It ain't funny until the fascist laughs

Posted: Dec 03, 2003 12:00 AM

So there's this caveman, see, and he goes to his outhouse in the middle of the night, slams the door and, noticing the aroma therein, says: "Is it just me or does it stink in here?"

Get it? Of course you get it. In America we call this bathroom humor. Little boys have been giggling about outhouses and their accompanying olfactory assaults since, well, caveman days.

No doubt Johnny Hart's recent "B.C." comic strip depicting same got lots of little-boy giggles from fans of his strip, which he began in 1958 when Americans still had a sense of humor.

But in a bizarre turn that makes even cavemen seem sophisticated, the panel also has provoked howls of outrage from some Muslims, as well as academics and assorted harrumphers, who feel the cartoon was a crude assault on Islam.

I know what you're thinking: How could a cartoon about an outhouse insult Islam? Let's just say it helps if you're the sort who can see subliminal sexual messages concealed in the ice cubes of liquor ads.

The strip in question featured three frames, each showing an outhouse, which is distinguished from a plain shed by the traditional outhouse symbol, which is - can you take it, Harvard? That's right - a crescent moon! The crescent moon is also shown hanging in the sky just outside the outhouse to indicate - Yale? Bingo! - it's nighttime.

OK, now pay close attention because this part gets tricky. Between frames one and two Hart wedged the vertically written letters S-L-A-M. Anyone? Anyone? Yes, you back there in the CAIR T-shirt.

"Quite obviously, it's a slam against Islam."

Allrighty. Anyone else? Yes, you, the young man in the cowboy hat.

"What the heck's he talking about, Is-lam? He slammed the dadgum door. Slam means slam."

Well, we'll just see about that. Since Hart's comic strip appeared Nov. 10, he's been the object of the sort of debate that makes one wonder whether we've been transported to an alternate, humorless universe where everything is literal.

The stink began when someone posted a comment on that the strip made no sense except metaphorically. Crescent moons, you see, are associated with Islam as well as with American outhouses. Therefore, the reader suggested, the strip - otherwise unfunny in his view - was a veiled attack on Islam.

Then CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) jumped on the bandwagon, not literally of course, and noted that vertically stacking "SLAM" between the two frames - which could be viewed as the shape of an "I" - could be viewed as signifying Islam.

The Washington Post even found an expert in symbols to suggest as much. Marshall Blonsky, professor of semiotics (for you cowboys, that's the philosophical theory of signs and symbols) at the New School in New York, found the SLAM perplexing and intriguing:

"Why is the door slamming?" he mused. "You don't slam an outhouse door. . You gently close an outhouse door."

Hmmmm, I'm not familiar with Blonsky's comic body of work, but other cartoonists tell me that, owing to space constraints, they often insert vertical words between frames, including "SLAM," "BLAM," WHAM" and, of course, "Thank you ma'am."

Oh, and by the way, since we're going literal here, I should probably point out that cavemen didn't use outhouses. Forget slamming the door with, as the Washington Post put it, a melodramatic flourish. On the other hand, is there really another way?

Hart, meanwhile, has denied any hidden anti-Islamic message, saying: "My goodness. That's incredible. That's unbelievable."

And then he was forced to explain why it isn't the work of a fevered brow to suggest that a caveman, whose inattention to hygiene is understood, might wonder whether that troubling aroma was "de moi" or "de la toilette."

More to the point, what if Hart were poking fun at Islam? We routinely poke fun at Catholicism and fundamentalist Christianity, the group to which Hart happens to belong. Why the kid-glove treatment only for Islam?

Hart, whose only real offense was to be not quite funny enough for some who, to their credit, have transcended scatological humor, has a right to express even an unpopular view. Or to be unfunny. But out of the 10,000 or more strips Hart has created over a 45-year career, surely a few are allowed to fall short of knee-slapping hilarity.

In answer to the question he posed in "B.C.," it's not the outhouse that stinks. It's our virtuous "sensitivity" and the demand for tolerance by the manifestly intolerant that reeks.