Monday, May 26, 2008

Sticks and Stones: Words We Love To Hate

© 2008 Leighann Lord

I'm no stranger to "the N-word." I apologize, not for using it here but for not knowing whether or not it should be capitalized. Is nigger a proper noun? "Strunk & White" doesn't say and my spell check has no opinion. It does, however, insist that the word "Geek" be capitalized, which speaks volumes about the folks at Microsoft. I’m also not sure which spelling makes it less offensive: nigger, nigga, nigguh? A word by any other name…?

I recently worked with a Caucasian comic who in the space of one minute used the words cunt and nigger. The 99% white audience groaned when he uttered the "c-word." They went dead quiet when he whipped out the "n-word." The one percent, by the way, was me standing in the back of the room watching the show with my mouth hanging open.

I know that cunt is an offensive word because that’s what people have told me. Through an odd confluence of events I, an English major, never heard the word until after I graduated from college. I have absolutely no personal feelings for or connection to this word other than knowing what it means to other people. Nigger is another story.

In the post-Michael Richards comedy world I thought it was pretty much an agreed upon no-no for any white comic to say "the n-word" on stage if they were playing anything but a Klan rally. The overall rule in comedy is you can say anything as long as it's funny, but when the room went silent, the vote was a unanimous, "Nope, not funny." I'll never know if the audience was truly offended, or if their response was colored by the fact that they had just watched and enjoyed my set, and saw me still standing in the room. Maybe they were just worried I had Al Sharpton on speed dial.

Thankfully the comic wasn't talking about me. I fear if he had I'd be penning this post from prison. Do they let you blog from the big house? Oddly enough I have been called a nigger in a comedy club; not by a white comic, but a black one.

The first time I opened for Paul Mooney I introduced him, he got on stage and said, "Isn't she smart and funny? Too bad she's a Nigger." (Coming from Paul, it’s meant to be capitalized.) That was his opening joke; the joke being that no matter who we are or how successful, we’re still judged by the color of our skin. Let the nervous laughter begin.

This happened each and every time I opened for Paul. I'm betting he says it about every act that opens for him. In case you don't know, his comedy is the epitome of shock and awe. He's that crazy uncle that says the most outrageous things. You laugh at half of it, shake your head at the rest and pray the secret police don't come for him in the night.

Does it hurt less being called a nigger by one of your own, than by someone of a different ethnicity? I don't know. So far, Paul’s the only one to ever call me that. So I guess what they say is true: racism begins at home. Perhaps the plan was to desensitize me so if happens I'll be able to handle it. I hope the plan fails. I hope I’m never able to handle it and I hope it always makes me angry.

Truthfully though, I’m not angry with either comic. I’m disappointed; disappointed that such talented, accomplished comics chose to use such a hateful, controversial and inflammatory word around me or about me. I carry myself like a lady and I enjoy being treated like one. Men hold my door, offer me their seat and ask me to "Excuse their French." Yes, I’ve failed as a radical feminist. That’s what I get for not going to the meetings.

But comedy is a contact sport. It can be rough and tumble; course and crude. That goes with the territory. Every time we step on stage and open our mouths somebody is going to be offended. Some comics think it's their duty to be deliberately offensive, but to what end?

I did a show once with a family of tourists in the audience: Two parents and their two junior high school aged kids. I believe a comedy club is an adult entertainment venue and parents bring kids at their own risk. That said, the show's promoter asked the comics to please keep it clean. Although difficult for some, we all agreed, except for one very young comic. Not only was he not clean, his content was purposely over the top sexual, filthy and unfunny. It was so egregious, that the next comic looked at him from the stage and said, "Was it worth it? What did you prove?"

This is difficult to write because like most comics, I despise being told what to do. As a group we jealously and zealously guard our freedom of speech and bristle at even well-intentioned censorship. Recently I was doing a return engagement and received an email from a lady who had seen and enjoyed my show. She wrote:

"I am writing to ask you a favor: I don't remember … you … making jokes about gays or lesbians when you were here last time, but I wanted to ask you not to include this type of material in the upcoming show. Or to say that you have been asked to not include this type of "humor"(???). I know that ethnic jokes, etc. are always pretty funny and enjoyed by all, However sexual orientation jokes can be hurtful and I know that a few of our guests will be gay."
To summarize: nigger jokes good; fag jokes bad. It sounds like she would have enjoyed the aforementioned comics a great deal.

My first reaction – after wanting to do her gross bodily harm - was to go on stage, read her e-mail aloud and tell as many gay jokes as I possibly could. For the record, I didn't; but it sounds good on paper doesn’t it? Hilarious, but I just don’t have the tubes. Part of the problem is I’m basically a nice person who doesn’t go around intentionally assaulting or insulting people. As immensely popular as this type of comedy is, it’s just not my style. I’ll leave it to the funny thugs.

I also know this story would end with me sitting at a bar recounting it to other bitter comics who’d commend me for "fighting the good fight"; and I’d be complaining that I don’t understand why the booker won’t return my calls. It must be because he’s gay.

Freedom of speech comes with responsibility. I'm not advocating censorship or political correctness, but an awareness of the power of words. Comedy is funny because it makes light of what hurts, but it crosses the line when it seeks to be hurtful. "Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me." That's not true. Words can wound. Anybody who's ever been taunted by a school bully knows that. Music industry executives know it or they wouldn't enjoy the spike in sales when recording artists lyrically attack each other in their songs. Stand-up comics should know it since words are our stock and trade.

The "Sticks and Stones" adage forces the victims of verbal assault to take the high road, while tacitly giving approval to the attacker. "Go ahead, say whatever you want. You're not 'really' hurting someone as long as you don't hit them." And if the person being verbally accosted retaliates physically we blame "them" for taking the bait. "What's wrong? Can't you take a joke?"

The implication is that emotional pain is less than physical pain. This is probably why we have a health care system that doesn't include an even remotely adequate mental health component. You can get over-the-counter meds for aches and pains but healing hearts and minds? N-word, please. That’s what people go to comedy shows for. Hopefully they’ll get a comic that can do the "f-word" job.
Thank you for reading The Urban Erma.

Please feel free to subscribe or visit again soon to find out about news, Leighann's TV appearances, live stand-up comedy shows or to join the mailing list.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What Kind of Cake Do You Want At Your Funeral?

© 2008 Leighann Lord

There are those who believe it's okay to bring children to wakes and funerals. Exposing them early to the reality of death is part of the learning process. I didn't have those kind of parents. Not only did I not go as I child, but I basically got a pass well into adulthood; consequently I'm not up on my funeral etiquette.

From what I gather no funeral is complete without an argument over money and method. The amount of money doesn't matter. Since you can't take it with you some folks want a piece of anything that gets left behind. Something about the grieving process inspires some souls to channel their inner vulture.

Pick your side and choose your weapon, the next big battle is cremation and memorial, versus wake and burial. I go with the latter. While I don't relish the idea of maggots noshing on my earthly remains, cremation is a little too creepy for me. Call me vain, but I'm keeping my options open. In case there's a real Night of the Living Dead I want to be a good looking zombie.

On the other hand, I'd rather be cremated than videotaped. I once went to a funeral service that had more cameras than a George Lucas film set. I think they even had a jib. I've enjoyed my share of horror movies but I draw the line at watching the DVD of anyone's funeral. Even with the promise of wacky out takes and a blooper reel I'm gonna have to pass. Okay, I'll compromise with Weekend at Bernie's but that's it.

When the mother of a childhood friend passed away, my Mom and I went to the funeral service. We got to the church so early that I ended up helping the ladies set up refreshments in the vestibule. It was a pretty nice spread: pound cake, muffins, mini bagels, coffee, orange juice. Say what you want about Catholics, but we don't mourn on an empty stomach.

When I finished slicing the Entenmann's I sat with my Mom who was gazing sadly at the shrouded coffin. She said, "I guess that's where they'll put me." And I said, "But first there'll be cake. What kind do you want?" We both laughed, happy for the momentary diversion, but I was serious. The list of arrangements had just gotten longer: insurance, next of kin and cake. In case you're wondering, I like sweet potato pie. I'd consider it a personal favor if you'd slip a piece into the coffin for me just in case they Egyptians had it right.

One of my maternal uncles passed away earlier this month. No major money squabbles, no video, no cake; just a simple viewing and memorial service. People from his neighborhood and his job came to pay their respects. In between handshakes, hugs and whispered words of condolence I heard stories about his kindness, charisma and extraordinary service at work. It made me wish I'd known the person they were talking about. One tearful woman embraced me and said, "I'll miss him more than you will." She's probably right.

For some reason, in the last few years my Uncle cut himself off from the family. He stopped returning phone calls and coming to family functions. It's like he just disappeared. I don't know why, but I'm sure he had his reasons.

To make matters worse, the last thing I clearly remember my Uncle saying to me wasn't very nice. He put in a rare appearance at a Christmas dinner several years ago. As he was leaving he kissed me on my cheek, thanked me for the lovely time and then said, "You've put on some weight."

Excuse me? Did he just sit in my house, eat my food, and then call me fat to my face? I'm not fat. Nor have I ever been fat. (My Mother will tell you that I was a very healthy eight pound baby, and a sausage-legged toddler, but that doesn't count.) In a size-obsessed world, just the insinuation of fat is enough to make a normally reasonable person paranoid. "Oh my god. Am I really putting on weight and no one told me? Why didn't anybody tell me?"

In retrospect my Uncle probably meant it in a good way. After my toddler days I was an underweight kid and an extremely picky eater. My paternal aunts often lamented that I was so skinny, I could run through rain drops. "A good hard wind will blow she down." But I didn't think of that. All I thought was, "He called me fat." Technically I should be grateful. My anger and subsequent paranoia helped lead me back to the practice of martial arts. I'm in the best shape of my life. The fat, real or imagined, doesn't live here anymore.

What upsets me more than my Uncle's death are the circumstances that surround it. He died alone, in his apartment. He was found when people in the neighborhood realized that they hadn't seen him for a week. In the top ways people don't want to die, alone ranks right up there with painfully and slowly.

Even if you're not religious, death inevitably conjures thoughts of God and the hereafter. Reincarnation has an allure. It's nice to think I'll get a second bite at the apple. I'd like to come back as a dog. The ones in my house live the life of reincarnated royalty.

On the other hand who doesn't want to go to heaven? Quiet as it's kept, even Satan wants back in. But there's a lot of truth in jest and I worry that an old joke I heard once is true. Do you know why comics don't go to heaven? Because they never see the light.


Thank you for reading The Urban Erma.

Please feel free to subscribe or visit again soon to find out about news, Leighann's TV appearances, live stand-up comedy shows or to join the mailing list.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Gum Chewing Moon Walker

© 2008 Leighann Lord

Dog is God spelled backwards, and like God my Cocker Spaniel has many names. His given name is Rolie, but his nicknames include Mr. Nubbins, The Mister, The Spaniel, The Carpet Weasel and, of course, His Lordship. Ironically, he answers to none of this since he's mostly deaf. My Little Old Man is about eight years old, set in his ways, and not about to change. I, as the supposedly superior and adaptable human, have had to adjust to his habits and temperament.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Furry Baby

(Note: This story was written shortly after The Mister (our then six-year old Cocker Spaniel) joined our family. I am happy to report that both dog and carpet are doing fine.)

© 2008 Leighann Lord

They say owning a dog is not the same as having a kid, but there are times.

My Husband woke me at 4am to let me know The Mister was ill. He was vomiting and his bowels were getting the best of him and our carpet. Our Furry Guy was sick and now hiding in the bathroom.

Groggily I got up, went straight to the bathroom to pet him, rub his tummy and speak to him soothingly. My Husband cleaned the mess and then took The Mister out for some fresh air. When they returned, we all went back to bed. Crisis over.

When I got up at 7:30am I knew something was still wrong when I didn’t see The Mister on his pillow at the foot of our bed. I found him once again on the bathroom floor; the hallway carpet a mine field of poop.

I was worried. The Mister is very house broken and I knew he wouldn’t do this if he could help it. It’s not the same as having a sick baby, but like a baby, The Mister couldn’t tell us what was wrong or where it hurt.

It’s not the same but we did what any parents would do: cleaned up the mess again, called the doctor and then called my parents. My Dad, no stranger to sick children or dogs, and emergency runs to the doctor told me not to throw everything away. He said, "Take a sample to the vet." So armed with rubber gloves, a swath of paper towels and a zip lock freezer bag I went about the task of evidence collection. It’s not as cool as it looks on

This is not at all what I envisioned when we got a dog. I vaguely remember my parents running down the list of responsibilities that come with dog ownership. I half heard it in the same way that I heard the lecture about car ownership before I got my first car. I wanted a car then, I wanted a dog now. What could go wrong? Shedding, illness, crap on the carpet. Yeah, it’s all fun and games until the poop hits the rug.

It’s like when people tell you not to mix drinks, and then you do; and then you say, "Oh." Well, actually, you wake up the next morning and say, "Ohhhhhhhhh!" Experience is the best teacher for a reason.

Evidence in hand, dog in car, we dashed out to the vet’s office and got there before she did. The Mister is tense because he knows where he is. I guess for him, going to the vet when he’s sick is like adding insult to injury. I must confess I too felt a little anxious when I heard the vet snap on the rubber gloves.

We lifted The Mister up on the table and to his credit he was good about it. He kept very still and stared straight ahead as though he were tolerating the exam with all the dignity he could muster.

As the vet examined him, she asked us questions and my Husband and I verbally tripped over each other to answer; finishing each others sentences, giving her as much information as we could, not knowing what would help. We revealed our nervousness as much in our tone as in our worried glances. "Is that for me?" she said, gesturing to the zip lock evidence bag I was clutching. "Yes, we thought it would help."

"It will," she said. Finally, we’re helping.

It’s not the same worry you’d have for a sick baby, but we love and care for The Mister, and he depends on us to do what’s best for him, and you panic when you don’t know what that is.

In the end it cost us $79 to find out he just had an upset tummy from eating the grass in the yard and being out in the heat. A week’s worth of pills, two days of special dog food, no snacks and The Mister was good as new. I wish I could say the same for my carpet.

No, it’s not the same as having a baby, but perhaps a diaper would have helped my rug. I guess if we ever get brave enough to have kids, we’ll op for bare floors.

Thank you for reading The Urban Erma.

Please feel free to subscribe using the orange link at the top right side of the page or visit again soon to find out about news, Leighann's TV appearances, live stand-up comedy shows or to join the mailing list.