"As chairman of the welcoming committee, it’s a pleasure to present a laurel and hardy handshake to our new… nigger."
I’ve watched Blazing Saddles several times with an audience and many times with friends, and the above line – uttered by white townsperson Howard Johnson (John Hillerman) in shocked response to the arrival of Rock Ridge’s new, quite black sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little) – has never failed to elicit a huge laugh. Perfectly phrased by Mel Brooks and his team of writers (including Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger) and flawlessly delivered by Hillerman, it’s one of many gags in the Western-spoofing classic that depends on the shock value of that word for its effectiveness. That the film gets away with repeatedly invoking the most loaded epithet in the American vocabulary without ever coming off as racist makes it all the more miraculous. Though it descends into silliness in its final act ("How did he do such terrific stunts… with such little feet?"), Blazing Saddles is still the gold standard when it comes to a full-on comedic treatment of race in America.
As we’ve seen in the last year, racially charged comedy comes freighted with a perilously high degree of difficulty; it requires a great deal of skill in writing and in execution. When you miss, as a frustrated, way-past-his-stand-up-prime Michael Richards did in response to a group of African-American hecklers*, it could very well be the end of your career. But when you hit, as Blazing Saddles did, and as the South Park writers do throughout the course of any given season, you’re providing a service to a timid culture that takes itself way too seriously (this is why the creative break-up of Dave Chappelle and Neal Brennan remains one of comedy’s biggest tragedies).
But sometimes it isn’t about hitting or missing. Occasionally, the "jokes" are coming from point-blank racists who cower behind the shield of comedy in order to spout off like the hate mongers they are. This is the position Don Imus once again finds himself in after making fun of the Rutgers women’s basketball team for being tatted up and, in his estimation, looking like a bunch of "nappy-headed hos". The problem with this alleged bit of comedy is two-fold: one, there’s no real joke here, and, two, it was tossed off in the company of a few white guys – namely, Sid Rosenberg and producer Bernard McGuirk – who’ve made their careers saying bigoted shit without ever being self-deprecating about it. (There’s also the fact that Imus is worshipped by prominent Beltway figures on both sides of the political aisle, but let’s skip that discussion for the time being.) When Imus laughs at young African-American women for looking like "nappy-headed hos", we’re supposed to laugh along with him, not at him.
Sadly, all Imus has generated with his remarks – aside from some killer publicity for his inevitable return to the airwaves in a couple of weeks – is a simple-minded discourse dominated by blowhards like Al Sharpton. He’s also dredged up the old "rappers say ‘ho’ all the time, why can’t I say it?" bullshit from white people who apparently wish they could scream "nigger" all day long with absolute impunity. It’s the same nonsense that surfaces every time a celebrity bombs with ill-considered racial humor, and it predictably winds up forcing everyone in the mainstream to respectfully and dishonestly tiptoe around the real issue like they’re in a Stanley Kramer problem picture.
What is the real issue? I’m glad I asked. The real issue is that racial humor is awesome and must never be diluted for decorum’s sake due to media-amplified controversies like these. To hell with sensitivity courses; there’s no better way to bridge cultural gaps than to pointedly lampoon that which makes us different. And there’s also no surer sign of genuine racial harmony than being able to hang out in mixed company and hurl barbed, yet good-natured insults back and forth without a fistfight breaking out (and not in a hack comedic "White people do this, black people do that" kind of way).
Before you allege that it’s easy for me to assert as much because I’m white, you should take into account that people of all ethnicities love Blazing Saddles and South Park and all that "edgy" stuff as much as anyone else. And the only reason I know this is because (and I’m going to Invisi-text this to for the faint of heart) my roommate is black and many of my friends are black. Lest I look like George Wallace awkwardly showing off "my best friend in the world", allow me to clarify that I’ve enthusiastically reciprocated their interest in white things by reading Manchild in the Promised Land and habitually showing up to all appointments ten minutes late.
Obviously, I’m joking. I’d never read Manchild in the Promised Land. And this is the kind of humor you can get away with if you’re not a racist prick – a concept that eludes fossils like Imus and the scumbags who go on his show to play in his segregated sandbox because… well, they’re racist pricks, too. It’s not about saying the thing. If it were that easy, then we’d have fifty Blazing Saddles knock-offs by now. It’s really about the attitude that compels someone to say the thing. When Slim Pickens, playing the abusive henchman Taggert, sends over "a couple of niggers" rather than men on horseback to investigate some quicksand, the joke is that, to him, the lives of two horses are more important (and, as we a learn a few seconds later, he even has greater regard for the fate of a handcart). But when Imus, playing himself, calls Arabs "ragheads", the joke, I suppose, is that there is no joke. He just really hates Arabs, and this is funny because he’s incorrigible. Well, the Klan was full of incorrigible coots, too. And I bet some of them had better material than Imus.
It’s really quite simple: if you’re comfortable with yourself and your intent is satiric instead of crass, you can get away with some pretty sharp racial comedy. If you’re really good, you might even be able to drop the "n" bomb here and there. Now, does this mean a white comic who’s down with black folk should start developing material like Chris Rock’s explosive "love black people/hate niggers" routine? Um, no. It should be quite evident to anyone with a lick of sense that these are observations best left to someone brought up in the culture they’re firebombing (besides, what white person would have the necessary frame of reference to successfully pull that off?).
Target the attitude, not the people. That should be the lesson of the Imus flap. Everything else, including the shock jock’s forthcoming audience with the aggrieved, is just a bunch of noise. Who cares about receiving an apology from this guy when he’s clearly the leading asshole in the state?
*Everyone has their interpretation of that polarizing event; mine is that a wounded Richards, after weathering insults for being washed-up, ineptly tried to improvise his way into an edgy bit that savaged his hecklers while making him look perceptive. I once saw a friend try to turn a restless room against a female heckler by insulting her appearance (she looked a little slutty), and watched him get promptly booed off the stage because he came off as a misogynistic prick. What he said was funny. It was how he said it that killed him.