Back in the 1970s, in the Dean Martin Roast era on TV, comedian Don Rickles could get away with saying most anything about anyone. Nothing was safe from his jokes -- be it race, gender, religion, professions, personal behavior -- nothing. He was billed as a "putdown artist." He could make jokes about blacks, and Muhammad Ali would be the first to laugh. He could crack wise about alcoholics, and Dean Martin would erupt. He could ridicule those wearing toupees, and Frank Sinatra would dissolve into fits.
Rickles, along with all of his guests, knew what it was to rib -- the art of poking fun, and if it was not always gentle, it was good-natured. They never introduced a rancorous note of personal invective. They were professionals, and they had too much class. It is why yesterday's comedy was funny and relaxing, and today's is not.
Too much comedy today comes soaked in bile, oozing with cynicism, and when it unloads insults, it means them with a vengeance. Vicious mockery is so common on television today that it's in danger of seeming blase. Mockery is sometimes so frenzied that the satire doesn't even come close to resembling the target.
This example is a bit obscure, but worth noting. Cartoon Network switches to its "Adult Swim" format in late night, and one of the oddest little shows is "Moral Orel." If you haven't heard about it, some have suggested it's like the old Lutheran claymation cartoon "Davey and Goliath" ... meets "South Park."
Or just ponder Cartoon Network's promotional language about Orel, a young Protestant goon-in-training: "His unbridled enthusiasm for piousness and his misinterpretation of religious morals often lead to disastrous results, including self-mutilation and crack addiction." Nearly every supposedly Christian person in this cartoon is either an idiot or a hypocrite, and often both, especially Orel's minister.
The creator of "Moral Orel," a man named Dino Stamatopoulos, is very candid in an interview on the Cartoon Network Website. Going to church with his parents as a child was a "nightmare," and "everyone who went to church was repulsive to me." He felt like the demonic character Damien in "The Omen," and agreed with George Carlin's joke that he liked church because it reminded him there was "something worse than school." All of that bitterness comes through loud and clear on "Moral Orel."
Take the concept of marriage, building a lifetime of ongoing love with a spouse. "Orel" writers think that's a joke. They have Orel's father define love for his son like this: "Love is a very beautiful, very intense feeling for a startlingly short period of time. Before long, you realize it gets in the way of the really important things in life, like just going to sleep and being left alone."
In that episode, Orel befriends a dog so lovable that he tells the dog he "makes Lassie look like a heathen." But when it's discovered Orel loves the dog more than Jesus, the town's adults surround the dog and have it killed. Orel's father says the dog was spreading so much love he was "dangerous."
This is comedy?
But "Orel" really departs from earthbound reality when its crazy Christians hit the streets to protest and purify the world for God. In one episode, the plot includes protesters outside a Denny's-style restaurant, screaming: "Hate! Hate! Hate! When the gluttons put on weight!" A sign claims "God Hates Fats," and protesters yell at a heavy-set woman coming out of the restaurant: "God hates you, Fatty! God hates you; you're going to Hell."
In another episode, Orel joins the uptight town librarian, "Miss Censordoll," on a loopy parade of ridiculous rants. It begins with protesting the faithful 1964 movie on the life of Jesus titled "The Greatest Story Ever Told" at the local theater, since the film is so "boring" it leads people to "whoring." It gets even more bizarre, as these ersatz Christians stoop to protesting supposedly godless institutions like a blood bank, a coffee shop and a hospital. It ends with Orel's crusade to ban eggs from the town.
Perhaps the greatest offense for an entertainment network is that this show doesn't entertain. It's not funny. It's painted in dark, depressing tones. It's the very definition of heavy-handed propaganda, a cheaply animated "Scared Straight" for Christian addictions. Going to church seems to disqualify you from being capable of love, charity and the slightest fraction of common sense.
Imagine, if you can, the long stream of producers and actors and writers and artists and executives who work on the assembly line of a TV production like this. No one in this imposing chorus seems to have had a fleeting thought that this series of unfunny, wildly inaccurate smears crosses a line from good-natured ribbing to mean-spirited character assassination.