I listened as the radio team of Opie & Anthony got sacked from WNEW-FM radio in 2002 after they launched a Sex for Sam stunt. They sent couples across Manhattan competing to have sex in the most outrageous public place and the hosts got sacked after one randy couple chose St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Ave. It wasn’t their first pink slip, but when the duo signed with SiriusXM, I didn’t think Opie & Anthony would ever get fired again. The satellite radio format allows them to use every cuss word imaginable; same for fellow host Howard Stern. For raunchy content, they are outdone by the explicit sex shows hosted by porn stars on the satellite radio dial, where nothing is out of bounds. Despite this, co-host Anthony Cumia managed to find a way to get fired by SiriusXM anyway, not for radio content but for taking to his personal Twitter account to vilify a woman in foul mouthed fashion that he says punched him when she objected to being in the frame of photos he was taking in Manhattan late at night. Cumia, often a very funny comedian and impressionist who personifies the low-tolerance-cranky white guy on the O&A show, let loose a stream of epithets that insulted her gender, wished her dead, and also identified her as being black. And then betrayed deep-seated prejudice in an ensuing series of hate-filled rants when he received critical reactions. SiriusXM fired him after his Twitter posts made headlines.
Two lessons here. First, how many times will people get in trouble for spontaneous Twitter rants before they smarten up and count to ten before hitting send? And, as Gary Oldman just recently learned in a Playboy Interview to promote Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, how many times does it take to see careers dinged for not understanding it is best to just avoid using polarizing slur words that might hurt even one person? Oldman used words as bad as those twittered by Cumia in an unwise attempt by the actor to explain the hypocrisy of how some people get condemned for words and actions, and others get a pass. I was thinking about this when I watched the first episode of the new FX series Tyrant (by the producers of Homeland), just as Oldman was forced to apologize, right after Jonah Hill finished his Fall On My Sword tour while promoting 22 Jump Street and issuing a homophobic taunt to paparazzi . Tyrant’s interesting premise–a U.S. raised doctor is forced home to rule his oil rich Middle East nation when his father dies–was completely undermined by the creative decision to turn the brother of the main character into a composite of the recidivist rapist Uday Hussein. The explicit depiction, over and over, of his appalling treatment of women (including taking the virginity of his son’s daughter at their wedding), was so disgusting that I saw no reason to watch another episode. I was surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry about this debasement of women to drive an entertainment program.
The zero tolerance policy exhibited by SiriusXM is interesting. I am a Sirius subscriber, and regular Howard Stern listener. I’ve heard Stern run, time and time again, a taped segment piece in which a racist cretin calls a phone sex line. The woman who answers is clearly African American. Stern’s prank call experts Sal and Richard who culled together taunts from a recidivist racist caller who left messages for Stern’s co-host. She is on the receiving end of the most vile racist things, and she is forced to repeat these insults back to the caller as part of this phone sex call. Does airing this garbage make Stern a racist? I don’t think so, but I often wondered why he and his producers insisted on inflicting this unfunny bit again and again upon his listeners, who surely sympathized with a woman whose degrading job was turned dehumanizing. I’m not sure anyone even complained, much less called for Stern’s ouster.
Comedian Lenny Bruce used polarizing words in his stand-up act, claiming that airing such words demystified them and robbed them of their power. This was borne out by Dustin Hoffman in the 1974 Bob Fosse-directed film Lenny. Even though that film received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, could a major studio like United Artist even release such a film in this hyper PC climate?
And what about Blazing Saddles, released by Warner Bros the same year? The film is considered a classic comedy, but its liberal use of the “N” word and its vicious lampooning of racial and sexual stereotypes for laughs makes me wonder if Mel Brooks might be run out of town if he made the movie today for a major studio. Could HBO televise Eddie Murphy’s star making stand-up comic performance Delirious, or could Richard Pryor or George Carlin have been able to work in this climate? Or even Dave Chappelle? Bad words aren’t fatal. But it sure feels like they are headed that way. Cumia wasn’t going for laughs in his Twitter rant; he was angry and paid the price; it’s doubtful he ever finds a job in radio again as his brand of edgy radio is put on its heels. I hate the words Cumia wrote. But on a day meant to commemorate freedom, including speech, do angry words justify ending someone’s livelihood?