Sunday, August 03, 2003


“With protests over the proposed CBS reality show "The Real Beverly Hillbillies" entering their seventh month, American society is faced with a number of questions, not the least of which is, who are we going to laugh at now? Not rural Americans, a.k.a. hillbillies, hicks and rednecks.

And non-urban Americans aren't the only ones who are saying, "Now, that's not funny."

Among those on the alert for insulting references are stutterers, who came of age politically during the "A Fish Called Wanda" protests of the late 1980s and early 90s, and Italian-Americans, who raised the stakes in their long battle over Mafia stereotypes by suing the producers of "The Sopranos."

Albinos objected to negative depictions in "The Matrix Reloaded," and recently the Fox Movie Channel dropped its "Charlie Chan" film festival, following complaints by Chinese-Americans.

Even blonds -- typically not a beleaguered minority -- can cause problems for purveyors of broad, ethnic-style humor, as Jamie Masada, president of the Hollywood-based Laugh Factory comedy club, points to a recent bachelorette party, when a golden-girl attendee walked out of a performance rich in blond jokes.

"She cried," says Masada. "She wanted to have (her) money back, because she thought it was so insulting."


By 1973, none other than comedy legend Bob Hope had been caught in the cultural crossfire; a Japanese-American group objected to his use of the once-commonplace word "Jap" in a joke he told at an Idaho Boy Scout gathering.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, sensitivity to minority concerns ... some would say over-sensitivity -- had reached a high point by the early `90s.

"Some people have argued the excessive emphasis on . . . protecting ethnic boundaries is a result of their weakening, and really is more indicative of (minorities) being absorbed and accepted in society than the other way around," says Elliott Oring, an anthropology professor at California State University and author of "Engaging Humor."

The "New Beverly Hillbillies" is still in development, according to a CBS spokeswoman, who declined to comment on whether the show is offensive.

The threat to what may be the last publicly acceptable ethnic joke -- the kind that can be told at work or on network TV -- raises concerns in some quarters: Are Americans becoming too sensitive? Erecting too many barriers amongst themselves?

"I think it's getting to the point of our really losing our sense of humor," says Masada, the comedy-club executive, who complains that a group of lawyers responded to jokes about their profession by threatening to close down his club.

And even insiders may want to tread lightly. Masada, the comedy club executive, says that he knows a comic who recently came under fire for making Armenian jokes. "What do you mean? I'm Armenian," the comic said. "Can't I talk about myself?"

"No," his critics responded. "You can't."

Still, some fans of ethnic humor remain upbeat, with Cohen, the University of Chicago professor, pointing out that ethnic jokes are not so much disappearing as flourishing underground, where they live on in e-mails and personal conversations.

There's even one brand of ethnic joke that Cohen insists can still can be made publicly without fear of reprisals. "WASP jokes," he says, singling out white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. "They are the one group in this country that no one really thinks of as vulnerable."

Perhaps. But what does it say about the state of ethnic humor if, after 200 years of practice, we're back to poking fun at the Puritans?”

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