I love bad taste and transgressive humor as much as anyone, whether it’s a crucified Eric Idle singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the Acceptable TV gang on VH1 parodying reality-TV shamelessness with the willfully excruciating “My Black Friend.”
But I’ve always winced at anyone who bills himself (or has his representatives bill him) as an “equal-opportunity offender”–which is the tack that the defenders of Don Imus have taken. Any true aficionado of comedy and comedians knows that “equal-opportunity offender” is apologist code for “hack entertainer trading in dated ethnographic material.” Jackie Mason comes to mind (he actually has a DVD out called Equal Opportunity Offender), as does Carlos Mencia. A corollary to this, which I learned from my old Spy boss Kurt Andersen, is that anyone who uses a construction along the lines of “I treat people all the same; I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple, or green”–who uses colors that no human being can actually be–is inherently a racist bastard.*
Growing up in the orbit of the New York metro radio stations, I was subjected to Imus-mania from about the late ’70s onward, and I must say, I never found him funny; even 25 years ago, his shtick was tired and bigoted, and leaned heavily on fish-in-a-barrel targets. His most famous running character–oh, the originality!–was a vain, buffoonish, corrupt evangelist named Billy Sol Hargis. (In retrospect, I realize that Hargis was basically Imus’s unfiltered id.) I tuned Imus out in my teens, and was shocked to learn, in the early 1990s, that his show had become a popular stop for senators and prominent mediafolk. Evidently, going mano-a-mano with the Ime-ster was an aging Boomer’s idea of being frisky, a rite of midlife crisis.
I’m glad, in a sense, that Imus has now screwed up so badly that he can’t “equal-opportunity” himself out of this one. Unlike Michael Richards, who shocked himself with the ugly thoughts he had roiling inside him, and who was aptly described by Malcolm Gladwell as “the prototypical Hollywood liberal... clearly devastated by the notion that he might be considered a racist,” Imus has a long, unambiguous history of being a flagrant hater. His comeuppance is overdue.
What I’m not glad about is that this is now what the 2006-’07 Rutgers women’s basketball team will be forever remembered for. Up until a few days ago, the Rutgers team was one of this year’s great sports stories, a team supposedly in a rebuilding year, heavy on freshmen, that jelled into a late-season powerhouse that almost gave coach C. Vivian Stringer her first NCAA championship. As a child I lived within bicycling distance of the Rutgers Athletic Center and frequently attended Rutgers games, men’s and women’s. (My dad sold cars to Stringer’s immediate predecessor, Theresa Grentz.) So I was especially happy for the Lady Knights and took a keen interest in their tournament run. I appreciate that fellow Imus-slur survivor Gwen Ifill has nobly sought to put the spotlight back on the team’s accomplishments in her New York Times Op-Ed piece. But it’s still maddening that Imus will remain the bigger story.
* Well, I guess every rule has its exception. In her first press conference since Imus made his remarks, Stringer, the Rutgers coach, used the “black, white, purple, or green” construction, with the adjectives in that order.