It comes from Larry Gelbart in his eulogy for Billy Wilder.
If what you're writing isn't likely to offend or annoy anyone at all, go back and start again.
My AMERICAN IDOL finale review also ran last week in the HuffingtonPost. It received a ton of comments. A number of them ripped me for being “sarcastic”, “mean”, “snarky”, and “disrespectful”. I figured, “I must be doing something right”.
Comedy by its very nature is subversive. The network note I always dreaded the most was “Could she be more likable? Could he be more nice?” Nice isn’t funny. Nice is death. Angry is funny. Jealousy is funny. Conniving is funny. Vanity is funny. You’re pointing out flaws. You’re zeroing in on weaknesses. You’re holding a mirror up to all the absurdity and ridiculous behavior we human beings exhibit. You’re trying to tell the truth (at least as you see it).
And if you are the least bit critical you are going to offend somebody. You don’t have to be Andrew Dice Clay to be accused of being too mean. Charles Schultz received those same accusations for writing PEANUTS.
It’s a judgment call. You know there are lines you can’t cross. Topics too sensitive.
But over time even those lines blur. In 1969 Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge and his car plunged into the water off Chappaquiddick Island. He escaped but his passenger, a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne did not and lost her life. Kennedy compounded the offense by fleeing the scene. It was a national scandal. No one dared make fun of it. This poor girl died. It was a tragedy.
A few years later Volkswagen had an ad campaign boasting the fact that their cars could float. The National Lampoon did a take-off of the ad showing a VW floating in water with the tagline: “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today”. Many found it hilarious. Not surprisingly, the Kennedy and Kopechne families did not, and I suspect still wouldn’t.
Everyone has a different sense of humor. Just the diverse reactions to the comedy tests I post prove that. You truly can’t please everybody. And when you try you end up pleasing nobody.
My only rules are that (a) I have to be willing to take it as well as dish it out, (b) I won’t purposely try to hurt someone, and (c) I have to be willing to accept the consequences of what I write.
Look, sometimes I’m sure I go too far. On the other hand, I occasionally pull back too far. But if there’s a joke in an article that gets the most criticism it’s almost always the one that receives the most praise too. And be honest with yourself – how many times do you laugh at something really sick or mean or tasteless and say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this” and then go right back to rolling on the floor?
So I guess what I’m saying is, if I’ve written anything on this blog that has offended you I’m truly sorry. But I warn you, there’s a real good chance I’m going to offend you again. Maybe I already did with the Kennedy ad.