July 24, 2008

Op-Ed ; For Hypersensitivity, Weymouth Takes the Cake


During my days as a stand-up comic, I faced some pretty tough crowds. In Nashville, I was escorted off stage by security to keep a bachelor party from beating me to a pulp. In Michigan, a large, leather-clad patron with a knife followed me into the men's room to suggest I rework some of my "biker" material.

But at least I never had to work in Weymouth, where one bad joke cost the police chief his gun and badge and, maybe, his job.

Chief James Thomas has been a cop for 34 years. According to The Quincy Patriot Ledger, he didn't retire when he became eligible at 55 in order to continue serving as chief - a refreshing attitude in the modern era of public-sector double dipping.

And, according to media accounts, Thomas has an interesting sense of humor. At a birthday party for a female officer, he joked that she had to get to her night job at a local strip joint. Then he presented what sources call a "sexually explicit" birthday cake.

What did the cake look like? Was it anatomically correct? We don't know yet.

The town of Weymouth is being tight-lipped about this case. Nobody is saying exactly what Thomas' comments were or what page of the Kama Sutra cookbook he got the cake recipe from.

What we do know is that everyone agrees that the chief was being funny. No discrimination. No suggestions that female officers could earn promotions by polishing the chief's nightstick on the side. Just - you know -

And now Thomas' entire career hangs in the balance.

Even assuming the chief's comments were completely crude and his cake utterly tasteless - does he have to be fired? Why isn't a simple apology enough?

But it's not, and everyone who works in a company large enough to have a human resources department knows it. We all walk a workplace minefield every day. Tell the one about the blondes and the Breathalyzer to an office buddy one morning and you could be carrying all your possessions away in a cardboard box that afternoon.

When did we decide on the death penalty for bad comedy, and if we did, why isn't Carrot Top behind bars?

I'm not saying that there's no such thing as an offensive joke or stupid comment. As a comic, I told jokes that inspired boos, threats and earnest appeals for me to seek therapy.

But I've never told one I couldn't apologize for, if I made a mistake.

But that assumes that everyone involved sees comedy for what it is, an inherently generous gesture. Laughter is a gift you give to people not something you take away. But in the current PC climate, the very notion of comedy is suspect.

A few days ago, Politico.com ran an article about how astonished people are that John McCain is still (horrors!) telling jokes. "He has jokingly threatened his staff with waterboarding," the horrified writer reported, and sang his infamous "Bomb, Bomb Iran."

Politico quoted former Sen. Bob Kerrey: "It's a lot harder to tell jokes than it used to be."

But why?

Is it because Americans have become less funny? Or has the PC grievance culture made us less forgiving? Sen. Barack Obama - whose campaign sees racism behind every wisecrack, and who attacked the New Yorker for a magazine cover they were too dumb to get - certainly isn't helping.

The proper reaction to a joke you don't find funny is to not laugh. That is the ultimate punishment.

As any comic who has stood before a silent, unsmiling crowd for half an hour will tell you, it's worse than waterboarding.

No joke.

Michael Graham hosts a talk show on 96.9 WTKK.

Originally published by By MICHAEL GRAHAM.

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