Ted Danson tripped over the color line by using 'n-word'

MIKE LITTWIN

October 15, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

You want to know about the state of race in our country? Forget Rodney King and forget Reginald Denny.

Look to Ted "Mammy" Danson instead.

Danson has taught us a valuable lesson. Actually, we already knew it. He taught himself a valuable lesson: Where race is involved, America is one gigantic laughter-free zone.

OK, that's not entirely true.

Blacks can tell jokes about race. Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy can use the "n-word" with impunity. Some rap groups seem to use nothing but the n-word. White people cannot. If you're white, try it. See how it goes over.

Danson did, and now he's paying for it. Which is pretty funny if you think about it. Danson is not exactly David Duke. He doesn't buy his after-hours wear at the January white sales. His lover (don't you hate that word?) is Whoopi Goldberg, who is famously black from her dreadlocks on down.

He loves her, and she loves him. And they thought themselves the perfect, colorful, color-free couple.

And so, in a recent roast of Goldberg at the New York Friars Club, where outrageous ethnic bashing is an 89-year-old tradition, Danson came out made up in blackface and told racial jokes, freely sprinkling the n-word throughout his monologue. Goldberg, it turns out, helped him write the jokes.

The point was, I guess, that Danson and Goldberg have moved past racial boundaries. White and black, they were saying, didn't matter.

Maybe they are past all that. But most people aren't.

Montel Williams walked out of the show and, not surprisingly, made an issue of it. Like Williams is some paragon of sensitivity. Have you seen his show? Tomorrow on Montel: "Blackface Sitcom Actors With Hairpieces and the Women Who Love Them."

In response, Goldberg called a press conference to lash out at those who lack a sense of humor. She told people to lighten up, which, if you think about it, might have been good advice for Danson. (Hey, Ted, you think there's a reason you don't see any Al Jolson retrospectives?)

Let's remember where this took place. The Friars Club is the high temple of tastelessness, where the only rule is that you check your sensibilities at the door. If you don't like insult humor, stay home, because that's the only kind they've got, except for the odd flatulence joke. What I'm saying is that Howard Stern is lucky if he makes usher there.

And if Danson went overboard, it's the spirit of the place to go overboard. Of course, that's not exactly the spirit prevalent in the rest of of the country. Those in the humor biz must tread lightly these days.

Here's a joke courtesy of my friend Tony:

Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: That's not funny.

L You'd be surprised how many people don't think that's funny.

The only people you're free to take a shot at these days are white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males, and unfortunately, with the exception of Jim Bakker and Dan Quayle, they're not funny either.

And yet, the best humor is dangerous and dark and reaches deep inside us to reveal the hidden monsters lurking within.

Sometimes, though, we're not ready to confront the monster.

For instance, let's talk about the n-word. My mother taught me from the earliest age that it was the ugliest, vilest, most despicable word in the language and that no one -- especially me -- should ever use it.

I never have.

She also said I shouldn't use a few other words, but I've used them freely all my life. The n-word is somehow different. We all know why.

I have no problem with Danson in blackface, despite the historical baggage that goes with it. The blackface was an ironic, if not necessarily funny, commentary on Danson's relationship with Goldberg. If it offended, so what? I told you. It's the Friars Club.

But with the n-word, history cuts a little deeper. Some blacks use it to desensitize the word. I'm not sure why Danson and Goldberg wanted to. Maybe they thought it would be funny. Maybe they thought that we'd be so shocked that we'd see how ugly racism can be. More likely, they just didn't think at all.

In the end, it doesn't really matter what the motives were. Inevitably, some people will be more than offended when a white person says the word. They'll be hurt. Can you blame them?

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