Readers remind me often that humor is intensely subjective — and that it often comes at someone’s expense. That’s why journalists have to be careful about jibes in general-audience publications like The Kansas City Star.
Mel Brooks put it best: Tragedy is when I get a paper cut and it hurts. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. Of course, that’s gross exaggeration for comic effect, but the underlying point is dead serious.
I heard from numerous readers who were offended to varying degrees by an item in the Nov. 13 “Stargazing” in the FYI section. The column usually takes an irreverent look at celebrities, with gossip and glamour photos accompanied by sometimes-snarky commentary on the famous names in the news.
But the people who contacted me weren’t laughing that day over a caption that ran with a photo of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, who had recently appeared at the Country Music Awards with a new haircut that resembled a shorter version of the “mullet” — short on the top and sides, long in the back — that he wore when he rose to fame in the early 1990s. Cyrus “rocked it like Raytown,” read The Star’s caption.
“I found very sad that your paper would try to contribute to the negative image that the media continues to associate to Raytown,” wrote Raytown resident Terri Danner. “We are not the redneck community that we are painted as by the media. We are an up-and-coming multicultural community that is close to everything.”
Another wrote: “I can’t believe The Star still condones this stereotype. I find it offensive, and other people I talked to said the same thing. … Printing it sends a message that the newspaper agrees and approves of it.”
A caller asked: “How is this different from any other kind of cultural stereotypes? Do you think the newspaper would be so blasé about it if it were something about women, blacks or some other group that it used to ‘OK’ to make fun of? More discretion, please.”
I get all these points loud and clear. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy has made a career of mocking “rednecks” — but he counts himself in those numbers. The same goes for a long tradition of humorists from many walks of life: Katt Williams, Ron White, Chris Rock, Joan Rivers, Lea DeLaria — all of whom often include themselves in the jokes. But as readers sometimes point out to me, audiences usually know they’re getting into offensive territory when they choose to watch these comedians.
I’d argue passionately that no subject matter should ever be off limits in journalism. And while there’s a place for levity in a melting pot such as a newspaper, I think readers are justified to balk at jokes that trade in typecast roles.
This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Nov. 20, 2010.