Where’s the Line?


Jerry Seinfeld won’t play colleges any more, because he claims the campuses are too intent on political correctness.

Clint Eastwood got in trouble for a relatively benign Caitlyn Jenner reference during the taping of a TV special.

Message boards on websites like Deadspin are teeming with nasty negativity, personal jokes and attacks.

The New York Times ran an article Sunday about how comedy is ubiquitous in modern society, but at the same time a risky and often losing proposition.

What’s going on here? Am I the only one asking the question in this post’s title? Is anyone else out there shrugging?

Where IS the famous line when it comes to comedy? The one separating good taste from horrible judgment. It used to be that the best jokes were ones dancing dangerously close to the edge. Now, it seems, the edge moves…on a daily (or even minute-to-minute) basis.

Tell a good joke, and you’ll likely hear from people on the other side of that edge. The critics are everywhere now. And they all have access to a forum, through their computers and smart phones.

The edge certainly changed as a result of the Jenner story. Eastwood’s remark about the famous transsexual was more of a comment on celebrity than gender, and it probably made Jenner laugh. But it caused a red flag in the minds of TV executives who are socially liberal and progressive in just about everything, but oddly as conservative as a five-star general when it comes to comedy.

We radio hosts have to be careful at times. Radio programmer and consultant Mike Stern told me he once counseled a talk show host on a conservative station to steer clear of partisan political commentary, in the interest of satisfying the greatest number of potential listeners.

My comedy policy on the radio has always been Make fun of everyone, especially myself. So, over the years, Obama, the Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, Stern (Howard, not the aforementioned Mike), Limbaugh, Schwarzenegger–everyone’s been fair game for me. And I’ve taken heat from supporters of all of ’em for my material.

You can’t please everyone, so you might as well insult them all.

Read through the comments section at the bottom of an article on the popular website Deadspin. Frequently, the message board is full of biting remarks geared to take down the exposed athlete or celebrity in the story above. Then, the commenters themselves are eviscerated by successive posters, who pile on with THEIR vile comments about a previous poster, and it becomes a sort of feeding frenzy of negativity.

This is why Seinfeld stopped doing stand-up comedy at colleges. The audience changed. They got judgy about the material, maybe even surly toward a rich comedian telling jokes. So, Jerry retreated to the comfort of his car as venue and his friends as audience in his Internet hit series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He can still utilize his brand of comedy, and his exposure is limited.

In Sunday’s New York Times, writer A.O. Scott declared “the world is full of jokes, but also of people who can’t take them.” Who ARE these people? Probably folks accustomed to (A) receiving praise but no criticism from teachers and parents and/or (B) engaging in lots of social media and precious little actual socializing.

Picture Bruno Kirby’s sappy deejay, who just KNEW in his own heart he was funny and couldn’t fathom Adrian Cronauer’s electric brand of comedy in Good Morning, Vietnam.

Bruno Kirby

Transport this character from 1965 to today, and I’ll bet you’d see a guy whose nose is buried in his cell phone, and who has no clue how to have a real conversation.

As important as digital media is in today’s world, it will be interesting if the biggest success stories of tomorrow end up involving those who master the social–both digitally and in the flesh.

Dave Coombs is a longtime morning radio host, who enjoys conversation…Twitter and otherwise.

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