Tuesday, February 04, 2020

We comedy writers from the past apologize

Very funny article in a UK paper:  a Comedy Writer from the 1970's apologizing that jokes they wrote then now are inappropriate and insensitive and we all should have known better at the time.

We all should have questioned whether material intended to be broadcast in a few months would be deemed unacceptable to people who wouldn't be born for another fifteen years.

How thoughtless of us!

It's a funny satire but all too true.  Entertainment needs to be viewed in context.   Tastes change, society changes, but we need to view past shows with the understanding that they were written and performed for a different audience with a different sensibility.   Suddenly, after 40 years we comedy writers are not all racists and homophobes.

To me a prime example is the episode of CHEERS my partner David Isaacs and I wrote for the first year of CHEERS.  It's called "Boys in the Bar."  There's been some recent outrage and demands that the episode be pulled from distribution.   In the episode, some of the bar regulars are worried the bar is going to go gay.  As a result they act like idiots and ultimately get their comeuppance.    Some folks are saying it's totally offensive to the LGBT community.

At the time we won the GLAAD Award from the LGBT community.  We also won the WGA Award for Best Comedy Script and were nominated for a writing Emmy.

Perspective people.  Perspective. 


Dana King said...

Reminds me of the occasional furors over ALL IN THE FAMILY by outraged people too thick to understand that it was Archie who was being made fun of, not the groups he insulted, just as it was the guys in Cheers who worried the bar would "go gay" were the butts of those jokes.

Glenn said...

It's about time you layabouts apologized to all the people who weren't alive at the time you were writing your comedy, yet can't shut up for two minutes about how you are all minions of Satan for your 'can't do that today' sense of humors.

Barry Traylor said...

Are they the same sort of people that want Mark Twain banned for Huckleberry Finn?

The negative impact of the book about a boy who goes down a river with an escaped slave outweighed its literary benefits. An American high school has banned Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because its use of the N-word was not "inclusive" and made students uncomfortable.

McGarrity said...

There are people who honestly believe that THE HONEYMOONERS glorified wife-beating.

McAlvie said...

The same can be said of books written more than 50 years ago. Some of my favorite books written in the 30s and 40s, for example, have expressions and descriptions about people that would be considered slurs today. Whether it was right for them to be used in that time I couldn't say, only that it was probably common. This is who people were then and the way they talked. Mostly you can tell that it isn't intended as slurs, and to my mind the intention is much more important than any particular word might be, as words change meaning and value not just over decades, but also years and even months.

And no matter how careful we are today, there are going to be words and expressions that will be criticized by future generations. I don't hold the sensitivity of the millennials against them - there is a point to much of what they say. I just think it will have more value once they acquire the wisdom of experience to go along with.

F Twitter said...

Unfortunately, 'Righteous Internet Opinionators' have the power to get their way since the bad publicity viral news must be resolved quickly. Studios and networks fold faster than a cheap tent.

Tim W. said...


Last year I sat down to watch Cheers from start to finish. I was 5 when the first episode aired, but was old enough to enjoy the last two or three seasons when they were originally aired. I even remember staying up way past my bedtime watching way past my bedtime the episode Birth, Death, Love and Rice!

I thoroughly enjoyed the interpersonal and romantic relationship that developed between Sam and Diane and was truly sad when Shelley Long left the series. Then came the Sam and Rebecca relationship.

It has not aged well. I realize that "times were different", but Sam's relentless pursuit of Rebecca, who clearly and repeatedly states she is not interested is just wrong. It goes on for episode after episode, and even by the standards of 1988, it seems over the top and cringeworthy. I had to stop watching the series because it was uncomfortable and not funny. I realize this was played for comedy, but the unwanted advances of a lothario towards a co-worker is just wrong no matter what era. I think back on the final few seasons when the Sam/Rebecca relationship was far more equal. There was a great deal of comedy gold to be mined there, but I just can't get over how predatory Sam's character was towards Rebecca.

I'm not looking for anyone to apologize for their creative endeavors from the past, but I think acknowledgment that something doesn't hold up is a far cry from an apology. It is okay to look at a piece of art with a critical eye and see the artistic merit while discussing the shortcomings. Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will are cinematographically important films that have abhorrent messages, a sentiment most people can agree with.

Thank you for allowing your readers a forum to discuss topics like this, your insight and perspective is invaluable and I encourage everyone to continue the healthy discourse that Ken's blog allows.


Unknown said...

Don't say "butts".

Steve Bailey said...

I saw that article and wondered if you'd seen it. I agree that the PC police get too carried away sometimes. In the recent live revivals of "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons," the N-word was used a couple of times, and ABC saw fit to bleep it out -- even though it had been used in the original episodes. Sometimes I wonder if comedy was just more honest in the 1970's.

Rory W said...

The only thing you need to apologize for is "AfterMASH."

I know it's a cheap shot, but it was there for the taking.

Just kidding, love your work, even the baseball posts. (Actually, especially the baseball posts.)

blinky said...

I am offended by your reference the the past because in 50 years talking about the past will be offensive. I am just trying to get ahead of the PC curve.

Kirk said...

I think I might be able to explain this. In order to combat homophobia, you need as many LGBTQ people to come out of the closet as possible (which I have no argument with.) The problem is that homophobia is why so many LGBTQ people are in the closet in the first place. So in order to get them to come out, you downplay the homophobia that still exists. A closeted gay sees that Cheers episode (which, in my opinion, deservedly won its various awards), and says, "Omigod, look how homophobic everybody is!" and decides to stay in the closet. I don't agree with this theory. No offense, Ken, but nobody goes in and out of a closet based on a sitcom episode. But I go to a lot of LGBTQ sites, and on Facebook sites in particular, there's this understandably strong desire to declare a final victory over homophobia, whether that final victory has been won or not.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Didn't Larry Gelbart later apologize for rape jokes, and Gene Reynolds apologize for stereotyping Asians on M*A*S*H?

benson said...

Allow me to serve up this guess/theory as to why all this after the fact indignance is going on.

With the advent of computers and automation, so many people who used to work for a living are now merely babysitters for the automation that is doing their previous job for them, allowing too many people with too much time on their hands to sit around and surf on the internet. It used to be people didn't have time for this kind of non-work related stuff at work.

There's probably more to it than that, but the above I'm reasonably sure of. Going beyond it to draw conclusions, I'm on less solid footing.

Michael Hagerty said...

From John Cleese's introduction to the MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL soundtrack:

"There is little or no offensive material apart from four "c***"s, a clitoris and a foreskin. And, as they only occur in this introduction, you're past them now."

Andrew said...

If I recall, the "not that there's anything wrong with that" episode of Seinfeld also won a GLAAD award. But that hasn't stopped people from being offended.

Zach said...

Bad taste is always bad taste. Any competent writer would know that.

Corvus Imbrifer said...

And this just in:


Andy K said...

You'll you'll never please everybody but thanks for trying. I have always admired your work.

Sean said...

Seems the inheritors of the old counterculture are undoing the work of their forebears whether they know it or not. Proper criticism (and the old counterculture brought its share of that) just becomes mean spirited nonsense after a certain point. We passed that point several years ago (at least).

'Course when you're raised thinking the rantings and ravings of internet trolls actually carry the day--your view of realistic criticism is likely to be permantly scewed through little fault of your own.


Anonymous said...

i'm amazed at how smart some people are when they know what's going to happen 30 or 40 years down the road.

Liggie said...

Eddie Murphy recently said he cringes at all the homosexual jokes he performed in his heyday. People's sensitivities change, even the ones who tell the jokes.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I know you're being facetious, yet you raise a good point. What will we be apologizing for fifty years from now? Trump? Abortion? The attacks on free speech? Free speech itself? There are other things that I won't mention here because they will definitely offend some people today. One thing I know for sure is that, "Can you believe that at one time we thought that was a good idea!" will be a phrase used quite often.

Jeff said...

It is kind of amusing even to myself that when I watch an old episode of a series or a movie that has characters horrified at the thought of (god forbid) being mistaken for gay, it just reminds me how far most of us have come. Now we see gay characters and don't even blink. I certainly don't expect an apology from the show, but i do recognize that that kind of humor wouldn't play now.

Unknown said...

I read this in the morning. Came back in the afternoon to catch the comments.
I think this post has soured over time.

Brian said...

Speaking only for myself, I'm sick of revisionist armchair critics who want to ban anything that has been written just because they don't like it right now. Most, if not all of these jerks have never created a single original thought, let alone a whole script. If you listen to them, you would have to ban Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Dr. Seuss and anyone else who they are using to seek attention for themselves. I say, screw them all. A joke is a joke is a joke. If it's funny, you laugh at it. If it's not, you won't. I love how these same people won't do a damn thing to ban guns but they are pretty brave about standing up to comedy. Like I said, screw them all. Who cares what they think?

D McEwan said...

Speaking as a gay man who saw this episode the night it was first broadcast, I loved it then and I love it now. The people who should be offended by it are homophobes, as it caught something very true about homophobic paranoia, and was funny as well.

Plus I appreciated that the two gay characters were played by two gay actors.

And a homophobic episode would not have ended with "Better than Vera."

Caleb Martin said...

I don't pretend to speak for the entire gay community, but with the societal shifts of the past 35+ years, the modern reality is that places that were once gay-only enclaves (Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, for example) are seeing straights integrate into their bars whether they like it or not. Some really don't like it—which means the scenario and attitudes you wrote back in 1982 are still relevant today—just in reverse!

Other than that, there are a few jokes that become cringe-y when viewed through a modern lens, but on the whole, it would be a complete shame to see this episode censored.

The path to social acceptance is messy and imperfect. Your and David's writing was an act of pure allyship when the LGBT (and especially gay male) community really needed it. Have you also grown as an ally since then? It sure seems like it.

UnWoke said...

I don't usually bother with the State of the Union but Mike Doran's premonition posted on Friday has made me curious to watch it tonight to see if it'll be the clusterfuck he predicts.

He said "just an uneasy feeling I have: Something really bad is going to happen at the State Of The Union address. Exactly what, I can only guess - and all my guesses are awful."

I bet it'll be a non-event.

Anonymous said...

M.A.S.H isn’t safe either. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jan/21/mash-movie-robert-altman-misogyny

Trevor said...

Great post, Ken. It's ridiculous that anyone would get upset over this episode. I'm gay, have seen the episode, and have no problem with it.

There are some shows that age better than others because of changes in attitudes but I think Cheers still holds up quite well. I think Frasier has aged a bit better but, what can you do? Luck of the draw.

I think one of the reasons for the revisionist outrage is due to the Internet. You can do a search on a topic and you can find content from 20+ years ago right next to content that was produced today and, in the search results, it all looks the same.

Chris said...

"Perspective people. Perspective."

Whose perspective? Yours or theirs? The perspective of the present moment or the perspective of [X] years ago? The perspective of the majority who doesn't see the cultural impact or the minority who can't quite outrun it?

"Yeah but that was 30 years ago!"

Sure. But let me tell you, I love The Mikado. I have a solid chunk of it memorized and I'd love to see it performed. It probably won't happen because it's deeply problematic (now) and treats an entire culture like an exotic trophy (which was kind of the intent, as it was satirical) and I will never completely understand the backlash against it. But I have a couple Asian-American friends who do. And they can objectively understand its place in the canon, the beauty and humor of the songs, the talent of the performers... but casting a Latino actor in the main role (which happened in Seattle seven or eight years ago)? Treating THEIR culture as a laughingstock? Like I said, I don't have to completely understand it but I should believe them.

"But it won an award!"

Yep. Like Gone with the Wind swept the Oscars in 1940. Classic film, great cinematography and deeply problematic. That it won awards does nothing to make it any less problematic because the context has shifted.

The context. Dare I say it, the perspective?

People didn't have a problem then. Now they do. Who are you going to listen to?

Of course I don't think problematic art should be banned. Hell, I'd even like to see Song of the South again. But they're not being banned. They're just removed from immediate culture where someone could stumble on it. You can still see Gone with the Wind, you just probably won't see it on syndication or Netflix. Such banning!

Oh and Brian? "I love how these same people won't do a damn thing to ban guns but they are pretty brave about standing up to comedy."

A) Comedy isn't storming into a school with an AK, blazing away so... yeah it's a bit easier.\
B) Governments are the ones who refuse to do things about guns. Don't get confused.

Andy Rose said...

I'm sorry to hear about the death of Gene Reynolds. What an amazing career!

Jahn Ghalt said...

Some folks are saying ("Boys in the Bar" is) totally offensive to the LGBT community.

Don't they get that Sam Malone was "heroic" in that episode - and that the "phobes" were made to look foolish?

My son, 'out' at age 16 and now 23, got it - even thought it was funny.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Tim W. wrote:

the final few seasons ... the Sam/Rebecca relationship was far more equal (than her first few seasons)... I just can't get over how predatory (Sam was towards Rebecca).

I seem to recall that Sam was "fished out" of unemployment by Rebecca - edge to the lady. Rebecca showed no fear or intimidation - more like disgust - another edge.

I think the writers knew how to make her strong - at least regarding Sam (not so much regarding Mr. Drake) - it's almost like we have been watching different shows.

(no doubt we have different filters from different generations)

Kevin from VA said...

Gene Reynolds, R.I.P.

Unknown said...

Ken, I am linking to a video by Matt Baume. He has a YouTube channel doing media analysis focusing on queer subjects and issues. His latest video is on this very episode of Cheers. He does exactly what you ask, and I think you would like it. I also like his video examining homosexuality in Frasier.


gottacook said...

Sorry to hear about Gene Reynolds. I happened to see "Out of Sight / Out of Mind" last night on MeTV, and just now went back and reread your story of how that ended up being your first sale to MASH. Even if he had only done his five years of producing/directing/writing on MASH and the next five on Lou Grant, that would have been a hell of a career right there.

Mike Doran said...


That wasn't really a "premonition" I had.
My uneasiness is of long standing; it predates much of the current madness.

I have this "Big Picture" thing going, which began not long after the '72 kerfuffle.

It goes something like this:

At least one of the Two Major(?) Parties will break apart during an election, resulting in three (or more) Presidential candidates in that year's vote.

It's happened three times in our history: 1912, 1948, 1968.
I'm referring to those times when the extra candidate was sufficiently strong to carry states, and thus get Electoral Votes.
In two of those cases, Number Three was a spoiler: Teddy Roosevelt in '12, knocking out Taft and giving the win to Wilson; Wallace in '68, taking the Solid South from the Democrats and letting Nixon in through the back door.
'48 was a special case: Truman lost the Right to Thurmond's Dixiecrats and the Left to Henry Wallace's Progressives, but still managed to pull off a win because Tom Dewey was such a cipher.(Incidentally, does anyone recall Dewey's running mate that year? Just think: if Dewey had been popular at all, he would have had a VP/heir apparent primed and ready for '56 - Earl Warren.)
But That Was Then - and This (unfortunately ) Is Now …

Many still hold out hope that between now and November, Trump will pull some spectacular rock that will make older heads in the GOP stage a '74-style intervention and force him out.
But Trump doesn't take orders; if he stands his ground - and enough of his right-wing cronies stick with him - you might see two Republican tickets in the fall (which one Trump would head up - that's in the air).

While on the other hand -
The Democrats might see a similar split between the Progressives and the Moderates that could cause a schism on that side.

Since the Electoral College isn't set up for three candidates, either of these setups could create chaos as in the past.
But what if BOTH splits happen?
What if enough states go in four different directions to prevent any candidate from getting to 270 in the EC?
We're definitely not prepared for that outcome.

I know, I'm panicking prematurely.
But the fact that nobody is even considering the possibility of this …
I hope I'm wrong.
What I fear is another matter …

Mike Britt said...

I think that all writers should wait until tomorrow to write their scripts. That way they will be more timely and up to date.

VincentS said...

Not surprised to hear that the LGBT community is upset at that episode AND that you won a GLAAD award at the time, Ken. Irony is one of the first signs of changing times.

MikeN said...

Mike Doran, of course we're prepared. It's in the Constitution and it's happened before. The very existence of the Electoral College is what makes the scenario unlikely.
Regional parties or minor parties can't win states, so even with potentially large vote shares, then can't win. Ross Perot had 19% and got zero EV. So these parties and candidates don't bother running anything but proforma campaigns. The case for Evan McMullin or Mitt Romney in 2016 wasn't that he could win 270 electoral votes, but that he would win in Utah and have a tie elsewhere, pushing the race into Congress.

UnWoke said...

Mike Doran

Your knowledge of US political history is impressive. But whilst the scenario you put forward is intriguing, I think it's about as likely as a comeback tour by Gary Glitter. The Republicans have stood by Trump solidly throughout the impeachment process. The notion that within a few months they'd decide to ditch him as their candidate for November is fantasy. The ridicule they'd receive for doing such a 180 would last a thousand years.

Ditto the notion of the Democrats having a split.

What you do have, though, is a very entertaining premise for a film or series. I don't know if you're a writer but I think you should write it up as a treatment and register it with the WGA. I could see it work as an absurdist comedy.

But in the real world, ain't gonna happen.

P.S. I watched the SOTU and, as I predicted, it was a non event except for Nancy Pelosi ripping up her copy of the speech, which was hilarious and has dominated the coverage. That must be really pissing him off.

And the number of references in the speech to the previous administration reinforces the fact that Obama is living in his head rent free. I don't think there's ever been a president who's mentioned his predecessor this much. Obama actually kept inviting W Bush to various events or functions by way of being non-partisan and friendly towards his predecessor. Trump can't go a week without angrily tweeting about Obama.

Sean said...

From reading some of the comments on here I'd caution some people: the present group consensus is a terrible foundation for your sense of morality. Among other problems (many much more signifigant) adopting this mindset will leave you lost and confused, especially as you get older.

"Pop" morality won't serve you well.


Patric James Callahan said...

Thank you for the apology but not necessary. Gay content had been practically non existent back then. The first reoccurring prime time character play played by Billy Crystal on Soap was way off base. But it was a start. Those few moments on TV was like a glass of water in the desert. Not accurate but the start of representation. As someone who was born gay can I just thank you for that drink of water when we were all so thirsty.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen series "Graves" it is on Hulu but dates from 2016 for first season and is about a reganesque thuglican ex president all of a sudden realizing the damage he has done and his modest attempts to correct hem.
Nick Nolte, Sela Ward lead the cast.
Only thing wrong is that it try's to show that there are still some "principled" thuglicans which is like believing in unicorns.
Just curious on your take.

Brian said...

To CHRIS from 2/4/2020 4:59 PM

"A) Comedy isn't storming into a school with an AK, blazing away so... yeah it's a bit easier.
B) Governments are the ones who refuse to do things about guns. Don't get confused."

Chris, it's a defeatist attitude like that which allows our government, whom WE elect to continue ignoring all the killings by guns. If people spent a fraction of the time they do online demanding apologies and criticizing someone for a Tweet or photo or a joke that offends them and instead put that effort into electing government representatives who would pass strict gun laws, well, we'd have a hell of a lot safer schools for our kids. Of course, the downside is, there'd be less apologies given for silly jokes or stupid remarks, so I can see your point. We must keep the apologies coming.

Mike Doran said...

To UnWoke - Hello again:

Right out of the gate, you're making the mistake of assuming that our Major Political Parties are somehow monolithic.
Long ago, I learned that they were anything but.
I remember 1972, when the farLeft Democrats decided to "punish" the older heads of their Party (big city bosses like Daley I, big Labor like George Meany, anybody was wasn't as antiwar as they were, etc.) by driving them out of the National Convention that year; the direct result was Nixon's "landslide" in the wake of an ongoing scandal that should have beaten him (theoretically, at least).
Nearly 50 years on, I feel the echoes of that mentality - on both sides of the aisle.

Any time somebody springs a poll at me, I ask two questions:
(1) Who took the poll?
(2) What was the exact wording of the questions?
Most of those "polls" that show Trump's heavy support among Republicans are from organizations that are right-wing to start with; their questions reflect this - they load their questions to get the answers that they want.
(I know, the left does this too; it's part of the playbook, and always has been, for as long as I can remember.)

The same with the President's "rallies", where he does his "Trumph The Insult Comic President" standup routine; you can't get in unless you're part of the fan club to start with (does anybody really believe that they all came from home with their prop hats and signs?).

There's a large rank-and-file out there, with people who voted for Obama (twice in some cases), who switched to Mr.Trump for various and sundry reasons, mainly related to a personal dislike for Mrs. Clinton.
And even with that, she still won the popular vote by nearly three million people who voted.
I'd venture to say that there's a lot of voter regret out there, but even that may fall in the wake of the internal dissension among the current Democratic crop (they're running each other down even more than they are the incumbent, and that has never worked in our history).

You misread what I wrote as a prediction; it wasn't.
As long as we continue to be subject to the fallacies of the Electoral College, the prospect of Things Going Wrong (as bad as they did in 2016 or worse) remains in force.

The 2020 election will occur a month and a few days after I mark my 70th birthday.
I am not looking forward to either event.

D McEwan said...

"Mike Britt said...
I think that all writers should wait until tomorrow to write their scripts."

I always do. Terrible procrastinator. My motto has always been "Never write today what I can write tomorrow." This goes all the way back to high school term papers, every single one of which was written in its entirety the night before it was due. I always got "A"s anyway.

Amanda said...

It is utterly moronic in my humble opinion that a few idiots can cause "outrage" and want an episode pulled. If they want that episode pulled that clearly didn't understand what they watched and are not that deep apparently.How sound they can't use their brain well enough to see an obvious message. By the way that episode aired around 12 years before I was born...perhaps it's my conditioning that 90% of the shows I've enjoyed watching in my life are "retro" that I'm capable of seeing the bigger picture.