Imagine the possibilities...


Doktorsleepless said...

well said.

Creepy Jeremy said...

I think ultimately the goal of ending censorship (by club owners) is a good one, but completely unrealistic. Most clubs cater to generic "comedy" that the masses want. In this case, for example, it would be a hack saying Amanda's name a few times and asking her personal questions until she turns red.

A lot of people, for various irrational reasons, just don't want to hear CUNT or NIGGER spoken out loud. That boundary is pretty clear cut. Other unacceptable topics vary, but you have to use your best judgement to determine what crosses the dreaded "line." Don't get me wrong, I ENCOURAGE you to cross it, but you should be aware of where it lies. It moves over time as our culture changes, but it isn't going away.

Unionizing is a terrible idea because there will always be someone willing to take your place in the hugely competitive field of live entertainment. The only solution is to open your own club or stick with clubs that let you say what you want. You can try to get gigs at other venues, but inevitably you're going to deal with managers and owners who will get pissed off and potentially ban you.

As much as you have to offer the world with your wit, you're never going to win everyone over. Keep trying though. Next time there will be at least one letter defending you. It will have my name on it.