TV, radio cruelty: Now it always hurts when we laugh

February 08, 1993|By Nina J. Easton | Nina J. Easton,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles--"OK guys, you ready?" All 5 feet 10 inches of Marki Costello bounces up and down the aisles of a studio audience. With every cheerleader jump, more of her dark hair slips out of a barrette and falls down the back of Ms. Costello's black vintage dress.

"Now," she yells, "what do you say when the contestants say something about sex?"

"Oooo!" her audience roars back.

"And what do you say when the husband says something chauvinistic?"

A round of staccato "yo-yo-yo's" from the men pours forth, easily drowning out the higher-pitched female "boos."

This spirited crowd is here to watch the taping of "That's Amore," a new nationally syndicated game show that features bedroom brawls between married couples. It's the job of the audience to egg on the contestants as they fight, to provoke more heated arguments with their "boos" and "woos" and, ultimately, to pick the winner.

Ray, a British man in his 40s who sports a shag haircut, leads off with a complaint that Norma, his American wife, and Belinda, his former wife, compare notes about his sexuality. Norma doesn't disagree, but launches into her own tirade about her husband's torn jeans, his penchant for wearing no underwear and his large sexual appetite, all of which are linked in her mind. The audience goes wild. When host Luca Barbareschi calls for a midway poll and a station break, they reward Norma with 68 percent of their votes.

By the time Round 2 opens, Norma is ready for blood. Blue eyes blazing, she spews at her husband: "You're a liar, and you have a big mouth." And this: "You are so sickening, you make me want to throw up." And this: "You don't know how to do anything right. You're a walking accident waiting to happen." ("Ooo-ooo!" the audience cheers.)

Ray counterattacks with -- what else? -- a story about his wife's girth: "My wife, I'm so proud of her. She's lost 80 pounds. But she walks into the supermarket, since we started eating normal again, and she takes hot dogs off the shelf and stuffs them in her mouth." ("Ugh!" from the audience.)

"When we finally get to the checkout stand," he continues, "there's no food to pay for, just packages with tags." ("Boooo!") "I've seen it," concurs Ray's friend Tibor. "It's so embarrassing."

Luca Barbareschi calls time and polls the audience. Ray wins with 77 percent. Norma and Ray wrap their arms around each other and beam: For their performance, they earn a second "honeymoon" in Mexico.

If you think this is sick stuff, you're woefully behind the pop culture curve. In the 1990s, "dissin' " is fast becoming a national pastime. Cutting insults, crude put-downs and vulgar and vicious personal lampoons are dominating mainstream entertainment -- even while political leaders urge us to put people first. More than ever, comedy draws the most laughs when it's at the expense of someone else.

"Humor has devolved to allow more extreme forms of brutality and insults that are normally perceived of as abhorrent," says Jennings Bryant, director of the University of Alabama's Institute for Communication Research. "It is pushing the bounds of propriety."

On Fox's popular "Married . . . With Children," a running gag of intrafamily ridicule, Al Bundy wonders why his wife, Peg, didn't marry a man more like her father: "Or weren't there any chronically unemployed social parasites the month you were in your prime?"

The satirical variety show "In Living Color" is more reckless, taking aim at black women, gays and even, in an off-color skit about a spastic handyman, the handicapped.

Over on ABC, "Roseanne" chuckles that she's done her job when her kids say they hate her, or she fantasizes about trading her brood for a new dishwasher.

Radio shock-jock Howard Stern's obscenities are what draw the ire of the Federal Communications Commission and the press, but biting cruelty is also his stock in trade.

Mr. Stern's popularity is skyrocketing. He now airs in 10 cities, and he has launched a TV talk show. Radio-industry officials note that other radio talk-show hosts around the country now are borrowing his style.

Even while some commentators complain that political correctness is choking free expression, American popular culture rich with examples of misogyny, racism and homophobia. In rap and heavy metal music, especially, women are routinely referred to as bitches and "ho's" (short for whores). Need some anti-Semitism? The syndicated TV series "Uptown Comedy Club" recently featured a skit about the law firm of "Judacy," where Hasidic lawyers sing, "I really want to sue you. I really want to overcharge you."

Rush Limbaugh has sunk to disturbing lows on his radio show, such as this tirade against AIDS and abortion activists: "Get out of our schools. Get out of our churches. Take your deadly, sickly behavior and keep it to yourselves."

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