I just read that Boston area shock jock Michael Graham is under fire for a series of dwarf jokes. As it so happens, I have a dwarf friend and have had an encounter with Graham. If this doesn't make me an expert, nothing does!
Among Graham’s “witty” remarks was the observation that he likes dwarf waitresses “because I can leave my dishes on their heads.” Is this funny? To me it ranks pretty far down the clever scale. It is mean and hurtful? Well, sure it is. So too are all of the short jokes I've experienced my entire adult life as a person who, though not a dwarf, am considerably less tall than the average American male, or “lummox,” as I like to call them. My choice of nouns in the previous sentence is meant to be glib, but also to remind us about a basic fact about humor: There is a butt to every joke. With all apologies to you well-intentioned folks who think that we need to be nicer to each other and should only tell jokes in which no one gets hurt, being nicer is a worthy goal, but your second wish is impossible. Take away the butt and there is no joke, no humor. We might as well face facts; the only politically correct jokes are those in which comics use themselves as the butt, or those that pick on white males. As I understand the PC crowd, it's not wrong to make fun of the hegemonic group as one is speaking truth to power. Yeah, right. You just keep telling yourself that!
This brings me to Graham. He's from the Rush Limbaugh/Ann Coulter/Bill O'Reilly branch of the evolutionary tree. Did he intend his dwarf remarks to be innocent? I doubt it. His shtick is outrage; or more to the point, that's the shock jock genre's shtick. Take away the screaming, the outrage, and the controversy and there is no reason to listen to radio shows such as his. Graham even creates enemies so they can be the butt of his jokes. He is to radio as the National Enquirer is to journalism; that is to say, entertainment, not news or serious political commentary.
I appeared on one of Graham's shows when I was teaching a controversial course on the 1960s. I knew what he wanted to do: make me look like a crazy professor out of touch with mainstream (defined by him as rightwing) values. If you've ever listened to or watched one of those shows, you know the trick: get the guest mad so that he engages in a shouting match with the host, who controls the microphone, the edits, and the ability to continue giving commentary after the guest is cut off. A lathered-up guest can give these folks material for a week. Why people go on these shows and think they can out-do the hosts at their own game is amazing to me; it actually confirms some of the arrogance that's alleged against "elitists," a favored put-down term for anyone with views to the left of Attila. (Apologies to all Huns.) My university, which felt it needed to address some of Graham’s allegations, forced me on the air or I would steered clear of the show. But I decided in advance that I simply would not play Graham's game. I laughed at his attempts at humor--like asking me if I passed out pot before each lecture--treated him with respect, and stayed completely calm. I knew that he hadn’t done any actual research--facts are boring, after all, so I filled in all the non-lurid detail. I even offered to email my syllabus to anyone who wanted it. In short, I made myself into a non-controversial guest; other than a single snarky post-interview comment, I was history as soon as I went off the air. Fine by me! I even got a few emails from Graham fans saying they thought he was out of line. I cherished those, but I also answered them respectfully.
So is Michael Graham a low-life? I don't know the man, but I suspect he probably isn’t. Graham and his ilk outrage those on the left, just as those on the right have spasms when they see Michael Moore or Jon Stewart. In each case, what we're really mad about is American culture. Those folks simply take advantage of what the capitalist market will bear, which makes it pointless to get mad at them. As I said, they're in the entertainment business. We should no more expect revelatory truth from these folks than we should expect a movie to show life as it really is. Don't we tune in to both in part because we seek vicarious thrills rather than the homemade kind? And, really, in a world of Bernie Madoffs, I just can't find within me the anger to think that a Michael Graham is tearing down American society. I try to reserve outrage for real things, not fiction.
Is Michael Graham funny? Not to me and not to my friend, but he has his fans. Should he lampoon dwarves? As my mother would say, pick on someone your own size, but maybe he ran out of professors. But do I want to lead the torch and pitchfork brigade to the radio studio? Nope. I know all of the arguments about how language is linked to power and how dominant groups use it to keep subordinates "in their place." I don't enjoy Graham's dwarf jokes any more than I would a racist joke. But like I said, there's always a butt, or there is no joke. You can get outraged by offensive jokes, but I think a more effective strategy would be to turn the offender into the butt of a counter joke. So fire away. Post your favorite Michael Graham jokes here.