In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, we’ve witnessed the entertainment industry’s immense capacity for silence in the name of sensitivity. Between premieres and red carpets canceled as a measure of respect, violent trailers altered or removed, disclaimers placed before wildly violent content, some TV episodes and even series removed altogether, and even songs being removed from radio waves, Hollywood is on its toes to make sure its audiences aren’t offended by content. And in most of those cases, those that involve brutal and extreme violence, the removal or warning is practically a no-brainer. But in some cases, when the intent is clearly something other than violence — one instance includes the partial banning of Ke$ha’s “Die Young” despite the fact that song is about partying and has nothing to do with violence of any kind — the line starts to blur between content that should be banned and content that is being targeted simply because we, as a nation, are so very sensitive at this moment in time. The latest subject in question is a strange one: a scene from Judd Apatow’s new comedy This Is 40.
The scene brought into question by a few publications involves Pete’s (Paul Rudd) dad Larry (Albert Brooks) making a joke about being too poor to support his three children. As such, he and his kids play a “murder game,” to decrease the family’s expenses. But unlike the violent scenes in trailers like that of Jack Reacher, which had a sniper scene removed from it out of sensitivity, and that of Dead Man Down, which was temporarily removed from the internet due to its violent nature, this joke doesn’t really seem to fit the bill. And so far, Universal has shown no signs of plans to remove the joke from the film.
Brooks’ scene sounds somewhat awful when recited out of context and with mere words, rather than as a scene within the film. When Pete can’t offer the financial help Larry seeks, Larry makes a joke that maybe if he killed one of the kids, he could afford to support his family. As he’s having a conversation with Pete, he sprays his kids in the yard with a hose, and jokingly asks the kids to “line up for murder.” The kids, clearly wanting to be sprayed with water on a hot Los Angeles day, play along asking their father to “shoot” them with water. They all fall down giggling, giddy at the chance to get to play water games in the backyard. It’s not hard to spell out why some people might make an upsetting connection between this text description and the events in Connecticut last week. But should we make that connection?
In response to criticism of the scene, Apatow tells TMZ, the joke “is spoken by a sarcastic father kidding with his children. In light of recent events, I understand if some people might make an unfortunate association or put it in a context in which it was not intended.” And that’s exactly what the scene is: a father being sarcastic. There was no malicious intent in writing and shooting the scene — it was simply meant to be a joke. Seeing the scene a week before the tragedy in Newtown, it was easy to be unfazed. It has simply delivered the comedy writing standby: hyperbole for comedic effect. But with the knowledge of tragedy, does the joke somehow change? Does a harmless rib suddenly become harmful even when its intent was anything but? It’s only after something terrible happens that we decide a bit of comedy is no longer funny, that it’s “too soon” to joke. But if the scene was offensive and unfunny, we should also have taken offense to countless other taboo jokes in film and television, before we were slapped in the face by tragedy.
If Brooks’ scene from This Is 40 is to raise a question, it’s not, for once, the “too soon?” question. Instead, perhaps we should be asking whether we’ve become too desensitized to watching violence in comedy. But that leads to a larger question: Should anything change, or is offensive material essential to the genre? After all, comedy, in all its forms, almost always involves offending someone. That’s not to say comedians have carte blanche to be as offensive as they like – just look at the Daniel Tosh rape joke heard ‘round the Internet. But we’ve become accustomed to accepting something potentially offensive as long as it makes us laugh.
In his 2011 comedy special, John Cleese Live! The Alimony Tour, respected British comedian John Cleese tries to explain why it is that offensive comedy so often lines up with some of the funniest comedy: When you get into taboo areas, that is areas like dead bodies or limbs coming off or anything sexual, there’s always a bit of anxiety because it is taboo, you see. But for some people, just a few, there’s a lot of anxiety. So when the subject is raised, they sort of freeze up and they feel very uncomfortable and they hate it and they hate the fact that people around them are laughing so much and they say, “I’ve been offended.” However, most people just have a little bit of anxiety, so what happens is that if you make them laugh, you get an even bigger laugh than you do normally, because you get the normal laugh and then you get the extra energy that comes from that little bit of anxiety being liberated. You get huge laughs when you deal with taboo subjects and that’s one reason why my humor has a pretty black quality to it some of the time.Similarly, in the wake of the Tosh rape joke controversy, comedian’s comedian Louis C.K. said during an interview on The Daily Show that while he didn’t support Tosh’s jab, “For me, any joke about anything bad is great, that’s how I feel.” He went on to emphasize that he’d educated himself on what rape means to women and how it “polices their lives,” concluding that “I can still enjoy a good rape joke” – a line greeted with the Daily Show audience’s tentative, yet bombastic, laughter, similar to the outburst Cleese describes. Still, as Cleese says, some people can’t enjoy a taboo joke. They’re not for everyone. And that’s both the beauty and the bane of comedy: It’s absolutely subjective.
In Apatow’s films alone, there are innumerable pegs for potential offense, most of which went onto the big screen unscathed by any complaint. In Knocked Up – the film that inspired This Is 40 – Seth Rogen’s character Ben reacts with a ridiculously violent retort in a moment of parental dress similar to Brooks’, and I can still recall how hard the audience in the Southern California theater where I saw the flick laughed at Ben’s papa bear bravado. When Alison’s (Katherine Heigl) doctor is not available to bring their child into the world as Alison goes into labor, Papa Ben springs into verbal action while leaving a voicemail for the missing doc: Hey, Doc Howard. Ben Stone calling. Guess what the f**k’s up? Allison is going into labor, and you are not f**king here. You know where you’re at? You’re at a f**king Bar Mitzvah in San Francisco, you motherf**king piece of s**t. And you know what I’m gonna have to do now? I’m going have to kill you. I’m gonna pop a f**king cap in your ass. You’re dead. You’re Tupac. You are f**king Biggie, you piece of s**t. I hope you f**king die, or drop the chair and kill that f**king kid… I hope your plane crashes. Peace, f**ker!That quote, meant to emphasize just how dedicated the former slacker Ben is to making his girlfriend and their child’s life as perfect as it can possibly be when the man they trusted leaves them high and dry (or with a strange new doctor they don’t trust with the birth of their child) runs the gamut of offensive material. It enters territories from gang violence, to the death of an innocent kid at the Bar Mitzvah, to the horror of a plane crash – Ben invokes it all, and yet this line was read as funny, and even touching, within the context of the film.
And while, subjectively, those of us still reeling from the tragic events in Newtown may take great offense to the The Is 40 joke. Its intent isn’t malicious, nor was it particularly violent when shown in context. That’s not to say that any feelings of offense derived from the scene are invalid or inappropriate, but rather that comedic writers often cross lines, and, in doing so, find pockets of hilarity. That’s how the art of comedy works. But unlike scenes in which a gunman or gunmen with angry, violent intent take innocent lives – like the opening sniper scene cut from the Jack Reacher trailer or even the Foster the People song pulled from the radio that includes lyrics like “All the other kids with their pumped up kicks/Better run, better run, faster than my bullet” – the bit in This Is 40 could occur at any time other than in the face of this tragedy, and be passed off by most viewers as a strange, quirky couple of lines making use of comedic exaggeration.
But even with that context, it’s up to viewers to decide whether or not this joke is deeply disturbing or simply a quip with an unfortunate possible connection. Yes, the timing is bad, but does that mean the joke is too?
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[Photo Credit: Universal Pictures]