Comedian should be allowed to rock the boat

September 19, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

HUMOR: 1. the quality that makes something seem funny, amusing or ludicrous; comicality. 2. the ability to perceive, appreciate, or express what is funny, amusing or ludicrous. 3. the expression of this in speech, writing or action."

That definition is from Webster's New World Dictionary. A reiteration of the definition of humor is necessary for those folks who need to get reacquainted with it. Take, for example, those humorless souls whose sphincters were tightened when black comedian Chris Rock appeared in whiteface on the cover of the August issue of Vanity Fair magazine.

An uproar followed. Some blacks questioned why Rock appeared in whiteface.

"I'm just a comedian," he answered.

"Comedian: a person who amuses others by behaving in a comic way."

That's in Webster's New World Dictionary, too. Alas, those blacks forever obsessed with our image weren't satisfied. A couple sent letters that appear in the October issue of Vanity Fair. One woman said Rock appearing in whiteface brought back horrible memories of the time when Ku Klux Klansmen painted the faces of black lynching victims white.

It's quite a stretch comparing Rock's actions to those of KKK members. Rock hasn't lynched anyone, except verbally. His barbs target everyone; he doesn't spare black people. He's not just a comedian. He crosses the line frequently and enters the more noble realm of satire.

"Satire: the use of ridicule, sarcasm, irony, etc. to expose, attack, or deride vices, follies, etc."

Rock is constantly on the attack, exposing the vices and follies we African-Americans all know we have. It was Rock who pointed out that in nearly every black neighborhood in every large American city there is a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. King stood for nonviolence, Rock reminds his audiences, yet there is an appalling amount of violence on nearly every Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the country.

He chides those idiotic blacks who ran screaming into the streets shouting "We won! We won!" after O. J. Simpson was acquitted in his criminal trial in 1995.

"What did we win?" Rock asked. "I've checked my mailbox every day. I haven't got my O. J. prize yet."

In a brilliant routine highlighting the differences between African-Americans who conduct themselves properly -- Rock calls them "blacks" -- and African-Americans who don't -- "niggers," according to the comedian -- Rock started his routine by asking "Where do I sign up to join the Ku Klux Klan?" He was using hyperbole to illustrate just how dreadful the conduct of some blacks has become.

"Hyperbole: exaggeration for effect and not to be taken literally."

One writer to Vanity Fair didn't bother to look up hyperbole. He charged that "Rock hates niggers so much he wants to join the Klan." The writer ended his letter on the ominous note that comedian Bill Cosby was trying to "straighten Rock out."

That's a truly frightening thought. Mr. "All White America Is Racist" is going to straighten Rock out. (Cosby is on record as agreeing with an article by his wife, Camille Cosby, in the July 8 USA Today charging that white America taught her son's killer to hate blacks.) There are a couple of things wrong with that.

First, Rock is a lot funnier than Cosby, whose funniest days are behind him. Even at his funniest, Cosby wasn't nearly as cutting-edge or brilliant as Rock. Under a Cosby tutelage, we would get a watered-down, unoffensive and unfunny Rock.

Second, nobody tried to "straighten Cosby out." Cosby, too, had his critics in his younger days. In the mid-1960s, Cosby co-starred in the television series "I Spy" with white actor Robert Culp. Black militant H. Rap Brown, needing something to occupy his time between those moments when he wasn't urging blacks to insurrection, rioting, looting and arson, suggested that the show was an extension of "The Lone Ranger," implying that Cosby played some kind of Tonto character.

Cosby ignored the intended slight and kept on playing American agent Kelly Scott, to the delight of his legion of fans. In his early days, Bill Cosby was free to be Bill Cosby and brought us some fine comedy and acting in the process.

He would do well to let Chris Rock be Chris Rock. In fact, we all should.

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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