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equal opportunity offender
is anything sacred? should it be?
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)

When my friend Kim informed me that she was coming down from Boston to see our friend Katie (possibly "Kate" these days; if she can call me by a college nickname, I can call her Katie) in a musical at -- get this -- Carnegie Hall -- and offered me her extra ticket, I said "Sure."

When I learned there would be Catholics protesting, I said "Definitely."

I should stop here and mention that protesters outside of any sort of theater, museum, etc. usually get my goat. I cringe at the thought of free expression being flushed down the toilet because a painting, show, movie, or whatever has offended someone's sensibilities. I understand that people will occasionally get offended -- there are plenty of offensive things out there (I'll get to Tuesday's performance in a minute) -- but I have two general rules I'd prefer everyone follow:
  • 1) If you're going to protest something, at least have the decency to have seen, read, or heard it first and make up your own mind. Don't let some leader tell you how you should feel about anything without examining it for yourself. I'm sure Salman Rushdie would agree with me on that one.
  • 2) Right before you leave your house to carry your sign in front of said theater, museum, etc., think to yourself, "Would my time be better spent volunteering at a soup kitchen or raising money for the homeless or actually doing anything to help people who really need my time rather than using those few hours lashing out at the latest offense that I'm told personally insults me and doesn't require any real effort beyond walking or the occasional clever rhyme?"
    Nearly 100% of the time, in my mind -- if you can follow all that -- the answer is "yes."

(I feel I should point out here that I fully support their right to protest. If anyone, for any reason, feels strongly enough about a cause to hold a peaceful demonstration either for or against that cause, that's fine with me. I just ask that they know what they're marching for.)

That caveat aside, I have to admit that protesting Catholics piqued my interest. For starters, I always assumed the protesters would be, um, Protestant (it just stands to reason, people). I also couldn't help wondering what show could be so offensive, especially one performed at Carnegie Hall, that it would get people so up in arms that they take to the streets on a Tuesday night in the rain. With signs.

Turns out that show is "Jerry Springer: The Opera."

And, yes, it was actually that offensive. It made "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" look like "The Muppet Movie." Or something.

The word "wow" doesn't even begin to describe it. From Jesus represented as an overweight black man in a diaper, to Mary singing a song asking her son where he was when she was in her old age, to -- get this -- tap-dancing Klansmen, it was just a paean (or a series of them) to bad taste. Not to mention what I can only imagine was far and above the most times the word "fuck" was ever uttered on stage in that eminent edifice.

On top of that, the offensive content of the lyrics was enhanced even further by the beauty of the music and the vocals. The score, by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, features chorales, duets, and arias, each more stunning than the next. These people can really sing. It was truly impressive.

If you don't believe me, go to YouTube.com and search "Springer Opera." They have some clips.

However, I do have a point here, and it is this: no matter how offensive something is, it is always important to consider the source and the intent before deciding whether to be offended. In this case, the intent, as far as I could see, was to make the audience laugh with the over-the-top sacriligiosity (sure, why not?) of it all. And we did. There were a couple of moments where I had trouble holding my breath. And I think I peed a little.

I have to say I am not surprised in the slightest that it would not please the Catholic church. Or any church, really. I think my comment following the show was, "I'm Jewish and I found that offensive."

Among people who might not have seen the humor in Jesus admitting he was "a little bit" gay was the Catholic League, which has accused the show of being "viciously anti-Christian." For the record, the Catholic League, "defends the right of Catholics -– lay and clergy alike –- to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination. Motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, the Catholic League works to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened."

It's a good thing I'm a fan of irony. And I'm not bashing the Catholic League, understand. I recognize that the Church does often take a lot of heat from liberals not unlike myself. I'm sure there have been some very important issues in which the League has involved itself over the years, and whether or not I agree with the Vatican's stance on certain things, a Catholic version of the Anti-Defamation League is probably very necessary.

That said, I'm stuck wondering how musical theater (even really wrong musical theater) has threatened the "religious freedom rights and the free speech rights" of, well, anyone anywhere. According to Catholic League President Bill Donohue: "Never before in its illustrious history has Carnegie Hall been home to Christian bashing, but that is all about to change on January 29 and 30. Incredibly, it is allowing a patently obscene and viciously anti-Christian musical to be performed on its stage. Thus has it got into bed with the bigots, making a mockery of art in the process. This isn't art -- it's license."

Now hold on a minute.

Since when did anyone say it was supposed to be art? It's artistic, sure, but it's satire, which I'm pretty sure is protected speech. (Actually, I know it is; I wrote a paper on it in college.) In addition, since when is poking fun at something (even in a patently offensive way) the same as being bigoted against it? The only thing Mr. Donohue's comment said to me was that he has no sense of humor.

I know there are those who don't agree with me when I say that humor can often be the No. 1 mitigating factor in deciding whether to be offended by something - and it is a decision. Some of you are probably thinking right now of some joke someone probably told you that you found offensive. I'll bet over 80% of you were thinking of a joke concerning a minority to which you belong.

That brought you up short, didn't it?

I'm not singling them out specifically, but, as an example, I'll bet that some members of the Catholic League have chuckled before at a Jewish joke or two. Maybe even told a black joke, or that one about the Chinese guy who goes to the doctor. But those are different, right? That's not anti-Jewish or anti-Chinese, it's just a joke.

The thing is, I actually happen to believe that. I'm a big proponent of the idea that a joke, told with no malicious intent at all, can be offensive and funny at the same time.

Consider the musical "The Producers." It features Nazis, onstage (or on film), dancing to a song entitled "Springtime for Hitler." Now that's offensive. But funny. And most people don't get offended. It helps, of course, to know that it was written by a Jew (Mel Brooks is Jewish, in case you weren't sure), but it's not necessary in order to see the humor, even if it's in poor taste.

"The Producers" doesn't have a meaning beyond being funny. And neither, as far as I could tell, does "Jerry Springer." It pokes fun at religion in the worst way, but also at rural America, the culture of TV and the ersatz "15 minutes of fame." A few characters (including, I might add, Satan) sing "This is my Jerry Springer moment..." In other words, a show that discriminates against everyone is, by definition, not discriminating.

I'll put it a different way. Which of these two scenarios seems more likely:

1) The writers are sitting around after having written a pretty offensive Act I and considering what they could do in Act II to top it. One of them says, "I know, let's send Jerry to Hell to mediate between Satan and Jesus!"


2) The writers are sitting around after having written a pretty offensive Act I and considering what they could do to really drive home how much they dislike Christians.

.....Okay, pencils down.

Of course it's choice 1. But there are people out there who go out of their way to get offended at the drop of a hat, and those are the people that drive me batty. Some just have a chip on their shoulders, others like the attention that being the squeaky wheel gets them, and yet a third just don't seem to have a sense of humor or a sense of perspective.

At the end of the show, Jerry -- of course -- does a wrap-up. In his synopsis of the show (warning: spoilers) found here, Donohue puts a few quotes in bold, as if to say, "Look, they're really anti-Christian here! Look! Look!" The two that he highlights are: "Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right," and "I've learned that there are no absolutes of good and evil."

I get that these are anti-Christian, or at least anti-Catholic, sentiments. The religion, as far as I know, is actually based on the idea that there are very definite absolutes of good and evil. However, the pontifications of a fictional Jerry Springer (performed in New York by Harvey Keitel, by the way) in a musical that features a character named Baby Jane who sings a song called "Mama Gimmee Smack on the Asshole" are pretty unlikely to influence, well, anyone.

Which is really the point. Humor can be barbed. Humor can offend. Humor can expose hypocrisy in all its forms. But because of its nature, humor can also be created, regardless of the subject matter, just for the sake of itself.

I'm sure no one walked out of that theater thinking less of Catholics or with a feeling of "wow, that really opened my eyes. I'll stop believing in God."

As Sigmund Freud or a friend of mine sophomore year once said: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

And sometimes a Jerry Springer moment is just a Jerry Springer moment.


A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

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tracey kelley
2.8.08 @ 7:06a

I guess I'm missing something here - was all the religious rhetoric anti-Catholic? Or anti-Christian?

mike julianelle
2.8.08 @ 9:36a

Funny, my office is in a building where a lot of theater-related stuff goes down - not entirely sure what, but at least auditions and employment stuff. And a few weeks ago I shared an elevator with Harvey Keitel (told him "I love your work"), and I have to assume that this was the production for which he was stopping by.

adam kraemer
2.8.08 @ 9:56a

Well, I think we're using "Christian" in the broadest sense, as any group that believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ. It was not "anti" per se, just sacrilegious. He gets attacked by Satan as being a hypocrite and by Mary as being a bad son. I'm sure the Mormons would have a huge problem with it, too, even though I didn't mention them.

jennifer pomper
2.8.08 @ 4:07p

Point taken. Seriously though, you would think the real life version
of Jerry Springer would be much more offensive. Never saw Bill D in
Cincinnati protesting.

sandra thompson
2.8.08 @ 4:38p

Everybody has the right to protest anything which offends them. If I didn't have far more important things to do I'd be protesting every day outside any church, synagogue, mosque, temple, whatevert you can name. I'd protest outside that museum of creationism, Bob Jones University, Notre Dame, parochial schools of every denomination. I think you get the idea. I don't care if Christians protest against things that offend them, as long as they allow me to protest against things that offend me. If I went around protesting stuff that offends me I'd never do anything else. What about all the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of TV shows which offend me because they are such epic wastes of time? Jerry Springer's show comes immediately to mind. I just don't watch them. In my opinion it's much more fun to protest wars or political issues. Works of art, however bad they may be AS art, are protected expression, just as protests against them are.

adam kraemer
2.8.08 @ 4:46p

As I said, "art" might be a misnomer. But it's definitely satire, which is definitely protected. See Hustler Magazine v. Falwell.

david damsker
2.8.08 @ 4:54p

I haven't been to the board in what seems like years. But I agree with Adam. A funny joke told without malicious intent is just that.....a funny joke.

dr. jay gross
2.8.08 @ 5:40p

Funny jokes in the guise of prejudice or bigotry is humorous to those who have internalized their own bigotry and are ashamed of their thoughts. It is always easier to take the negative side (put down) rather than support the 'good'. Springer's humor is disgusting to those who recognize evil in any of its forms.

All humans are a blend of Yin and Yan, good and evil. We have always had a choice. Do we really need to have our faces rubbed in the crap of this ultimate sickness to know what 'good' is? If anyone pays to see and be entertained in this way, they must want to be drowned in the feces of their own guilt.

adam kraemer
2.8.08 @ 5:51p

You are aware that Jerry Springer actually had nothing to do with this musical, right?

That said, is it not possible to create humor at the expense of a group of people without actually being prejudiced against that group? I tell lawyer jokes and I don't hate lawyers.

dan gonzalez
2.18.08 @ 11:37p

And yet the 'free mainstream press' of the USA wouldn't even print the cartoons of Muhammed that the brilliant Danes drew for fear of angering, not individual people, but whiny special interest groups!?!

The fact is, you can always freely offend people you're not afraid of. That's why people have been making fun of Jews, short guys like me, and guys that have small penises and smaller biceps, like Julianelle and Kraemer, since the dawn of time. (I could spit in those guys faces and they would break their toothpick clavicles punching me in the jaw!)

Let's ridicule something that's an actual, asinine threat to our well-being, like illegal aliens claiming affirmative action entitelments or government-run healthcare. Or Obama naming Oprah as his VP.

Something, I mean, I say fight and protest your asses off, but please make it count!

adam kraemer
2.19.08 @ 10:25a

Hey - my biceps are significantly bigger than my penis!

Though I guess that wasn't your point.

If I were ever to be a stand-up comedian, I'd tell a slew of Amish jokes. How would they know?

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