What a load of bull

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on August 14th, 2013

By now, you must have heard about the rodeo clown who made the mistake of mocking the most powerful man on the planet and was fired and banned from performing at the Missouri State fair for life!

It’s all over the WWW! And many of our fellow citizen have been OUTRAGED! AGHAST! HORRIFIED! Some of the folks expressing these sentiments have been… wait for it… comedians.

It’s racist! It’s dangerous! they cry.

Uh… no, it’s not. Put away the lace hankies, ladies… it’s rhetoric and nothing more.

It’s a rodeo clown crudely exploiting some nascent dissatisfaction with an elected leader. And the more we confuse simple crudeness and rowdiness with racism and danger, the less we’ll be able to recognize authentic racism and real danger.

It’s crude! It’s distasteful! they cry.

It certainly is! But so what?

Why is a magazine about standup comedy bothering to comment on a story about a rodeo clown being banned for life from a state fair?

(We’d like to think that our readers are smart enough to figure this one out. We’d like to think that they know exactly why we’re bringing this up. We’d like to think that they know exactly why this is of grave concern to fans and practitioners of standup comedy.)

When the NAACP of Missouri issues a press release saying that the actions of a rodeo clown at a state fair “are serious and warrant a full review by both the Secret Service and the Justice Department,” the hair stands up on the back of our necks.

When a gang of goofballs in Missouri thinks that they are in any way, shape or form justified in calling in the Department of Fucking Justice (!)– the most powerful cops in the land, the people with the power to destroy any citizen’s life, the folks most capable of depriving any citizen of his or her liberty– then we shiver and we shake and we instantaneously imagine that practically any mirthmaker– be he a clown or a standup or a satirist or a stiltwalker or a blogger or a visual artist– might be subject to similar sanctions if enough of the “right” people, in the “right” position– with sufficient pull at their local newspaper or television news outlet– can harness the outrage machine and point it toward the offending artist and mow him down.

“Calm down!” we can hear you say. “He’s a rodeo clown! We’re comics. There’s no way anyone can equate what we do with what a rodeo clown does.”

We’re of the opinion that, as standup comics, there is far more that connects us with a rodeo clown who engages in political satire than separates us.

If you think that this sorry gang of busybodies and scolds is ready to make some sort of fine distinction between what we do in a funky comedy club in St. Louis or Dallas or Sioux City and what is done in a rodeo ring in Sedalia, MO, you are living in a very comfortable dream world. Perhaps we’re wrong… perhaps they’re willing to make that distinction… for now. But, from what we’ve been seeing, hearing and reading over the last two days (and the past few years), we’re understandably concerned.

We are particularly disturbed by the spectacle of some of our colleagues who are rushing to the defense of the president. At this point, we should note that the president really doesn’t need us to defend him. In fact, it is we– the comics and the satirists– who should be “defending” the rest of us from the powerful, maybe. With tears and searing-hot indignation, they condemn the (as yet nameless, faceless) clown as a racist and a vulgarian. They paint the folks in benighted “flyover country” as neanderthals.

The person who set this whole debacle into motion was Perry Beam who proclaimed, as the television cameras and flash bulbs closed in, that “I felt like I was at a Klan rally!” (Which brings up the question: Just how many Klan rallies has Mr. Beam been to? We personally wouldn’t know what goes on at a Klan rally. Perhaps the DOJ’s energies might be better spent looking into Beam’s activities rather than that of the poor rodeo clown’s. Note: For the more dense among you, the “facetious light” is flashing.)

An awful lot of attention seems to be focused on the mask that the clown wore. The logic seems to go that it was an Obama mask… Obama is black… therefore the mask is racist. This is preposterous. The political figure mask has always been with us. It has a lengthy history:

Mask appeal is partly a combination of being physically distinct and fun to caricature. It also comes from staying in the spotlight. An outgoing personality—- or even a scandal—- is a great way to keep your likeness on sale at a costume store. “I’ll be selling Bill Clinton masks for the next 30 or 40 years!” Morris says.

And rodeo clowns we’re told, often dress up as politicians. Now, however, we’re supposed to believe that such a mask is inherently racist. Such a double standard goes against all that we’ve been taught to believe. Why is a mask of one leader suddenly forbidden, when all along similar masks have been permitted, even embraced? (But the crowd was told to cheer for the president to be stomped by a bull! Well, folks in Missouri know that people get stomped by bulls all the time and live to tell about it. The only injuries they suffer is a few bumps and bruises and maybe a dent in their pride.)

And even if you suspect that some folks down south went overboard in their zeal to vent their frustration over a leader that currently has a 41 per cent favorable rating, is that really cause to sic the Attorney General of the United States of America on them? Has that ever been reason to do so? Isn’t there a real question of proportionality here?

We don’t argue for a second that the rodeo clown’s performance wasn’t crude. An awful lot of comedy and satire and parody is. But we are of the opinion that the president can handle it. And perhaps, as a very practical, very instructive matter, he should handle it. We hold out hope that the president might show a little class and a little resilience and come out and say that the folks who are outraged are maybe overreacting a little bit and that the others who are calling on the DOJ to intervene are maybe unclear on just what the purpose of the Department of Justice is.

And, to be sure, the citizens of America and the world are perfectly justified in wringing their hands and vowing to never set foot in the Show Me State. But… when the comedians of the world join in on such ridiculous witch hunts, it’s truly hard to watch. We’re the ones who are supposed to making fun of such overreaction. We’re the ones who are supposed to be the counterbalance to the possible overreach of the folks who seek to bring the hammer down on one of us.

Or we’re the ones who are supposed to make fun of the rodeo clown! (Instead, some comics are intent on circulating memes which seek to ruin the clown’s life by cutting off his livelihood and seek to make the lives of Missourians miserable. When did comics abandon their mission to create laughter and become such miserable, insufferable prigs?)

And now the rodeo clowns are going to be forced to engage in sensitivity training.

The entire situation is ripe for parody and satire. But no one is up to the task. Instead, they’re taking the side of those who would recommend sensitivity training for rodeo clowns. Stop and ponder that for thirty seconds. Somewhere above us, Paddy Chayefsky smiles.

Defending free speech is not easy. We’ve said it a million times. Defending comedy isn’t easy. Sometimes you gotta look at the big picture. It isn’t easy. Sometimes it goes against our initial instincts. But it’s gotta be done.

In an effort to protect the president (who, let’s face it, is a man who does not need our protection), some comics have, in effect, left the rest of us vulnerable.

In most setups, we comics are the people who stand between the powerful and the powerless. Why in heaven’s name would you seek to ally yourselves with the powerful? It makes no sense.

Hey! Didja hear the one about the comedian who was sentenced to six months hard labor in a coal mine for making jokes about powerful people? No? We did… no punchline or nothing… just wondering if you’d heard about it. It was in all the papers.

We can’t help but see the parallels.

And we don’t for a minute think that any comics (or any rodeo clowns) are going to be sentenced to six months hard labor in a coal mine.

But that’s the kind of thing that out-of-control bureaucrats and political appointees and government politicos do when given just the slightest amount of encouragement.

Why would comedians want to be on the side of the government when it comes to these matters? It’s only a matter of time before this type of scrutiny is directed toward a standup comic or a satirist. Already there are some folks who have come dangerously close to blaming comedians for bullying, rape, hate crimes and violence of all manner. Give them time and they’ll find an angle that allows them to bring law enforcement and the courts into the mix. And sensitivity training.

We’ll leave you with a quote from an article in Times Higher Education, which is worth reading in its entirety:

If satire afflicts the comfortable, it comforts the afflicted, as H. L. Mencken said. Laughter, mockery and contempt are among the few powers left to otherwise submissive citizens and subjects.