“Dark basements full of angry men”

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on May 31st, 2013

We watched the “debate” between Jim Norton and insipid busy body Lindy West on FX’s Totally Biased, hosted by W. Kamau Bell.

(The word “debate” is in quotes because West clearly was unable to present any cogent point beyond “You can do whatever you want to do as long as you don’t do anything that I don’t want you to do.”)

West is a blogger who caused controversy with her “Open Letter To White Male Comedians.” See what we wrote here. Of course, we didn’t expect West to say anything we might agree with. But we were taken aback that she was even less effective on television than she was in print.

It was a slaughter, a knockout for Norton and an embarrassment for West. Over and over again, she prefaces each statement with a weak profession to be all about free expression, art, free speech, etc. But she eventually circles back to banning certain types of speech that make her (or those she purports to represent) uncomfortable. She dresses it up with all sorts of lame, high-minded doublespeak (with a dash of third-wave feminist code words), but it all comes down to a prohibition of speech and violence on free expression.

The two key points that Norton makes are that people enter a comedy club with the expectation that what they’re going to see is comedy. And, as such, those people shouldn’t (and necessarily can’t) take what is said seriously. His second companion point is that comedy has never inspired violence.

West isn’t satisfied. “It’s not just making jokes about a thing. It’s contributing to a culture that perpetuates that thing,” she says.

At 4:35, Bell, perhaps sensing that Norton’s points on free speech are threatening to bring a swift end to any real “debate,” shifts the focus to a topic that can’t be debated.

“So, I mean, that’s the question, I mean, other people are saying, like, you know, are comedy clubs inherently hostile environments for women?”

This is utter nonsense, but it’s right in West’s wheelhouse. It’s a notion that can’t be proven or disproven. It’s merely a vicious, outrageous claim that merely seeks to demonize comedy clubs, their patrons and the people who mount the stage. And, as a bonus, it helps in the effort to portray women as victims.

West describes comedy clubs as “dark basements full of angry men.” This is sheer crackpottery and should make everyone who earns a living at standup comedy– waitstaff, club managers, comedians, owners, bookers, agents, managers– frightened and outraged.

Though the statement is made somewhat in jest, it is chilling. And any statement that follows it– indeed, anything from West– should be discounted as so much claptrap. She gives no credit to comedy club patrons.  And her bleak portrayal of comedians is horrific. Her screed is inarticulate nonsense, based largely on emotion and vague pseudo-academic babble.

Norton’s response is solid and, in a perfect world, would mark the end of the entire discussion. It starts at 6:22. He ends by saying:

“There’s a great difference between even a harsh rape joke and saying, ‘All kidding aside, folks (raps on table) rape is good!’ Like, we all know the difference between that… I think there’s a difference, too, between a comedy club– where you understand that we’re trying to have an emotion pulled out of us, which is laughter– and standing up at the office party and going, ‘To RAPE!’”

Her response is chilling. Her prefatory statement, however is worth noting:

First of all, I’ve seen comedy acts that are not that far away from that…

Of course, you’ve heard statements that are “not that far away from that,” Ms. West… but the important point is that they are far enough away– by virtue of the fact that they are delivered as comedy in the context of a comedy club– that they are not in any way, shape or form equivalent to standing up at the office party and saying, “To RAPE!” If you fail to see the distinction, you are being willfully blind.

But her followup is almost as chilling:

I’m sure it’s super comfortable and nice to believe that there aren’t systemic forces that are affected by speech, but that’s not true. And those of us who are affected by those forces know that that’s not true.

If we can cut through the drivel and interpret what West is trying to say: Speech causes violence. We know this because the people who were the victims of violence in the past wince when such statements are made and they tell us that it is true. End of story. Case closed.

Of course, that’s nonsense.

Fortunately, all West and her like-minded mob have going for them is big mouths and a lack of shame for the lameness of their argument. As long as we’re around, we’ll rebut this kind of quackery. And Norton and others seem to be ably batting back the babble, too.

If they get it in their heads to actually attempt– through legal means– to suppress such speech, they’ve got Oliver Wendell Holmes to contend with. Schenck vs. The United States? You may have heard of it? Not ringing any bells? How about “clear and present danger? Back in 1919, the Supreme Court of the United States said, “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that the United States Congress has a right to prevent.” And, according to Wikipedia, “Following Schenck v. United States, ‘clear and present danger’ became both a public metaphor for First Amendment speech and a standard test in cases before the Court where a United States law limits a citizen’s First Amendment rights; the law is deemed to be constitutional if it can be shown that the language it prohibits poses a “clear and present danger”. However, the “clear and present danger” criterion of the Schenck decision was replaced in 1969 by Brandenburg v. Ohio, and the test refined to determining whether the speech would provoke an ‘imminent lawless action.’”

Of course, all of the above is with regard to political speech and safeguards against sanctions from the state.

But if there’s one thing that’s been drilled into our heads over the last forty years or so it’s that freedom of artistic expression is even more sacred than political expression! Good luck trying to suppress speech delivered from the stage of a comedy club. (Didn’t we resolve this back in 1964 or so? Has Ms. West heard of Lenny Bruce?)

Host Bell basically let the combatants talk (good for him). On one occasion, though, he revealed his true leanings on the subject (or, at the very least, he revealed an inability to grasp the seriousness of what he himself was saying) when he briefly tried to rebut a statement by Norton. It’s at 3:18, when Norton decries the practice of offended audiences targeting advertisers.

(Full disclosure: We disagree with Norton on this point. Norton contends that “the marketplace should dictate what’s funny.” We maintain that offended listeners who seek to pressure advertisers– and folks who join the fray after hearing about “offensive” speech third and second hand– are in fact part of the marketplace.  And we’ve been consistent when we say that a network sitcom is a completely different animal from the performance delivered from the stage of a comedy club.)

Bell says:

But if we didn’t remove financial support and target advertisers, we’d still have Glenn Beck. I’m just saying sometimes, sometimes target the advertisers.

Of course, Bell is wrong– we still have Beck… and from his position atop the GBTV enterprise, he’s worth $100 million. But, more importantly, Bell seems to rather frankly and blithely suggest that, in the case of Beck, it was a good thing. Of course, when Terry Rakolta sought to have Married With Children removed from the air, she was the devil incarnate just for having the audacity to suggest that viewers exercise their right to pressure Coca Cola.  There’s a double standard here.  And the case could easily be made that it’s a dangerous double standard.  (Of course, the show is called Totally Biased, so we probably shouldn’t be all that surprised.)