Just Trying to Be Funny

GREGORY P. KANE

November 15, 1993|By GREGORY P. KANE

Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg, arguably the most famous interracial couple in America, have decided to call it quits, according to news reports.

Now they decide.

Last month Mr. Danson caused a ruckus at a Friars Club roast in honor of Ms. Goldberg. It was a rare public stab at humor for him without the benefit of ''Cheers'' writers to put the words in his mouth. His effort went over like a striptease act at a funeral.

''We were not trying to be politically correct,'' Ms. Goldberg said in Mr. Danson's defense. ''We were trying to be funny for ourselves.''

Judging from the reaction of some, they aimed for the palace and got drowned in the sewer, to use Mark Twain's exquisite phrase.

Talk-show host Montel Williams -- himself one half of an interracial marriage -- was particularly offended, as was his wife. If Mr. Danson and Ms. Goldberg were trying to make some kind of satirical lampoon of the attitudes faced by mixed couples, it sure was lost on the Williamses.

Let's briefly recap what Mr. Danson did to make him a nominee for the Boob Hall of Fame. He appeared in blackface -- which wasn't funny even back when white people thought it was -- and gave a monologue in which he used the dreaded ''N'' word several times. That may have been his undoing.

It's tricky, that ''N'' word. It can be used effectively in comedy, especially satire, but the person using it has to be extremely gifted and the points extremely funny or the effort will be misinterpreted and wasted.

Mark Twain used the word in ''Letters from the Earth,'' his blistering attack on religion, racism and the alleged superiority of Western man. It worked, because Twain skillfully set the reader up for it.

He also used the word in ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' but the satire there was less subtle. Some people just didn't get it, and have urged that the book be banned in some school districts.

Comedian Richard Pryor also effectively used the word in his act. But he later abandoned it after taking a trip to Africa.

''I didn't see any niggers over there,'' Mr. Pryor asserted. He seems to have made a psychic connection to the late African-American writer Henry Dumas, who wrote ''One of the greatest roles created by Western man has been that of the nigger. The greatest actor to play the role has been the Negro.''

In 1974, comedian, writer and director Mel Brooks sent American audiences into peals of laughter when his ''Blazing Saddles'' hit the nation's theaters. A biting satire about the stupidity of racism, the word ''nigger'' was used frequently but with superb comic effect. It just might be one of the best American satires on film.

Mr. Danson is clearly no Mark Twain, Richard Pryor or Mel Brooks. If any one lesson can be learned from his faux pas at the Friars Club, it is that the funny stuff should be left to those gifted at it.

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