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Funny Thing About These Jokes...
September 17, 2011  | By Ed Bark

Some things just shouldn't be joked about, particularly on network TV sitcoms seen by millions.

Humor is subjective, of course. And political correctness can be insidious when taken too far, as it often is.

But among the hundreds of one-liners in this fall's new crop of comedies, I'm still wondering about two of them. From this perspective, both easily could be dropped without compromising the "integrity" or varnishing the "edge" off their respective carriers -- CBS's 2 Broke Girls and ABC's Last Man Standing. So I asked about them during mass interview sessions for these shows at the recent Television Critics Association press tour.


In the pilot for 2 Broke Girls, a greasy spoon cashier played by charter Saturday Night Live cast member Garrett Morris jokes that a new waitress is "workin' harder than Stephen Hawking trying to put on a pair of cufflinks."

And in the opener for Last Man Standing, Tim Allen decides against dropping off his little grandson, Boyd, at what he later terms a "hippie hippie rainbow" learning center. He then tells his single-parent oldest daughter, "I just don't think your kid should go to that school. You know how that ends up. Boyd dancin' on a float."

Hawking, the eminent physicist and cosmologist, is now almost completely paralyzed after being diagnosed as a young man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. And the clear implication of Allen's joke is that Boyd might end up gay if he spends too much time in an "unmanly" environment.

Hawking's achievements are both incredible and inspirational. As his disease progresses, is such a ham-fisted joke at his expense really necessary?

And whether he's "in character" or not, should Allen be throwing out a cheap gay joke in times when bullying and hate crimes are still very much in the news?


Allen seemed surprised when I asked whether he was going to leave that joke in there. But to his credit, he took the question seriously.

"Hmm, here's some thin ice right here," he began. "I think it's a funny joke, and I don't think the intent was to offend anybody. So I believe the network will probably leave it in there, but I don't know . . . political sensibilities being what they are."

Allen also didn't try to pretend that the joke wasn't aimed at a particular target. "I don't think we can safely hide behind 'What are you talking about?' " he said. "A lot of people dance on floats. Haven't you seen the Macy's parade? Now obviously if you go to Santa Monica Boulevard, it's a different kind of float. But it [the joke] wasn't meant to be offensive. It was meant to be a reflection on this guy's limited perspective."

At the 2 Broke Girls session, my question about the Hawking joke was handled by the show's co-executive producer, Michael Patrick King. He's openly gay and earned fame and fortune as the principal showrunner for HBO's Sex and the City.


"Yeah, I think it's funny. I'm sorry," he said when asked if it will stay in. "The show will have an edge. And from joke to joke, you will either think it's funny or not. Our job is to make people laugh and be surprised. So if you cannot like that joke [about Hawking], I understand why. But we will always reach for comedy."

Both jokes are a reach, all right. And they should hit the cutting room floor because there's really no defensible reason for either of them.

At least that's how I feel about it. But maybe that's just me. How about you?

Read more by Ed Bark at unclebarky.com



Mark Lakin said:

I think the Stephen Hawking joke is low. The thought of Stephen Hawking suffering is not funny to me. Unless the characters are supposed to be portrayed as crass and unlikable (like the characters in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), then I agree with your ultimate conclusion.

The Tim Allen joke, however, doesn't seem that bad to me, at least considering Allen's response. People suggested that Arrested Development was "politically incorrect," but the characters were supposed to be idiots. The guys on Sons of Anarchy frequently use racial epithets, but they are gun runners and thugs, not role models.

There are plenty of real people in this world who would make a serious comment along the lines of what Allen says here. I think it's a good thing that we're supposed to see that as out of touch with common decency. That is to say, I could see a show using that joke effectively to prove a point. Not having seen the show, I don't know if this is the case here.

Comment posted on September 18, 2011 7:58 PM

Stewart said:

Ultimately, I think that relying on that sort of gay joke puts Mr. Allen in danger of appearing to be the worst thing that one can appear to be on commercial television: old.

Comment posted on September 19, 2011 3:14 PM

Brian Phillips said:

I am glad that we live in a world in which such jokes do not go unnoticed.

Having said that, ultimately it should come down to character and if is it funny. Would that character say that, or are we merely stretching the boundaries of taste for a good line?

If Tim Allen is playing a fellow with values that are not gay-friendly, then it is within character. Garrett Morris' character mentioning Stephen Hawking is insensitive AND a reach, however, this is an impression gleaned from one episode.

In "Two and a Half Men" Charlie accused someone as having the "mental stability of a rat in a burning Meth lab". Given the character's penchant for substance abuse, this is a funny line and very much in character. Hawking is famous, to be sure, but have we seen any inkling that Morris' character is an avid reader or PBS watcher?

Freedom is expensive; the ability to say quite a lot should also come with responsibility. Yes, one can go overboard with censorship, but one must be aware of what Garry Trudeau called "Neutron Bomb" comedy, in which nothing of value is left standing.

Comment posted on September 29, 2011 10:42 AM
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