Recently radio “Doctor” Laura Schlessinger caused a stir when she derided a caller for being oversensitive to the racial jokes her husband’s friends subjected her to. Her tirade included the repeated use of the “N-word”. She defended her use of the “N-word” by citing its ubiquity among “black guys” on HBO. As soon as the outrage erupted, “Doctor” Laura ran to Larry King’s show to announce that she was quitting her radio show. The reason, she sniffed, was “… I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what is on my mind…”
We could talk for a long time about the First Amendment and how Constitutional principals and fundamental rights don’t apply to this particular example. We could argue that Dr. Laura’s audience has just as much a right to voice their disapproval of her as she has to voice her opinions. We could question whether this type of nonsense should ever be voiced at all, or whether the “N-Word” should be taboo. We could even address the obvious point, that context is important-that issues discussed on a late-night pay cable comedy show may not be appropriate for an afternoon A.M. radio advice call-in show. But these issues have been excellently discussed elsewhere.
The thing that stands out to me is Dr. Laura’s insistence that she has a fundamental right to be edgy, and to be free of any consequences if her comments offend people. The late-night comedians in her example personify “edgy” humor. Edgy humor usually involves the controversial treatment of sensitive topics such as race, gender, sexuality, politics, etc. The term “edgy” is used because we understand that venturing into this territory involves risk. Taking risks can be rewarding, but only if the risk pays off. I’m sure Dr. Laura would tell her callers that if they’re going to engage in risky behavior, they should be prepared to face the consequences if they fail.
Those HBO guys know the consequences of failure. They call it bombing. They know that if you’re going to take the risk of edgy humor, you have to hit the mark. There is no margin for error. If your joke isn’t funny, you are going to die on the stage.
It’s not as if Dr. Laura hasn’t seen the consequences this particular type of failure before. Former Seinfeld star Michael Richards came under fire for performing essentially the same shtick at a West Hollywood comedy club. Don Imus lost his job due to racial humor. Rush Limbaugh resigned his gig as an ESPN football announcer amid controversy in his racial comments about quarterback Donovan McNabb. There are a myriad of similar examples.
With so many recent examples, I find it hard to believe that Dr. Laura didn’t know the potential consequences of her actions. If I were cynical, I would suspect that this was all a set-up so that an aging radio personality with sagging ratings could spark controversy during these turbulent political times to launch her into a lucrative speaking tour. I would think that… if I were cynical.