Friday, August 31, 2007

This week's LasVegasWeekly.Com column

Reprinted from LasVegasWeekly.Com

In Vegas, let the N-word fly

When it first happened, we were sure the remarks would prompt angry protests, demands for discipline, outrage and shock and righteous indignation. Instead, bafflingly, they prompted nothing of the sort.

The Amazing Johnathan is an edgy comic magician over at the Sahara who will be moving shortly to the Riviera. He’s been around Las Vegas forever, packs a good, consistent crowd and makes regular appearances on Comedy Central. And on Aug. 9, he came on our weekly celebrity-interview podcast “The Strip” and let loose the n-word five times and the c-word twice.

Our listeners around the world were certainly stunned. They wrote in droves debating whether what was stated was offensive, what he meant, whether his use of the word “honky” was equally alarming, whether we should have bleeped out the words or not.

African-American activists, however, took a startling pass. Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Norm Clarke said he didn’t even get the courtesy of returned calls or emails from leaders of the National Association of Black Journalists, which led the charge to have Don Imus fired earlier this year and who were coincidentally meeting in Vegas the day he lead his column with Johnathan’s remarks. Some of our black listeners told us they wrote to the NAACP, the NABJ and other civil rights groups but similarly heard no answers.

What did Johnathan say? You can see a longer transcript of this sequence by clicking here or listen to a clip of the remarks here. But to summarize, in a rant over the ill effects of political correctness in comedy, Johnathan responded to my question of what should’ve happened in the Michael Richards case thusly:

“What I think should've happened is, well, the manager should've thrown the black people out. That's what I think should've happened. If they were heckling him during the show, they were wrong. And anything you do, if you're heckling a comic and interrupting a show, you're a n***** at that point, you know what I mean, in my eyes. You're not an audience member, you're not a friend, you are the worst possible scenario. You're disrupting my job, so you're a n*****. I wouldn't yell that word out and tell them that, I would have handled it a little bit more differently. If I did use that word, it would've been funny. I mean, I've called women in the audience c***s and I've gotten away with it because they were c***s but I did it right. There is a way to do it right.”

Since that prompted no reaction from African-American forces, we’ve been pondering why. Is it that Johnathan's not a big enough star for their bother? That would be an odd way to decide what to be offended by -- and give an awful lot of license to an awful lot of people to use the word willy-nilly. And it’s also not true: Johnathan is arguable a bigger star than Richards, who had one claim to fame and wasn’t even selling out the Laugh Factory when he was heckled into insanity.

Perhaps the NAACP, having "buried" the n-word recently, is over it? (I posit that facetiously, actually.) Or maybe it’s that there's no video, a la the Richards or Imus things? That could be, but the odd thing here is that Richards used the words in anger in a momentary loss of control and Imus was attempting, however badly, to be funny. Johnathan essentially defined what he believes a "n*****" to be in a way that offers real insight into his thought process.

No, I don’t buy any of that. What this silence reflects is how the liberal elite view Las Vegas. They’d rather react to things that emerge in the coastal media -- Hollywood, D.C. or New York -- even though Vegas is where real Americans come for an awful lot of their entertainment.

In Vegas, we can only conclude, performers are free to say or do whatever they wish because the city and its entertainment offerings are already believed to be crass, low-brow and inconsequential. I can’t decide if that’s a victory for free speech or a defeat for good taste.


Dave Lifton said...

I wouldn't say Johnathan is a bigger star than Richards. A few Comedy Central specials and a headlining gig in Vegas doesn't equal an eight-year run on a very successful prime-time network sitcom.

With Imus, you should also take into account that he also had a history of racially insensitive remarks.

But you know, Steve, if this writing gig ever stops paying off, you could always get a job as a corporate axe-man. You seem to have developed a flair for getting people fired.