Whenever someone lays the "I find that joke offensive" line on me, I always silently wonder: Do you really? Or do you just want people to know that you do? Nowhere does this happen more often than in comedy clubs, and it's no surprise that comedians love to find and slap those buttons like lab monkeys because it ultimately forces people to stop and question their social politics. Should I be laughing at this? Is my laughter an endorsement of the comedian's joke? Should cross my arms in silent protest?
This quandary was on my mind last Thursday when I chose the recently deceased Lou Reed as my Halloween costume. Other than the fake bloody liver hanging from my T-shirt, the costume was mostly a lazy attempt at wearing my usual tight-jeans and leather-jacket uniform, but I was also curious to find out if hipsters could experience outrage when their herowas irreverently parodied "too soon" after his death.
It's not integral to my argument, but I feel I should mention that I am a very, very big fan of Lou Reed. I deliberately use the present tense with because I don't feel that I lost Lou Reed as a hero when he succumbed to liver failure last week; his death was only mildly interesting to me, because I didn't know him personally. I've experienced the earth-shattering devastation of losing a close friend to an early and tragic death, but I'd only experienced Reed through his music -- and his music wasn't going anywhere.
In the documentary Gonzo, Hunter Thompson's bereaved wife Anita says, "Imagine in a twisted universe where when Hunter died he took all of his writing with him." In the face of such a tragedy -- in the case of Thompson's writings lost, too, or Reed's music -- you would see me in a state of severe mourning, because there would be real loss there. But to pretend I'm experiencing grief alongside those who actually knew and loved Lou Reed would be one of the most offensive things imaginable.
I didn't always feel this way. Faced with the breaking news of Joe Strummer's death on NPR in 2002, twenty-year-old Josiah drove out to a cornfield and (inexplicably) set an acoustic guitar on fire. When Johnny Cash died a year later, I locked myself in the bathroom for half a day, crying hysterically as I dyed my hair black and listened to "Give My Love to Rose" over and over.
If I'd been honest with myself then, I would have admitted that my grief was totally spurious, and my exhibitions were mostly for the sake of others. I wanted them to know what a big fan I was, that my passion for The Clash and a baritone-singing amphetamine enthusiast was more pure than theirs. It was a childish attempt at proving that I was more in touch with rock mythology than anyone else. And today I often suspect that something similar is going on when someone is offended by a joke told "too soon."
True, sometimes people are genuinely offended. Last summer I attended Elliot Woolsey's now-defunct open mic at Barricuda's, and a comic I won't name made a jab at certain costumed attendees at the Aurora Theater shooting. "There were all these people dressed as Batman, and when an actual villain showed up, they all ran away; and I was like 'that was your big chance!'" You can imagine how well this went over. I actually laughed at the joke -- because I'm a sucker for the sociological tension of a "too soon" punchline -- but I would understand if there was someone in the audience who was personally affected by that tragedy, and found that joke to be offensive. That wouldn't have been a case of moral posturing, but a real emotional reaction to something that had directly impacted them.
But when I donned my Lou Reed costume last week, there was a 99 percent certainty that I wouldn't encounter anyone who had a personal relationship with the songwriter and had experienced the loss of a close friend, lover or family member with his passing.
The idea was nothing new. Dennis Miller once attended a Halloween party as Superman in a wheelchair shortly after Christopher Reeve's crippling accident (and was subsequently punched in the gut by a stranger for it). Following the death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, Bill Maher costumed himself in the likeness of the Australian khaki-enthusiast, replete with a fake stingray plunged into his chest. Supposedly this was done as an animal-rights protest, but my assumption is that Maher, like most comedians, enjoy pulling back the curtain and directly challenging the populace to defend their outrage.
Real Time - Steve Irwin Costumeby VideoJihad
Unlike these famous assholes, I didn't offend anybody at the two Halloween parties I attended with my Lou Reed costume. Admittedly, it was a costume that required explanation -- most people I encountered were unaware that Lou Reed died of liver failure, so even with the "Gin liver" message I inked on my shirt, the bloody black appendage hanging from my shirt just confused everyone.
With that disappointment, the experiment shifted from confronting the world with their own manufactured outrage to confronting my own motives in choosing the costume. Why was I doing this? Was I arbitrarily seeking out controversy for controversy's sake? Was my childish attempt at stirring the pot no different than the shallow antics of Anthony Jeselnik? Whenever I'd explain the costume to someone and they gave me a "Ha! that's pretty cool!," there was a twisted irony in my internal indignation of "No! Don't you see? This is offensive!"
Coming home and wiping the Transformer-era makeup off my face, I had to swallow the bitter conclusion that I was no better than the reactionary liberals I'd chastised for their spurious claims of outrage. While I still think that many of them are just posturing when they claim offense at a joke or costume that has nothing to do with them, I am guilty of the same thing. Similar to my fabricated grief over Strummer and Cash a decade earlier, in turning my Halloween costume into a post-modern sociology experiment, there was an attempt to announce to the world that I was more socially evolved than any of them -- an assertion that proved false when no one gave a shit.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.