No kidding?

Imus' way with words not up to the Carlin standard

On edgy commentary

June 25, 2008|By RICK MAESE

The original plan was to begin with a freestyle rap -- a la Shaquille O'Neal -- but that didn't last half a stanza. (I knew of only one word that rhymed with Schmuck.) So Plan B called for some farce, a little sarcasm that might poke, prod and maybe even offend. A high-brow cocktail for the low-minded.

But it's not that easy. I couldn't pull it off. In fact, who can anymore?

What a great week to discuss the state of discourse in our sports world. The cuff links and tiepins that govern social graces are breathing a bit easier with the passing of the most tenacious social critic my DVR has ever known.

George Carlin's world was one without yield signs. You catch his recent HBO special? "I'd like to begin by saying [forget] Lance Armstrong," Carlin barked.

Today, the tightrope dividing offensive and funny has never been thinner, and I'm not sure many can keep their balance anymore.

Behind a microphone in New York, Shaq railed against Kobe Bryant. Accused him of busting up his marriage, said Kobe couldn't win without him and invited his former teammate to, um, "taste" the Big Diesel's big backside.

And I didn't really have a problem with it. Found it amusing, in fact.

Elsewhere in New York, behind another microphone, Don Imus discussed the woes of Adam "Pacman" Jones. He learned Jones has had repeated run-ins with the law and inquired about Jones' race. African-American, he was told. "Well, there you go," he responded.

And I had a problem. A big problem. And anyone who believes that some semblance of virtue somehow survived into the 21st century should take offense, too.

We don't need Al Sharpton on the case to know that something is amiss here. Imus has always struck me as engaging and intelligent but predisposed to toeing the line of good sensibility. He's the loud uncle at the wedding reception who offends the bride, arm-wrestles the priest and flirts with an ice sculpture shaped like a curvy swan.

Imus' problem isn't that he's ignorant or that he's racist. He simply has a foot fetish -- he can't help sticking his in his mouth.

Why could Carlin blaspheme, denounce, instigate, curse and accuse with such aplomb, yet Shaq gets derided by basketball analysts and Imus by everyone else?

Carlin offended more people than all of Imus' listeners and Shaq's teammates combined. No topic and no institution was sacred. He didn't get away with it simply because he was a comedian or because his audience had consumed at least two drinks before he took the stage. Carlin could spout off words that make church flowers wilt because, as a social critic, he was clear in his intentions, he always had a bigger message, and he knew how to convey that bigger message.

You don't need to see Shaq's size-23 sneakers to realize that he's walking through life in clown shoes. He has a disarming grin, jokes with everyone and has carefully crafted the happy-go-lucky image of a big, friendly lug. Even when his infidelity was publicized or he mocked the Chinese, he seemed to get a free pass.

Shaq's actions are viewed in context, his own past letting us know how to interpret his actions, his rap against Kobe. Similarly, Imus' past serves as our translator. It's not the Sharptons of the world who tell us what to think; it's his own record of insensitivity and idiocy. So pardon me if I listen to his excuse and view it as just that -- an excuse.

Imus said he was making a "sarcastic point" about Jones. "What people should be outraged about is they arrest blacks for no reason," he said. "There's no reason to arrest this kid six times."

That's right, Imus is now a great defender of embattled blacks.

What separates Imus from Shaq and from Carlin, too, is that the talk jock hasn't been funny in a long time. His words are mean, not insightful.

Shaq can clown on Kobe because he understands what Carlin understood: It's OK to be a little mean, as long as you are precise enough with your language that you're still funny. Shaq has been selfish, and he has been childish, but has he ever been truly mean-spirited?

Imus gets his jollies by amusing himself, not necessarily others. And he has often done that by belittling others.

If you've heard the audio of Imus' latest Pacman comments, you can't rule out the possibility that sarcasm trumped his sincerity. But now we're to believe that his explanation is sincere? I'm not sure his past has earned him the benefit of doubt. Like Pacman, Imus is a repeat offender.

You know who would find this funny? Carlin. If he believed in a place like heaven -- and onstage he usually didn't -- he'd be looking down and having a nice laugh.

"[Forget] Imus," he'd say. "And you know what, [forget] Shaq, too."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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