Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hey, It's a Joke!

Every American, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, has something important in common.

We like to laugh.

And at a time when economic distress and other pressing problems face our country, we need to laugh now more than ever. Yet some Americans aren't just not laughing at the jokes, they want to stop comedians from telling jokes in the first place.

Those who urge advertisers to boycott the Late Show with David Letterman because of his jokes about Sarah Palin's adult daughter, and who even seek to have Letterman fired, remind me of the reaction to Bill Maher's very different kind of comments on his "Politically Incorrect" show shortly after the attacks of September 11. And at the time, I had this letter published in The New York Times:

"The television stations that drop ''Politically Incorrect,'' and the advertisers that boycott the show, are the ones guilty of a lack of patriotism, not its host, Bill Maher. It would be chilling if one of the first casualties of our war for freedom was our right to debate all opinions vigorously, no matter how unpopular, here at home. Whatever the nature of Mr. Maher's misinterpreted remarks, his rights and those of his guests to exercise freedom of speech should not be silenced."

Not long after that letter was published, Maher's show was cancelled. Fortunately HBO had the good sense shortly thereafter, to hire him as the host of a new show.

Letterman's Palin jokes were like all jokes. Some people thought they were funny. Some people didn't think they were funny. And some people were offended. The same three reactions all comedians, including myself, can expect. In the past, if you didn't think someone on television was funny, you had a surefire option. Turn the channel. Lately, some Americans seem to be ignoring their remote in favor of an advertiser boycott.

So far, only Embassy Suites(a Hilton family hotel) has caved in to the pressure from a handful of Americans, and cancelled its online advertising for the Letterman show and CBS. Which drew the ire of the letter writer in me once again. To the Hilton office, I wrote:

"As a longtime Hilton Honors member and a former warmup comedian for the Late Show with David Letterman, I was extremely disappointed to learn that Embassy Suites was pulling its online advertising for the Letterman show. By giving in to the pressure of right wing groups, Embassy Suites and the entire family of Hilton hotels, is rejecting the democratic ideals of free speech this country was founded upon. If your online advertising for the Letterman show is not reinstated, I will exercise my democratic rights by not staying at any Hilton properties in the future."

That letter isn't funny. Because comedians like myself aren't laughing at the way Sarah Palin unjustly attacked Letterman and essentially called him a child molester. Letterman has been singled out for going after the Palin family, even though both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien performed similiar jokes during the campaign. Letterman has gone way above and beyond the call of duty, by apologizing numerous times. I wish he simply could have said, "Hey, it's a JOKE!" But that would not have satisfied a publicity hungry politician willing to use her children, rather than her intellect, to stay in the public eye.

There are many issues we should be vigorously debating right now in our country. Whether a comedian has the right to tell a joke should not be one of them.