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The Lastman in Comedy

by Miles Mathis


Today’s headlines included Michael Richards’ apology for using the word “nigger” in a comedy act.    A few months ago the press piled on Mel Gibson for getting drunk and saying stupid things about Jews.   In between, we saw John Kerry dismissed from any future political hope because he told a joke with an unclear punchline. 


I find all of these things very offensive, but not for the reason everyone else appears to.  For me they are clear signs of the Lastman.  The Lastman is a concept of Friedrich Nietzsche.  One of my early papers first published at Art Renewal was about the Lastman and how his arrival was being announced in the field of art.  In this paper I will go beyond art, to show how the Lastman is solidifying his presence in the world at large. 


The Lastman is a period in the evolution of the human species.  The Lastman is an intellectual and moral reversion, a dumbing down, a conscious return to infantilism.  It is the descent into idiocy.  Nietzsche believed that the Lastman would survive for a limited time, ultimately trumped by the Overman.  The Overman would build a bridge over the small-minded Lastman, taking us into a broader, deeper, more complex future. 


I am not here to discuss or analyze Nietzsche or any of his theories, but his term is useful to me here since it is so vivid and powerful.  He told us that the Lastman would be like a cow, blinking contently in the sun.  A stupid beast, wholly controlled by the environment and the farmer.


Obviously, we have not achieved this final level of contentedness and ignorance, but the pathways have been set to take us there quite quickly.  One of these pathways is beaten by those who would outlaw certain words.  Another pathway is beaten by those who would criminalize getting mad, saying stupid things, making mistakes, being human.  The samples above beat both these pathways, and these pathways are now broad and clear.


Let us start with Michael Richards.  Richards is famous for playing Kramer on Seinfeld.  He has now returned to stand-up.  As I said, he recently called some black hecklers “niggers” and the uproar has been gigantic.  He appeared on David Letterman, looking like a deathrow inmate, apologizing profusely.  He hired a foremost “crisis expert” to help him apologize to the black community.  Jesse Jackson has gotten involved.  


Jackson has claimed publicly that, "We have to evaluate the use of the n-word and categorize it as hate speech, no matter who uses it."  That is, we have a famous black man who cannot use the word himself, even when responding to a story about the word.   In Jackson’s sentence, “nigger” would not be directed at anyone, it would just be a word used as a word.  But Jackson can still not justify putting it in print.


I have seen the Richards incident in question and I think this reaction is absurd.  To begin with, I would like to remind my readers of a quote from Kindergarten.  Not Kierkegaard, Kindergarten.  Since everyone is acting like they are five years old, this is appropriate.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”


Have we matured beyond that quote?  Have we come to realize, as towering intellectuals and politically savvy operatives and scientifically advanced beings, that words can in fact break our bones?   Not at all.  Richards’ little fight with his hecklers was on precisely the same level as a playground shouting match, and it meant no more and no less.  Little Bobby and Charlie on the playground don’t hire crisis experts and feel the need to apologize on David Letterman and go into a permanent career-ending funk.  They just show up at school the next day and shrug it off.  Yes, it was stupid.  Yes, it was a waste of time.  Yes, they could have done better.  But so what?  It was just a couple of temporarily angry people talking loudly.


There is some belief that Richards’ name calling was worse than the name calling on the other side, though I am not sure why.   When you are fighting you look for words that will hurt.  That is what fighting is.  In the exchange on tape, the hecklers say some very mean things, things that would hurt more than the generalized and fairly meaningless “nigger” that Richards threw back at them.  “Nigger” is not a powerful slur, since it basically means, “you’re black!”  So what.   That is not even a slur, or it is a slur on the level of “whitey.”  Both are meaningless, and rely on the receiver for any real content.  If someone calls me whitey, I have trouble attaching much importance to it.  Black people could choose to feel the same way.  Of course, Richards may intend, and the hecklers may have felt, that the content was more along the lines of, “my ancestors were free men and your ancestors were slaves, therefore I am better than you,” but that is a gross generalization, too.  These hecklers could be from Africa, Europe, etc., or Richards’ ancestry could include slaves.  In fact, it probably does.  If you go back far enough, everyone’s ancestors were enslaved at one time or another.  Again, so what?  


The problem with Richards’ slur is not that it was cutting, but that it was childish.   The real problem has to do with the fact that he got beat.  These hecklers were attacking him with specific things, calling him a has-been, a one-hit wonder, things that must have hurt, and did hurt.  All he could come up with is a generalized playground slur on the level of five year olds.   He should apologize, but not for using a forbidden word.  He should apologize for claiming to be a clever man, for getting paid for being quick on his feet, and then standing up there and not being able to cut down a couple of drunks.


It was not so long ago that comedians of all colors got up on the stage and felt free to say pretty much whatever they wanted.  If they bombed, then it was left at that.  If they weren’t able to justify the profanity and borderline offense by wrapping it in laughs, then they didn’t get hired next time.  I am thinking of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and George Carlin, especially.  Can you imagine Pryor or Murphy agreeing with Jesse Jackson that the word “nigger” should be outlawed?  


George Carlin is a white guy who still gets away with saying “nigger,” and it is because he is funny.  He is able to include it without offense, as a way of asserting freedom.  He says many potentially offensive things, steps over the line, pushes the boundary, but the audience never turns on him.  Why?  Because he is a great comedian.  The audience doesn’t feel qualified to turn on him.  They may get home and say, “Wow, that was over the line, I’m not sure I agree with that.”  But in most cases they pay their $30 and go back the next time Carlin is in town.   They recognize that George Carlin is a human being with whom they are going to disagree on some things.  They aren’t going to laugh at every single thing.  Some things may shock them.  But they go on with their lives.  They don’t request a groveling public apology in front of the censors, a scarlet N, 40 days of hairshirts and paternosters, and a permanent fall from TV grace.  


Ben Tripp is another comedian who gets away with using the word "nigger." Tripp writes for the lefty mag Counterpunch, and there has been no uproar there over the word, that I know of. In Tripp's case, this is because his politics is well known (he is clearly not a racist), because he is very funny, and because he uses the word to make anti-racist points. His audience accepts the word as a word and moves on.


But Richards’ audience was not able to do that, to go on with it.  Was it his fault?  Undoubtedly.  Was it also their fault?  Undoubtedly.   This is an audience that has been schooled by Jesse Jackson and all the absurd politics of the day.  Now, I caucused for Jackson when I was in college.  But like almost everyone else, Jackson has since nose-dived into some strange Nunnery morality, where people can’t get mad, can’t make mistakes, can’t use certain words, blahblahblah.  Categorizing the word “nigger” as hate speech is equivalent to outlawing the word, and that precedent is much more dangerous to a free country than any silly war of words between drunk people.  Outlawing words is Orwellian, whether it is done by the far right or the far left.  There is simply no moral justification for outlawing words. 


In pretty much the same category, we have Mel Gibson.  Fifty years ago, people would have responded to Mel Gibson in a completely different way.  Some readers will answer that this is because we were all tolerant of racism back then, but I don’t think this is true.  There were a lot of racists then and there are a lot now.  But the public reaction doesn’t have much to do with racism.  It has to do with a different sort of intolerance, an intolerance for people making mistakes, acting like idiots, saying ridiculous things, and getting caught at it.  The rational reaction is to say, “Mel is an intemperate person who I disagree with on certain issues.  He needs to hire a driver before he kills someone or himself with drunken driving.”  But people can’t stay on target.  The DWI issue, which is the one that breaks people’s bones, has been swamped by the speech issue.  Most people think it is more important that Mel likes to scream obscenities at people when he gets drunk.  It is very important to get him in line on words and ideas.  It is not important to keep him from killing people with his car, but it is very important that he like Jews. 


Why?  There are a lot of people who don’t like me, but I don’t spend any time asking them to apologize for it.  If people want to hate me or disagree with me, that is their business.  They shouldn’t have to apologize for feeling what they feel, even if it is wrong.  Mel has every right to get drunk and act like an ass.  Everyone I know gets drunk and/or acts like an ass sometimes.  That’s what people do.  They get angry, they get depressed, they confused, and so on.  So what?  Does that mean these people can’t do their jobs, can’t raise families, can’t make movies, can’t paint pictures, can’t vote?  How Mel Gibson deals with his anger or his confusion is his own business, as long as he doesn’t drive drunk, and I would never think to judge his movies based on his drunken tirades.  A lot of your heroes, whoever they were, went on drunken tirades, or the equivalent, and if you plan to dismiss everyone who disagrees with you or who acts like an ass occasionally, you will be left with no one.  Even Jesus had his storms in the marketplace, even Gandhi made his mistakes. 


This constant apologizing and demand for apology is a sign of something much deeper than political correctness.   It is a sign of infantilism.  It is a sign of the Lastman.   It is a sign of a people who cannot deal with emotion, with anger, with sadness, with loud words, with disagreement, with opposition.  We want to outlaw hate and hate speech, which means we want to flatten out the emotional ride of life.  We want to knock out all highs and lows.  After we outlaw hatred, perhaps we can outlaw love, since love is also a passion that is often difficult to control.   It is scary, it leads to confrontation and distress, to name calling, to wild imaginings and expectations.  It often leads to pain.  So outlaw it.


You may think I am drawing wild parallels, but contemporary society is moving in this direction as well.  “Love speech” is also exponentially more tepid than it used to be.  And I am not just talking about compared the Troubadours.  No, listen to Frank Sinatra, especially the old stuff (from before the 60’s) and you will see the difference.   Or Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett.  Or, in the 60’s, think of Johnny Mathis.  You don’t even have to go back that far.  Go back to the 70’s.  Love speech in the music and movies was completely different than it is now.   Every decade there is more talk of sex and less talk of love.  Even where romance remains, it has been pinched and simplified, its richness and extravagance excised, its idealism jettisoned, its caprice informed, its exaggeration tamed. 


All this control is in service of the Lastman.   The farmer is turning his cow into a hornless beast, a blinking, slow-moving grassy-brained creature only good for milking or sending to the grinder. 


But before we wrap this up, let us look at my third example, the poor beast John Kerry.  Kerry was talking about education and military service, and meant to imply that people who don’t know anything about history end up in stupid wars like the Iraq War.   This “joke” was aimed at Bush, obviously.  But Kerry left a word out of the punchline, which made it look like he was talking about the soldiers in Iraq, not Bush. 


Even if Kerry had been talking about the soldiers, his point should have been well taken, since the point applies equally to them.   In general, the most educated people don’t end up on the front lines of wars, and many of the soldiers in Iraq don’t appear to know much about history.  We know that from the interviews.   Some soldiers are no doubt smart people who do know history, but that is not the point.   Kerry’s statement, even read incorrectly, is a generalization, and as a generalization, it is true.  Statistically, Kerry would have been correct if he had said what Karl Rove had wished he had said. 


And that is where we hit the central issue.  Kerry’s blown punchline was spun by Rove, and Kerry found a way to lose again.  Initially, Kerry refused to apologize and attacked Bush and Rove directly.  For a shining moment we saw Kerry as a real man.  Unfortunately, that shining moment soon paled, and Kerry knelt before Rove and did his bidding.  This allowed Rove to double his bet: Kerry was now not only admitting to an infraction (otherwise, why apologize) he was also flip-flopping once more.   After refusing to apologize on Monday, he apologized on Tuesday.  


A couple of weeks later, after the midterm elections, the media was asking if Kerry could outlive the blown joke. 


Kerry had left one word out of a sentence, had been spun into a meaning he didn’t intend, and now his career was in jeopardy.  How could this happen?  How could a society accept the proposal that a miffed sentence was a career-ending gaffe?   How could a media propose it?   How could a media that had failed to investigate wholesale failures of governance from both parties justify focusing attention on trivia? 


Even more to the point, how could the readers of the “news” continue to read it?  How could they not permanently cancel all their subscriptions to every magazine and newspapers and online agency?  How could they stand there in the field, bitten by flies, chomping on grass and swishing their tails, and not get the tiniest bit bored or suspicious?


Because they are Lastmen.  A lifetime of head vises has convinced them that it is unforgivable to get mad, to feel strong emotion, to make mistakes, to love, to hate, to get loud, to make demands, to fight, to be intemperate for any reason, to use certain words, to change their minds, to be different, to take risks.  Instead, they stand there and get milked.  They put “question authority” bumper stickers on the car, and then drive under surveillance cameras at every intersection, allow their dictionaries to be censored, their mail to be opened, their phones tapped, and their cars searched.  They blink contentedly as the Constitution is erased word by word, the banks steal from them, and the oil companies price-fix them into poverty.   They watch their fellows being tasered and do nothing.  They watch their neighbors being tortured and killed and they do nothing.  One can only suppose that they will clip-clop down the chute when it comes their time, and be amazed that security is not at the end of it.

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