January 20, 2022
Get together with a group of writers these days and it doesn’t take long for the conversation turn into a discussion about “sensitivity.” Whether it be about body shaming, cultural appropriation, or sexual orientation, it seems there are landmines everywhere.
Actress Allison Tolman made news recently for tweeting that jokes about weight aren’t funny. She asked the industry to stop making jokes about a character’s body. Interestingly, the day before, I was having lunch with a writer/producer and we got onto this same subject. I wondered, “How do actors feel when jokes about their physical traits are written into the script?” It’s one thing for actors to be chided about being dimwitted, or narcissistic, or vain — those are affectations of the characters they are playing, not necessarily the actors in real life. It’s quite another to be called fat, bald or flat-chested. That, they can’t escape.
I could tell I had landed on a sensitive subject and he gave an honest answer. “It depends.”
He said Jackie Gleason, who created The Honeymooners and starred as Ralph Kramden, had no problem being called fat. He recognized that every time someone told a fat joke, it got big laughs from the audience. On the other hand, there have been actors who’ve said they don’t feel comfortable with jokes about their weight, so the writers respect their wishes. Richard Deacon, who played Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show, let the bald jokes roll off his back, but he probably would not have been happy with a gay joke. (I doubt anyone could tell a gay joke on network television in the 1960s.)
“That must be an awkward conversation to have with the actor,” I said. “Excuse me, but I noticed you have no tits. Would you mind a few jokes about an ironing board?” My friend said, obviously those conversations have to be handled sensitively. Sometimes the actor will volunteer the joke, indicating they are comfortable. And, sometimes they will ask to take a joke out of the script if it goes too far.
Personally, I’ve never liked jokes about physical traits and don’t mind that they are going out-of-style. But, sometimes it’s difficult to tell how something will land. For example, another writer, who is African-American, debated whether it was appropriate to use the word “Jewfro” to describe a hairstyle in the 1970s. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. My friend, who is Jewish, said he was fine with it because it was accurate. Still, is it appropriate for a non-Jewish person to use the term? (My suggestion was to use “self-described,” as in Bernie’s self-described Jewfro.)
When deciding what’s appropriate, I think context and intent are the most reasonable measures. I was walking with a GenZer the other day when she spotted a man walking a small dog and politely asked if she could pet her. While we were stopped, the man said he rescued the dog from a Chinese dog-meat market.
“She was on her way to being dinner,” he joked.
“She’s not much more than an appetizer,” I shot back.
“Every time she acts up, I wave a pair of chopsticks at her,” he laughed as he walked away.
My companion turned to me and said, “What a racist!” I was confused. Did she mean about the Chinese dog-meat markets, because those are a real thing. Or, was there some comment I missed? Because here I was thinking this was a pretty nice guy to save a little dog from being eaten, but underneath, you’re trying to tell me he’s really an asshole?
“The comment about the chopsticks,” she said. Huh? I still didn’t understand, but I assume that to a GenZer, any comment about culture is automatically assumed to be racist. I don’t agree, and maybe I’ll have to watch what I say a lot more closely, but I think sometimes people are a little too quick to take offense. There’s enough real prejudice in the world that we don’t have to go digging for it. Maybe let’s try giving people the benefit of the doubt.