A lawyer as a comedian: Let's laugh about it or should we?


November 24, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Early last month, attorney Stephen L. "As Seen On TV" Miles tried his hand at stand-up comedy. On the day of his club debut, he was asked to give a sample of his material on Channel 13's morning show. He told of happening into a gay bar and finding all the customers drinking "pina coladas with little umbrellas sticking out of them." Sophomoric observation, knock-'em-dead joke or offensive remark? Whatever. It caused people at WJZ to groan, prompted a member of the gay community to write a letter of protest and led to an item in this column. Miles doesn't see what the big deal is. "Let's talk about it," I said. And we did, in Miles' office.

DR: There was only one letter of protest about your joke. OK, but this got me thinking about what's allowed today and what isn't. There's a lot of talk about political correctness, that you can't say something because it's politically incorrect. Well, maybe there are some things you shouldn't say because they're offensive, they hurt people, they mock people for what they are, not what they do. . . .

SM: There's a line. I find every Polish joke offensive. I don't laugh out loud because the [jokes] say Polish people are stupid. . . . [On WJZ], I said there were all guys in the bar, they all had pina coladas. Obviously, that's a generalization. On a statistical basis, I'm willing to bet more gay guys drink mixed drinks than straight shots of Johnny Walker or beer. It was a social observation, and that's absolutely what it was. I don't think it was an evil hit, like Polish people are stu- pid. . . .

DR: I was just in the company of men who are not Jewish, and they were making jokes and derogatory comments about Jews to the point I didn't want to be in their company anymore, and said so. But for a moment I wondered, 'What's wrong with me that I can't just be one of the boys and play along with a joke?'

SM: They were saying things that are of a negative nature. I draw the line at something of evil intent, something malignant. . . .

DR: Some [humor analysts] say you have to draw a line between what people do and what they are, what they cannot help. . . .

SM: [The gay joke] was an observational thing. The context was not evil.

DR: It was not that funny, either. It was an observation people made about gays a long time ago.

SM: OK, well. I say there are certain generalizations that happen to be true, and I don't know if they are offensive. I made an observation. I still say it's valid. . . . [The protester] might just be one over

sensitive guy. WJZ has a big audience, and there haven't been 10,000 calls to my law office on this. I know a lot of gay people, and there has been a grand total of one complaint.

DR: A couple of years ago, there was legislation filed in Annapolis to regulate lawyers who advertise. You made the comment that it was aimed at Jewish lawyers and blacks.

SM: It absolutely was. The bill was not introduced or backed by any Jews down there, and the only lawyers who advertised at the time were Jewish or black. . . .

DR: Were you oversensitive?

SM: It's possible, sure. But again, it seemed that the only ones advertising were Jews and blacks; the bills were introduced by white, non-Jewish politicians. . . .

DR: What about lawyer jokes?

SM: I don't like them. With a couple of lawyers getting killed in San Francisco, and I think the lawyer jokes have taken on a certain viciousness. . . . Obviously, 50 percent of people lose all cases, and the person to blame is your lawyer. The jokes are getting into a dangerous area.

DR: Gay jokes aren't?

SM: If what I said would have been of evil intent, something to get people hot and angry against gay people as a group. . . . But I don't think anyone who heard what I said would be angry at gays for anything or think less of gays because I generalized with regard to them.

DR: In general conversation, do you find the climate for everyday humor today stifling?

SM: Yeah, but I don't think it's a bad thing. The Polish jokes, for instance. When you hear something offensive, you should say something, which I'll do with a Polish joke.

DR: I have fellow Italian-Ameri

cans tell me that the term "wop" is not offensive because it follows a historical line back to the immigrant generation, when it NTC meant "without papers." To me, it was always used in an offensive way.

SM: I went to the dedication of some windows in an Orthodox synagogue recently. In the audience was [City Council President] Mary Pat Clarke. The rabbi giving the talk, he was speaking of how we Jews react so quickly to criticism. He said, 'If a goy says. . . .' Well, in his mind, 'goy' is not derogatory. It absolutely is. You never hear, 'What a great goy, he went to the moon, he wrote a great column.' It's always in a derogatory manner.

DR: So, is this the end of Stephen L. Miles as a stand-up comic?

SM: An agent offered to book me for a college tour. I liked the idea -- girls of the Big 10, that kind of thing -- but I just can't take off on the weekends to do it, I have a hard time staying up that late, and too many people smoke in those clubs. This may have been my breakthrough and swan song all at the same time.

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