Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The one I'd take back

There was a good article in a recent NEW YORK MAGAZINE called “the One I’d Take Back.” They asked six comedians (like Patton Oswalt) which joke or jokes they’ve told in the past that now they now regret and wish they could take back. 

There are a number of scripts I’ve written I wish I could have back, but that’s just because with the benefit of experience I think I could do a better job. It has nothing to do with questionable content.

But the article did get me thinking back to my days as a wise-ass Top 40 DJ. Very rarely did I “get in trouble” because of things I said on the air. I was pretty good at walking that line. The biggest brouhaha I ever got into was on TenQ in Los Angeles in 1977. I was playing a commercial for a Donna Summer concert that was going to be held at the Fabulous Forum (then-home of the Lakers and Kings). I said, “today the Forum, in ten years Magic Mountain.” Someone from her record company had a shit fit and raised a stink. I was told to not make fun of Donna Summer. (By the way, I was right.)

What I did do was poke fun at recording artists on occasion. Believe me, I was not unique in that. Dan Ingram, Don Imus, Larry Lujack, Robert W. Morgan, Howard Stern, and others routinely teed off on artists.

So looking back, I mocked Bob Dylan. That’s still okay. I mocked Barry Manilow. Still acceptable. Mick Jagger – no problem. Psychedelic bands – safe targets. The Partridge Family – go to town. The Temptations? I’m a racist. I would goof on how hip they tried to be. But it made no difference. Had I known then what I know now, the Temptations would have been off-limits, period. I can argue that you needed to understand the context and I was an equal-opportunity-offender but that’s one I’d like back.

I’m sure these comics felt the same way – you listen back to some of the things you said that you thought were perfectly fine and funny and now you just cringe. Yes, comedy often offends someone, but in this case I offended myself. Fortunately for me, these were live radio shows. Unless I play you the tapes, you’ll never hear them. Thank God this was before Twitter.


Stephen Robinson said...

I've found that it helps when a celebrity has a distancing arrogance or self-importance or some other flaw when mocking them. I get the joke about The Temptations but they often felt like your nice uncle who tries to be "cool," which is somewhat endearing not so much annoying.

Janet Ybarra said...

I understand how you feel. But then again, maybe I wonder if any of the Temps happened to hear you at the time and were laughing along at the joke.

Coram_Loci said...

For those unfamiliar with The Temptations, what's so egregious about poking fun at people who try too hard to be hip, cool, fashionable? Is there some some special reason they should be exempt from that derision?

Big Matk said...

Even before Twitter the firing of The Greaseman over comments he made about Lauren Hill made national news.

Doctor Demento actually got death threats for playing a Springsteen impersonator singing "Meet The Flintstones".

Big Matk said...

Did you ever have a moment like when Dr. Johnny Fever told listeners to dump trash on the steps of City Hall?

dandy_lio said...

Enjoyed this. Question for you, Ken - will you do transcripts of your podcast? I'd really love to read them, I am deaf and can't listen to them.

As always, enjoy your content. Look forward to more.

Sean R. said...

I don't understand how anyone would want to be in comedy these days. Either stand up or writing for movies or TV. Today's society is so easily offended by everything. It used to be in comedy that nothing was sacred. Now everything is and comedy isn't funny.

daniel in cherry hill said...

is robert morgan the same person as bumper morgan?

Anonymous said...

I am a racist. And a sexist. And a classist.

It was not a decision I made, it was in my upbringing, both inside and outside the home. I know it is wrong. I make efforts not to show it. I don't do anything overtly racist or sexist now. But my thoughts betray me. I am uncomfortable if a group of black guys are coming the other way on the sidewalk. I double check the locks on the car doors if there are a lot of black people around. I don't go to predominantly black Walmart. I still look at every woman with my first thought being about fuckability.

And there are many things I have said in my life I wish I could take back. Not just because the climate is different, but because it is wrong. Now the thought - hopefully - stops before it gets to my lips.

Please forgive the anonymous post, but I cannot have everything I ever say or do from here forward linked with "Yeah, but he's a racist".

Hogne B. Pettersen said...

Larry Gelbart said there were a lot of jokes in the first season of M*A*S*H he would have undone. But in these days, there are several scenes from the earlier seasons, that today stick out like sore thumb. The way men force themselves on Margaret. Like when Henry Blake just kisses her without her consent. Hawkeye does that too in the episode when they exchange prisoners. But the worst one is when the visiting plastic surgeon literally tries to rape Margaret, and we are all supposed to laugh at it. Cringeworthy today.

Peter said...

"Had I known then what I know now, the Temptations would have been off-limits, period."

I must be missing something here but I'm not sure what you mean.

Talking of people taking offence, I've been watching the Netflix series Insatiable, which has been accused of fat shaming and some social justice warriors have even demanded Netflix take it off. I'm enjoying it so far. It's a dark Heathers-esque comedy. I'd be interested to know your opinion if you've seen it, Ken.

Craig Gustafson said...

I've been writing sketches for several years for the awards show at a community theater in the Chicago suburbs. This usually involves parody songs of the seasons' musicals, addressing idiosyncrasies of all the shows. For a very tame sex farce, I envisioned a time when our prim theater would have onstage nudity, and wrote a parody of Sondheim's "Getting Married Today" called "Not Getting Naked Today," about an actress signing on for more than she bargained for and getting cold feet. The song got HUGE laughs and people were saying it was one of the best awards shows we'd done. And then...
"We've had some complaints."
My usual question: "How many?"
The invariable answer: "Umm... I'm not sure." Meaning one or two. Instead of an actress' frantic regrets, now I was Making Fun of Sexual Harrassment. I tried to point out that if one noodnik misinterpreted a song that got laughs and cheers, I didn't really care. So I'm in the doghouse.
Within a week, I entered a 24 hour playwriting/performing event at a storefront theater in Chicago. I wrote about a 14 year old girl whose boyfriend is pressuring her for sex, from which she is saved by her flamboyant mother, whose imaginary lover is Jesus Christ (no relation). It included the line, "I love your sermon on my mound." Plenty of laughs mingled in with "Oh my GOD"s.
So I'm looking to do more theater in the city.

By Ken Levine said...

Hey Craig,

Does your theatre need funny plays? If so, contact me at

Dhruv said...

Well this is not about being politically correct. But sometimes stereotyping a nation or a race is painful for those people.

Comedians would say "Grow a thick skin or have a sense of humor". But how come those comedians never come up with jokes that doesn't involve stereotyping?

Apu character on Simpsons is a totally incorrect depiction of Indians. 60-70 years ago people had 8-10 children, but not now. We have just 1 or 2 kids. The garbage stink seen in some episodes or some movies, are mostly in some places up in North India (Hindi heartland), but the whole country is depicted as a waste dump.

But that is what has been perpetuated for so long, and only now with internet and interactions and travel, that many who thought about India as a land where people travel on elephants and are snake charmers or beggars are learning that it was totally wrong.

And coming to the voice - we never speak like that.
One thing that the British left us, after looting everything, was English. We speak normal English and not like Apu.

To those who haven't heard how Indians speak can hear the Oscars speech of that Music director some years ago or the actress of 'Quantico' in her interviews with Late night show hosts.
Google and Microsoft CEOs speak similarly but with a slight American accent.

One American of Indian origin made a documentary about it

And Hank Azaria did feel bad about the character and offered to step aside too

As for me, I have interacted with many Americans and they don't have the same notions about India like depicted in Simpsons or Family Guy. In fact, from what I learnt from friends and relatives who stay in USA, most of the Americans who have visited or know about India know that Hollywood's depiction of India is wrong. It seems the ones still perpetuating that stereotype are just few in show business.

I used to watch Simpsons, but it was painful to watch Apu. And Family Guy is funny but the stereotyping of Jews, Indians, Chinese, American Indians is not that funny.

Even Seth's Oscar joke about Jews (using Ted bear) was cringe worthy.

I am not looking from a politically correct view but always think why can't they come up with other jokes? Racist jokes are easy to write I guess and gets few laughs from a particular section. On YT, there are a lot of clips from these racist jokes and ones who love it are the haters and ignorants who take glee in commenting how true it is. So maybe, those comments encourage them.

And nowadays many from Hollywood are visiting India a lot for movie promotions and even a few comedians do have shows here. I hope gradually with time, the perceptions will change too.

Anonymous said...

Peter said...
"'Had I known then what I know now, the Temptations would have been off-limits, period.'
I must be missing something here but I'm not sure what you mean"

I'm as ignorant as Peter. What was your offense? That white people can't make jokes about black people? I'm honestly missing your point today. More explanation, please.


Sheila said...

Friday Question :

This is about spec scripts. I was watching Horrible Bosses and searched your blog and found this

"The original HORRIBLE BOSSES was a spec screenplay by Michael Markowitz that sold. His script was sharp, sophisticated, and hilarious."

In another post you spoke about how you liked Shane Black's spec when you read it. Are spec scripts easily available for insiders to read?

Is it good or bad? If studios reject it, then some independent producer can offer to buy it. Or the downside is that someone may post it on the net.

Can you share your insight please. Thanks.

YEKIMI said...

I think I said this before but about 6 hours after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, I made a joke about them finding.....well, won't repeat it because it would be considered racist nowadays....but after saying the joke people went nuts, like I had just shot baby squirrels out of a cannon into a large fan, and they wanted me fired, etc., etc. and basically was just told to NEVER say something like that again. 6 or 8 months later, repeated the joke [not on air but in a large group and everybody just laughed]. I guess time DOES heal all wounds and maybe it was too soon to have told the joke, I should have waited a month or two. But that's how I deal with dark, depressing Things That Happen, usually by cracking a joke that would be considered dark humor. And with what's occupying the White House I should be firing off one liners like Henny Youngman.

MikeN said...

Dhruv, if you were watching carefully, you would know that Apu had all those kids at once, octuplets, around the time Octomom was a story, possibly due to invitro.

Sheila said...

Just now reading the comments on the above mentioned blog I read that the writer Michael Markowitz himself has commented on the blog about his spec script. I thought till now only Aaron Sorkin had commented on your blog. Anyway that's great.

Anyway hope you answer my question on spec script.

Link :

Dhruv said...

Thanks MikeN for the information.

Tom said...

I am similarly confused by this article. It's not a common-enough allegation to be a dog whistle, and the article doesn't suggest Ken otherwise alleged causation. I guess there's a subtext that has flown over my head?

jcs said...


I would like to hear you having a conversation with Nell Scovell about comedy writing and the circumstances under which it takes place. I know that scheduling guests for your podcast is a time-consuming and pretty much thankless endeavour, but would you consider having her on your show?

She once wrote the following joke for Obama's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner which he did not use: I turned 50 while in office which means I had my first colonoscopy. Guess what they found? Mitch McConnell. That guy can obstuct anything.

Issa Kelly said...

You're not racist, dude. A true racist would be unapologetic about their bigotry. You know it's wrong and are ashamed of it, that's a great start. I understand your feelings are true for some white people. Just learn to approach each black person you meet as a distinct individual divorced of preconceived notions. You dont deserved to be attacked but shown love so you can show love to others. You can change.I have faith in you

Matt said...


I've long suspected that, in MASH, the papers tacked on the bulletin board or on the wall in Post Op, Radar/Klinger's office or various papers shuffled around on Blake/Potter's desk were script pages from various extra scripts. Is this the case?

By Ken Levine said...


Nell will be a guest on my podcast within the next couple of months. You're going to love her.

Andy Rose said...

When a Love Boat rerun comes on, I sometimes watch just to see how long I can go without cringing. It doesn't take long. Hardly a scene goes by when one of the male crewmen fails to leer at a female passenger. (And I don't mean "admire" or "compliment" or even "flirt." It's always straight-up creepy leering.)

But nothing holds a candle to the episode of Too Close for Comfort in which the wacky effeminate next-door neighbor was kidnapped and raped by a pair of women. But they are *fat* women, you see, so apparently it's hilarious.

Todd Everett said...

And coming to the voice - we never speak like that.
One thing that the British left us, after looting everything, was English. We speak normal English and not like Apu.

No quarrel on that, but -- trust me -- to Americans, East Indians have a definite accent. As do the French, Italians, Russians, etc. And I suspect that in India, many locals find speaking Hindi with an American accent risible. Difficult to understand, even.

Ted Kilvington said...

I joke I heard a few weeks after the Challenger tragedy I heard the following joke about the late schoolteacher astronaut:

What was the last thing Christa McAuliffe said to her husband?

"You feed the dog, I'll feed the fish."

Ted Kilvington said...

My wife and I have been watching the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts on Amazon Prime. Aside from the bizarre pairings -- Orson Welles & Jimmie Walker?!?! --the material is so non-PC I'm surprised it isn't banned.

It's more of a sociological study of changing cultural mores than a comedy show, but there are occasional laughs

Janet Ybarra said...

If you watch re-runs of the old '70s MATCH GAME, a lot of what was on there would be grossly racist today, including host Gene Rayburn sliding into a thick stereotypical Asian accent.

And it is not that Rayburn or any of them were racist. It is, as you say, a matter of changing social norms and mores.

My Polish grandfather 40 years ago had to put up with a parade of "Pollock" jokes. I think today those jokes would be verboten, I hope.

PJ said...

Ken, if you want you can upload your podcasts to a site called and they'll transcribe it for you. There are other sites, that's just the one I'm familiar with. They have a quick turnaround.

goodman.dl said...

I remember a very good comic doing a routine about the Karate Kid, which is mostly funny - but then it wanders into a section on Pat Morita mocking the use of "Pat" as a nickname for his given name Noriyuki. Which might be less a topic for jokes if you know about racism and Japanese internment - unless you are mocking racism and not Pat Morita for using the nickname Pat.

Anonymous said...

Certainly Gilbert Aflac Gottfried has
a joke or two he would like to retract,
as may, some day, his fellow castmates in The Aristocrats..

MikeN said...

Ken, I don't see what the issue is with making these jokes.
Were you doing the radio equivalent of blackface?

Roger Owen Green said...

BTW, it Donna Summer (singular in every way)
And I don't get the Temptations reference either. I suppose if I knew the joke...

Coram_Loci said...

Janet YBarra said:
"My Polish grandfather 40 years ago had to put up with a parade of "Pollock" jokes. I think today those jokes would be verboten, I hope."

My grandfather did too. Yet, I hope those jokes aren’t forbidden. Instead, I hope that we’ve progressed to the point where the venom of those jokes has been so drained as to make them harmless. Then the jokes are kind of old, stale, formulaic, fill-in-the-blank jokes about dumb people.

Only dumb people believe that all Poles are dumb, or Italians are mobsters, or Irish are drunkards. Why let the dumbest amongst us keep us from jovially poking fun are at differences?

“Verboten.” No. Progress comes from understanding. Censorship rarely leads to understanding. But what do I know, I’m just a dumb Pollock.

Dhruv said...

Yes, Mr. Todd Everett, I agree with your comment.

Jahn Ghalt said...

There are some thoughtful reactions here regarding Ken's Temptations "takeback". My immediate thought was that that constitutes "bending over backwards".

My next thought was that context matters at least a little. One could be amused by the notion that a white 20-something deejay could be hip-enough to goof on the Temptations hipness - and that would still be true now.

George Carlin once slagged white guys for trying to be "cool" - saying they could never be as cool as black guys.

Anonymous regrets his "racist" unbringing, becuase of his automatic reaction to "a group of black guys (coming) the other way". (S)he didn't detail this, but can offer my similar automatic reaction.

If a bunch of black guys approach on my sidewalk, and dressed like me (or not in the "neighborhood uniform", in my heart rate remains unchanged. If it's a bunch of white bikers, or otherwise angry white guys, I try to chill outwardly and avoid eye-contact - along with a raised pulse. I think this is legitimate "discrimination" and not the racist variety.

Here an example of legitimate "sexism":

Johnny Mac promoting his memoir on NPR. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro conducting the interview:

Garcia-Navarro: We're talking about male players but there is of course wonderful female players. Let's talk about Serena Williams. You say she is the best female player in the world in the book.

McEnroe: Best female player ever — no question.

Garcia-Navarro: Some wouldn't qualify it, some would say she's the best player in the world. Why qualify it?

McEnroe: Oh! Uh, she's not, you mean, the best player in the world, period?

Garcia-Navarro: Yeah, the best tennis player in the world. You know, why say female player?

McEnroe: Well because if she was in, if she played the men's circuit she'd be like 700 in the world.

As one who has played the game for 40 years and watched thousands of matches this statement is utterly uncontroversial.

After some thought, and reflection on Mac's hundreds of hours behind the mike, it occurs that Mac might have just bowed to the inteviwer's sensibilities and said "best player ever" - with the obvious implication as to the qualifier.

Garcia-Navarro could have done the same thing but she threw the gauntley down and Mac picked it up.

Nothing about that makes him a "sexist"

Buttermilk Sky said...

I hope Yekimi's Challenger joke was at least funnier than the one heard by Ted Kilvington. Six hours was maybe too soon. For some reason I thought of all the Jeffrey Dahmer jokes -- are they ever going to be funny to the families of his victims? But there's no Constitutional right not to be offended. I think it was Al Smith who said, "The answer to free speech is more free speech." We have to hope the fresh, creative and pointed will drive out, or at least neutralize, the playground name-calling and dumb insults that permeate the national "dialogue."

JAHN GHALT said...

My Grandparents, born ca. 1900, came from Poland and Finland.

My first knowledge of "Polack Jokes" came in the mail on a mimeographed page from my Polish-American aunt around 1968 (then she was just "Polish" and folks knew the "American" part).

Even at age 8-9, it was plain that they were so dumb, so unlikely, that they could not be taken as an insult (but then, we all lived in Anchorage, and lots of "baggage" was abandoned when moving "up").

Again, context and delivery matter. If particularly scurrilous and said with malice, any joke (ethnic, man-, woman- ) can be hurtful. If tossed off casually, most let it roll off - some, even the "butt" of the joke may laugh.

(Don Rickles, RIP, was a master of that)

I like to throw one in without notice - usually giving my "bona fides" (those Polish grandparents) I mention a distant cousin Staash, who was good enough to be an Olympian at a "distant" Games (Melbourne? Tokyo? Rome?) and an obscure sport.

He managed to get a Silver medal! Hw was so pleased that when he got home he had it BRONZED!