Handling Offensive Words in Comedy How do comedians handle potentially offensive words, like the N-word and the B-word? Is there a place for censorship in our society? Two comedians weigh in.
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Handling Offensive Words in Comedy

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Handling Offensive Words in Comedy

Handling Offensive Words in Comedy

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Earlier in the program we talked about race and language and the use of certain potentially offensive words; think the N-word, the B-word, the H-word. Be advised you will hear those words in this upcoming segment.

What is okay to say, when, and by whom? We heard earlier from some young people and from the senior editor of Ebony magazine.

COHEN: And now we hear from Frances Callier and Angela Shelton, two comediennes who go by the conjoined name, Frangela.

Ms. ANGELA SHELTON (Comedian): As satirists, as comediennes, we were both disturbed by the sort of pronouncement that we were - that we, the black community and the black entertainment community, could no longer use certain words. That's sort of the result of the whole Imus, or Imess - it's been called - incident. I don't like to be told like what I can and can't say by anyone for a lot reasons. And I think that the whole issue in terms of language has been really oversimplified.

For me, bitch is a powerful word and it's powerful positively and it can be powerful negatively.

Ms. FRANCES CALLIER (Comedian): Yes.

Ms. SHELTON: It's all in how you say it and what you're trying to get accomplished. You know? Like I would say Frances is my bitch.

Ms. CALLIER: Right. And I am.

Ms. SHELTON: That's my main bitch. You're my bitch, if you will.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELTON: You know, in pimp lingo, you know? But she's ain't no ho.

Ms. CALLIER: I - really, I'm not.

COHEN: And Frances, how do you feel about those words?

Ms. CALLIER: In context, it can be funny. They can be liberating. You can have a good time with those words, depending on the company that you're keeping. And I think that language is about your company.

COHEN: One of the arguments that's been made on this is that if - that you can't use the words unless you're part of the club. You know, so I'm white.

Ms. CALLIER: Right.

COHEN: So I can't use those words. Can you draw the lines that simply?

Ms. CALLIER: Well, you know, we have had friends - we have a good friend who will try to say the N-word, and every time he tries to say it, it comes out just so, like ewwww.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELTON: He wants to be like, you know, I'll just say, you can bleep it, you know, like nigger, please.

BRAND: If it doesn't role trippingly off the tongue, forget about it?

Ms. SHELTON: It always comes out like n-n-n, please. You know, he lacks the confidence.

COHEN: This conversation isn't necessarily new.

Ms. SHELTON: Nope.


COHEN: You know, people have been talking about this for a really long time, but it's one that's comes up again recently because of Don Imus, because of Michael Richards. Is there something going on that we've kind of fallen back a little bit or is this some rare coincidence? What do you think?

Ms. SHELTON: Oh, no. There's something going.

Ms. CALLIER: There's something going on.

Ms. SHELTON: We have a theory.

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah, people feel these days that it's okay. It's safe again to have these thoughts and to let them fly loose.

Ms. SHELTON: I don't how else to express it. When you have a vice president who on a senatorial floor will say (bleep) to another person in government...

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah.

Ms. SHELTON: Don't tell me it's rappers' fault.

Ms. CALLIER: Right.

Ms. SHELTON: Don't tell me...

Ms. CALLIER: Hip-hop didn't do that.

Ms. SHELTON: Yeah, don't tell me, because I refuse...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Wait a minute. You don't think Dick Cheney's tuning into...

Ms. SHELTON: No, no. I don't think he's going home and listen to Chingy and getting bad ideas about how to behave.

Ms. CALLIER: Right, right, right.

COHEN: Maybe Vice President Cheney isn't listening to rap music, but I think it's safe to say that a lot of people do look to entertainers, musicians, filmmakers, actors on TV, to kind of let us know what's cool and what's not cool to say. So how do the two of you, where do you see your responsibility in terms of respect?

Ms. SHELTON: Like, for example, there are - sometimes there are topics we don't - even though they come up - you know, we'll be interviewed by somebody - we'll not talk about that.

COHEN: Like what?

Ms. SHELTON: Things that are homophobic. And a lot of times, you know, some other younger media, especially, they I think have a hard time dealing some of those issues respectfully. And I just - I'm not interested in gay bashing, you know?

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah, ever.

Ms. SHELTON: Ever. And this is a stupid example, but like a couple of weeks ago there was a little bit about Bindi Irwin being on, was it "The Today Show"?


Ms. SHELTON: And I guess there was this little moment where like she started talking about her dad but the interviewer didn't ask about her dad. And I think on the show that we were doing they were trying to make a bigger deal out of it. It was slow week. It was a slow pop culture week.

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah, right, right, right.

Ms. SHELTON: And I was like, you know, I'm really not interested in saying anything negative about this little girl whose dad died.

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah.

COHEN: We'd like to play some clips for you. We're going to start off with the Eddie Murphy film "Norbit." Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Norbit")

Mr. EDDIE MURPHY (Actor): (As Rasputia) Let me tell you, just between the two of us, I can't keep Norbit off me. He's the biggest freak you ever want to meet. He want it all the time. But I ain't mad at him. Hey.

Ms. SHELTON: Okay. First of all, Eddie Murphy as a woman is always funny.

Ms. CALLIER: Always funny.

Ms. SHELTON: There's no way around it.

Ms. CALLIER: Always funny. Within the context of this film, it's funny. He's poking fun. And I - you know, I don't find it disrespectful to women.

COHEN: But part of the humor here is that Eddie Murphy, a man, is playing a woman - a really big woman...

Ms. SHELTON: Right.

COHEN: A really big, oversexed woman.

Ms. SHELTON: Right.

Ms. CALLIER: Right.

COHEN: That doesn't bother you at all?

Ms. SHELTON: Well, I'm going to tell you the attitudes about weight in general in this country bother me. You know, so I have issues there because Thandie Newton in that movie looks emaciated, you know? But no, it doesn't bother me. It's a film. It's a funny film.

Ms. CALLIER: Right.

Ms. SHELTON: And it's not a movie that's supposed to be - it's not a documentary.


Ms. SHELTON: And it's not a movie that's supposed to be - it's not a documentary.


Ms. SHELTON: It's not a movie that supposed to, you know, this is how you should behave. If that were true, we - I think it shows like Archie Bunker. I think of Norman Lear, and I think would any of those shows get on the air today?

COHEN: Right.

Ms. CALLIER: Right.

Ms. SHELTON: And I don't think - would "The Jeffersons" get on the air today?

Ms. CALLIER: Right.

Ms. SHELTON: I don't think it would.

Ms. CALLIER: I'm not...

Ms. SHELTON: I think people are too afraid.

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah. I'm not going to take Eddie Murphy to task for making fun, you know, and being funny. That's his job, you know? And if we don't like it, then we don't buy it.

COHEN: All right, next stop. This is a clip from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Ms. SHELTON: Love that.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show")

Mr. JON STEWART (Host): I found one piece coverage particularly interesting. This is Fox News's story on the indictment. There he is, indicted Congressman William Jefferson, except that - wait - that's actually House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Who is, and this is fascinating, a completely different person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: What? Why would Fox News possibly confuse them? Well, perhaps because they have the same colored - tie?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELTON: This is an alleged news station.


Ms. SHELTON: A station where you're supposed - they have said to you, their whole motto is we are going to tell you facts.


Ms. SHELTON: And they have the wrong person who's being indicted up?

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah.

Ms. SHELTON: Just because he's another black - why don't they just - the camera crew's like, well, there goes a black person. Film him.

Ms. CALLIER: Right, right, right.

Ms. SHELTON: He probably did something wrong too.

Ms. CALLIER: We got some old footage in the back there. Why don't you just, you know, whatever - whoever, which one you can find.

Ms. SHELTON: Yeah.

Ms. CALLIER: I'm sure he'll get indicted sooner or later.

Ms. SHELTON: Yeah.

COHEN: Maybe we should call Representative Conyers then. He should take the Frangela lead.

Ms. CALLIER: Exactly.

Ms. SHELTON: Exactly.

COHEN: When the two of you hear music that has these words that a lot of people are saying are disrespectful, some are saying should be banned entirely...

Ms. SHELTON: What I find disturbing is this idea that it seems like every time there's an incident, people go after hip-hop and rap.


Ms. SHELTON: A form of music that frankly hasn't been around as long I've been alive, which would suggests that prior to hip-hop and rap, there was rampant respect going on.

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah.

COHEN: Because everyone was fine then.

Ms. CALLIER: Yeah.

Ms. SHELTON: Yeah.

COHEN: Never used the N-word.

Ms. SHELTON: Exactly. And I'm like...

Ms. CALLIER: And you know what? And two that point, I want to say this. You know, and then everyone wants to blame black culture about it. But black culture is, you know, black kids aren't the only people buying this music. In fact, that's the only people downloading. In fact, they're not the largest amount of people downloading this music. So...

Ms. SHELTON: They don't own these companies.

Ms. CALLIER: Yes. And who's creating this market and these young people say okay, people want to buy it, so I'll make it.

COHEN: Do you think they're buying it because those words are there? Or they're buying it because they like the music and those words just happened to be in there?

Ms. SHELTON: You know, anything that is taboo is interesting. I think it's interesting for the youth culture. You know, when you think about youth culture, that's who's buying it. I mean most of the youth culture in this country is white - white America.

Ms. CALLIER: I think sometimes - in this sort of alarmist atmosphere of creating fear, which I feel like happens a lot, I'm more concern about that in the media, to be honest. That when crime is going down, all I see on the news are like terrifying stories of your child is going to be kidnapped. You know, that to me is a lot more damaging at the end of the day than a song. You know, because hopefully we're raising people who have independent - power of independent thought.

Ms. SHELTON: Well, I doubt it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELTON: I doubt it.

COHEN: Angela Shelton and Frances Callier are Frangela. Thank you both so much.

Ms. CALLIER: Thank you.

Ms. SHELTON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: The comic duo known as Frangela are regular commentators on pop culture on VH1's "Best Week Ever."

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