Analyzing insult comedy in the PC age

bradgarrett8.jpgConsider the thin line between insults and insults—especially when the line is a one-liner.

Hypocrisy reigns in 2012: We mock the PC crowd as thought police while Internet anonymity breeds breathtaking nastiness—then we demand mea culpas from public figures for the smallest slips from their too-loose lips. Given that, what are we to make of insult comics in the 21st century—particularly Brad Garrett?

Recently, the big guy opened his new comedy joint at MGM Grand, machine-gunning front-row patrons, riffing on enough stereotypes to fuel an All in the Family reboot: Joke grenades were lobbed at Hispanics, women, African-Americans, the old, young, overweight—anyone in his sight range with a pulse and a personality trait.

Defenders cite the practice as cathartic: When verbal miscues can cost someone their job, it’s a release for people within the safe confines of comedy. Plus, by insulting everyone, it punctures stereotypes, exposing their foolishness. One supporter’s Internet screed likened it to S&M, asserting that like a partner getting spanked, willing victims of barbs interpret humiliation as love.

Critics condemn it on a simple definition: hate speech formalized and condoned within an entertainment setting.

Garrett as a Next–Gen Don Rickles is the default comparison, but not quite analogous. Stage presence and delivery make the difference.

Beyond the fact that “Mr. Warmth” dates to a less-PC era and isn’t expected to reverse the shtick he’s built his career on, the short, bald Rickles is razor-tongued, but unthreatening, like a naughty child. Zingers play like playground banter for grown-ups. Often letting a few beats pass between barbs so it isn’t too oppressive, Rickles employs sly smiles or exaggerated expressions to deflate any sense of hostility.

Garrett—by all accounts a pleasant man who’s no bigot (and a hilarious sitcom actor)—is undermined by his own physicality. Towering at 6-foot-8, prowling a small stage that makes him look even larger, often leaning down close to his targets’ faces and firing off insults like a 20-round gun clip in his growly, basso-profundo voice, he’s an intimidating presence, even unintentionally.

Remember also that Garrett’s mining racial/ethnic stereotypes as America heads toward what demographers term a “majority-minority” nation in which Caucasians will comprise less than half the population.

Come that day, the intimidation could be on the other foot.

Let’s nosh on notes: What a big baby (boomer). That’s Louie Anderson, whose new show—yes, Big Baby Boomer—debuts April 18 at Palace Station.

Imagine: The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus is at The Mirage now through April 14, on its mission to spread the late Beatle’s love of music to kids via an audio/video recording studio on wheels.

On a more stationary note, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts has added a raft of new musicals to its Broadway series. The most fascinating include the bilingual revival of West Side Story; The Addams Family, one of those shows that defied picky critics to become an audience fave; Green Day’s raucous American Idiot and the sublime Billy Elliot the Musical.

Among this week’s Smith Center happenings, give your attention to sketch-comedy troupe Women Fully Clothed (April 13-14)—even if their name doesn’t exactly fit the Vegas aesthetic. And give it up for ace movie-tune crooner Andrea Marcovicci, also expected to be completely covered, also April 13-14. Pick one each day and enjoy.

Finally, give a big anniversary smooch to the Flamingo’s X Burlesque, which on April 19 celebrates a decade of resistance to chest concealment. What could be more deserving of thanks than bottomless topless-ness?

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