When you want to slap someone, do it! Just say ‘mosquito’ first. Bumper Sticker
“A wild bird will fall from a bough, frozen, dead, without ever feeling sorry for itself” D H Lawrence
“It ain’t no sin if you crack a few laws now and then, so long as you don’t break any” Mae West
“Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you $1000 for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul” M. Monroe
I flapped skyward, straining to symbolically obtain an eagle’s view of the conflagration. It didn’t become clear until the air was rare and I felt giddy. Down below there were three interlocking squares: humor 2022, Hollywood Oscars, and the impact of a deserved/undeserved bitch slap. The dilemma was, as poet Piet Hiem said ‘ …beyond perceptions reach—locked boxes, each containing the other’s key.’ It was also a koan I had to answer, if only philosophically.
My wild wings iced; I plummeted to the ground, and a horse dumped a pile of steaming excrement atop me. You’ve heard this 100+ year old gag before? I screeched and complained, failing to realize the horse poop had melted the ice. A cat was alerted by the noise, investigated, removed the poop, and swallowed me whole. The moral: not everyone that poops on you is your enemy; not everyone that takes poop off you is your friend. When you are safe and warm, even if it’s in a pile of poop, shut up.
It’s human nature to complain, to pick sides, and in the 21st c, many tend towards political correctness, aka not offending other people, genders, races. Some recoil in horror at real or perceived violence of any kind, or discount the atavistic influence of our reptile and mammalian brains. It doesn’t surprise me that America 2022 is a divided, ferocious country. Haven’t we always been divided, with two or more political parties, rights for men versus rights for women, rights for the wealthy, state versus human rights, lack of rights for non-whites, a civil war fought…? In just the past two years, we’ve seen loads of slaps and punches thrown on planes; tantrums regarding mask mandates; health care workers slapped, punched, shoved…increased gun violence and gun and alcohol buying; suicides up; devastating, ugly wars; and slaps and sneers handed out.
We seem stressed, frustrated, anxious, depressed. Some are grieving; others feel isolated, floundering because of severed ties, fallen friends, or lack of mental health resources. There’s a genuine sense of anomie. We had a cure, or at least a coping mechanism via comic relief, satire, pratfalls, canny curmudgeons, even songs belting out ‘clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right...’ Now humor is being regulated and denigrated, and its comedians interrogated and excommunicated.
What (kind of) united us might surprise many. Media, per Michael Ventura and other pundits, “gave us a coherent sense of being a country.” It gave us a harder foundation than the swampy soil upon which we were founded, a shared, albeit diverse identity. Sadly, many bought the farm, fantasy, distortions and figments, the blatant violence. We came together in the 20th century ‘as an audience.’ It’s not really been ‘we the people,’ but we the spectators. I suspect our democracy is faltering because ‘we’ haven’t figured out how to govern, how to advance, how to subdue ancient survival impulses.
Scratch an audience and find a body-less mob? For an audience consists of heads bobbing, watching a screen or reacting to an on-screen slap by ranting or carelessly judging via social media, written and news commentary. We are, per Nathanael West (Day of the Locust) the ‘people who stare, people who long.’ We are people who (at worst) view fragments of distorted, devalued dreams and scream. At best, we create our own sound stage and world. Too often, we imitate fake sets and sensibilities.
There are no shortages of Hollyweird slap scenes. One of my two favorites is from In the Heat of the Night. Visiting Detective Sidney Portier is slapped—he slaps back. At the beginning of Gone With the Wind, Scarlet slaps Ashley. Midway through The Godfather, Brando slaps Johnny Fontaine (and metaphorically Frank Sinatra). Mommy Dearest Faye Dunaway slaps her adopted daughter, and in Chinatown she slaps Nicholson in the famous ‘she’s my sister, she’s my daughter’ speech. McQueen slaps MacGraw in The Getaway and Russell slaps Billy Bob Thornton in Tombstone. Cher slaps Nic Cage and tells him to ‘snap out of it’ in Moonstruck. Even Oprah lands a few smacks in The Butler, and a young Macaulay Culkin slaps himself in the mirror in Home Alone. I can keep naming rosy cheeked recipients of 101l blows…Rose in The Titanic, Ferris Bueller, the lady in Jaws, the Lion King…
Perhaps the best movie scene slap is in the comedy Arthur. He and Hobson are at the racetrack. Arthur’s bitching about being miserable. He asks Hobson if he knew what the worst part of being him was. Hobson replies, “I should imagine your breath,” and tells him to remove his race helmet. Hobson slaps Arthur several times and says, “you spoiled little bastard. You’re a man that has everything, but that’s not enough. You feel unloved, well welcome to the world. Everyone is unloved. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and marry Susan. Poor drunks don’t find love. They urinate outdoors and freeze to death in summer. I can’t bear to think of you like that. Perhaps fate will lend a hand…”
My first bitch slap, at age 6 ½, is still remembered, still felt in absentia. It was earned by sticking my tongue out at my mother. Her ring also cut my face, leaving a two-inch scratch. It was the first of many to follow. When my father found out, he slapped her back, reminding everyone he was the only one who got to physically punish me or her. He added, “and don’t ever touch her head.” He’d break his own dictate when I was 16 after discovering I’d been hypnotizing school chums and my sister.
A classmate I insulted in junior high left a 3D complaint on my face. I bloodied his nose. However, he’d hurled the first insult. There were slaps and slap backs from lovers and ex’s. Sometimes I wished I was an octopus with eight hands and Kevlar skin. When a husband left his imprint on my daughter’s arm, I figuratively slapped back times 3. There was a boss that liked to pull bra straps; I didn’t wear a bra. So he’d raise the back of my shirt or jacket to verify. The next time he tried, I whipped round and tweaked his generously sized nose. He drew back to slap me, then decided against it and leered. He never bothered me again. After that, I lost count of the slaps I received—and gave—in return.
In medieval times, men engaged in trial by combat to resolve problems and insults. They ‘threw down the gauntlet’ via a physical or figurative slap. The church, for its Confirmation ceremony, used to give cheek slaps, and various cultures slap girls the first time they menstruate. In 18thc France, nearly 10,000 slaphappy duels were recorded, resulting in over 400 deaths. Samurai’s slapped & dueled; so did two British Prime Minister’s, a US President, and Burr-Hamilton. There was even a movie about dueling soldiers during Napoleonic Wars called The Duelist’s. Insult (bitch) slapping was still popular in the 1850s-1890s in the deep South.
At some point, we went from slap to schtick…via clowns and harlequins, jesters and jokers, tricksters, and comedians—graduating from vaudeville & burlesque to the big screen and the stand-up stage. At its founding, the American sense of humor was not bountiful (I blame the Puritans). Charles Dickens (post 1860s US tour) was sure we weren’t funny, just dull. Artemus Ward and Mark Twain helped change that, as did James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and Ogden Nash. In 1871, we created Puck, our first humor magazine, in imitation of the Brit’s Punch. Harvard Lampoon followed, as did funny comics, Mad Magazine, and The Onion. A slew of humorists emerged, as well as limericks, puns, bawdy songs, and parodies. All were designed to elicit a chuckle or a sense of schadenfreude—humor that’s both absurd and humane.
Scholars say our earliest humor was toilet talk. It’s thought to convey a sense of equality, relatability. Culturally, bodily sounds—belches, farts, upchucking, whistling—and hand and arm gestures don’t translate as well. Nor does political humor—from exaggerated caricatures of politicians to cartoons of religious figures, e.g., Charlie Hebdo satire magazine and 2018 shooting that claimed nearly 20 Parisian lives. However, social media, and books of insults, snarks, and the Truly Tasteless Joke series, as well as limericks, and wisecracks still sells 1000s of copies, or are viewed by millions.
Many comedians have (or earned honorary) degrees in armchair psychology. They are wiz’s at reading an audience, and adjust their banter accordingly. They use their wit, sarcasm, and awesome wordsmithing talents to confront authority and lampoon ludicrous laws, people, and sentiments. Several, including Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dave Chappelle say they now avoid college campuses, where the politically woke can’t take a joke. In 2022, what’s allowed is largely determined by the audience, aka people that stare—and react, laugh, or heckle.
Today, it seems to be stop, think, apologize in advance. Can you imagine Charlie Chaplin apologizing for belittling the homeless; Hobson saying sorry for dressing down Arthur the drunk; Monty Python offering bribes to the church; and Carlin, Maher, Bruce, Pryor, Rivers, Rock, Rosanne, Rickles, A D Clay, Gervais, Chappelle, Saget, Williams, Murphy…apologizing to everyone for everything? Absurd!
I’m no stranger to slaps or previous Oscar ceremonies. Some say I have an infectious laugh—others wish there was a cure for it. I’ve been pointed out at Comedy Clubs as the ‘one with the hysterical belly laugh,’ and invited back. I’ve watched past Oscars to see if favorite movies and actors got prizes, and occasionally to hear a host’s monologue or actor quip. I’m not defending or applauding what one man did to another, in public, with cameras rolling, and Catwoman, Batman, and Spiderman sitting in the audience—not helping.
The Oscars is a place where (since 1953) we’ve seen people clap and slap, make unscripted trip ups on steps, give unsolicited political and eco-friendly advice and kisses, and speeches that go on too long. It’s where a man’s bare bottoms streaked across the stage sans tux, tie, undies; sporting only the family jewels. It’s where shoulders and chemically treated wrinkles are exposed, and soap boxes are straddled. For example: Fonda’s 1971 speech acknowledging the deaf and Redgrave’s 1978 Israel/Palestine speech. In 2014, forward thinking Jared Leto spoke out for trans people and Ukraine & Venezuelan Russian occupation struggles. Patricia Arquette & Cate Blanchett piped up about the need to increase female roles and pay. Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Brando’s 1973 Oscar for his role in The Godfather, though John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and others objected and several had to be physically restrained. John Legend talked of civil rights recognition. De Caprio espoused about climate change. These actors and awardees gave voice to victims and the disenfranchised.
Slaps and ribald, insulting humor once served a purpose. Think of Cath McCormack in Dangerous Beauty; Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet; Steve Martin in Roxanne; Groucho Marx in Duck Soup; the boys in The Hangover ‘you’re too stupid to insult...’ Slaps were permitted to correct a child reaching for a hot stove; to assert authority; to answer a serious verbal affront. In 2022, a parent can be thrown in jail for lightly slapping a child’s hand; and an actor can be arrested and charged with multiple counts of assault for a bitch slap. At Edinburgh Castle, below the red lion emblem, there’s a Scottish Stuart motto in Latin Nemo Me Impure Lacessit, which roughly equates to ‘Hit me & I’ll hit back twice as hard.’ Fair enough, in my opinion. I was never a cheek turner, though like Rambo I’ve muttered ‘they drew first blood.’
In Kahlil Gibran’s book Sand & Foam, he says ‘We shall never understand one another until we reduce language to seven words.’ Is it mere coincidence one of my favorite stand-up comics, George Carlin, had a skit called 7 Words You Can’t Say on TV? Is it sheer chance 3 of those 7 words are part of ancient humor’s toilet talk? Carlin also reminded we alone give these words power. His humor came from his experiences, speech observations, and world trigger points. He wasn’t a cheerleader; but the ultimate cynic with a ‘sympathetic contempt’ for life. If we can’t openly laugh at deadpan farce, vulgarity, and the splendor and pageantry that is life, in all its bawdy beauty, I think we’re doomed.
This is the problem with koans—conundrums are never really unraveled—they’re massaged and reboxed. The best we can do is extrapolate: recall best movie quips, well delivered jokes that bestow belly laughs, and deserved/undeserved slaps from the past–while marveling that in spite of or because of them we survive and sometimes evolve. A little birdie whispered we coulda, mighta also heeded advice offered in the movie Fight Club—you do not talk about fight club. For humor and fierceness (however subtle) are difficult subjects to dissect. E B White said “it can be done, but the frog croaks in the process.” Or perhaps Hobson, ‘fate will lend a hand’ and show us a better way to tolerate and value each other.