If you happened to be watching CNN the night of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, you saw the usually insightful Ben Stein blasting the event for utilizing too much cruel comedy. It was an observation that took everybody on the CNN panel and perhaps viewers at home aback considering we’re so used to cruel comedy nowadays that we all except. Especially in the roast type of setting, it’s near protocol. But then, when placed in the context of the Presidency, was Ben Stein actually right in his assessment?
Since the White House Correspondents’ Dinner became a Hollywood affair, I’ve always deemed it the equivalent to a politico Friar’s Club roast. Anyone who’s ever attended a roast or watched one on TV knows that insults are going to be the name of the game. The Friars Club has always been known for going off the chain in being as cruel and dirty as humanly possible. Now Comedy Central shows celebrity roasts nearly unedited, despite more network bleeps than you hear in the average broadcast.
At the very least, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner doesn’t partake in language or too many sexual innuendos. Then again, perhaps it’s going to start going there after the stale and outdated Bill Clinton cigar joke from Joel McHale this year. In some cases, Ben Stein could be right that some of the jokes are made cruel by just going for a jugular that’s already been bitten years ago and only makes you wince more.
Yes, the Correspondents’ Dinner is becoming a strange media event that may only get more surreal down the road as future Presidents mock things that usually get a very straight face. But what’s the real state of cruel humor here in the United States? Over in Britain where comedy truly originated, there’s been more widespread criticism of cruel comedy there, even if some comedians there seemed to originate here in the states.
Searching for the Intent Behind Cruel Comedy
British media has taken on the subject of cruel comedy a few times, and every report always pins Ricky Gervais as the one who’s made cruel comedy a mainstream undertaking. His hosting of the Golden Globes sent so much shockwaves and divided camps that he ultimately wasn’t invited back. Regardless, he’s still lauded by many for bringing honesty to comedy that it arguably was needed at a show with wealthy celebrities. That hasn’t stopped the criticism of cruel comedy permeating in U.K. TV, including criticism from Prince Charles a few years ago about the degradation of comedy from the old British tradition.
Those more versed in comedy in Britain say it’s unfounded that comedy should be criticized for being cruel since it’s always had those elements. Intent is where comedians say they draw the line, as in using cruel comedy about a story that’s overly serious. Then again, you could already see that line crossing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner various times with jokes related to very serious stories. Everything from unemployed people writing President Obama to jabs at the war in Iraq were uttered by the President himself that must have had some feeling a little uncomfortable.
Based on audience reaction at each Correspondents’ Dinner, it’s always half sitting stoically and other doubled over with laughter. The more cruel the comedy gets, the more it gets that way, proving that there must be a contingent against it all, yet don’t have the honesty of a Ben Stein. More warmhearted comedy may be going by the wayside, while comedic cruelty may become the new form of warm-heartedness.
As backwards as that sounds, there was a time when insults in roasts were considered the highest form of praise. Just as Mad Magazine burned celebrities with satire for years, being the recipient of cruel comedy can sometimes be a form you’ve made it. Each ensuing year, you can see a division of audience members at the Correspondents’ Dinners either sitting stoically or doubling over with laughter. It shows there may be more in America secretly against cruel comedy without the brazen honesty Ben Stein has.
At one time, though, being the victim of cruel comedy at a roast was considered the ultimate pat on the back. Warmhearted comedy may not be the norm at any public event now, though the perspective may have to change. We have to remember nearly every cruel comedy routine always ends with a reminder that it was all done with warmhearted intent.