Bill Maher Gets ‘Boo’d’ on Letterman
One of my students sent me an email that asked if I could do an analysis on this video of Bill Maher getting “Boo’d” on Letterman.
I love walking through these things. It gives us a chance to understand the fickle behavior of an audience.
Bill Maher is no stranger to controversial material. Remember he got canned by ABC in 2002 when he was doing ‘Politically Incorrect.’
I’m a huge fan of Bill Maher. I love his take on most things and even when I might disagree with him on some things, I still give props for the not only the courage to say what he says, but also the way he organizes his thoughts and researches what he talks about.
Comedy Central has Bill Maher ranked 38 among the best stand up comics of all time.
So when I heard that Bill was boo’d on Letterman. I was quick to review the video.
Let’s look at it together and try to figure out why they “boo’d”
After reviewing the clip, I don’t think they “boo’d” him as much as they “ooo’ed” him.
We have to consider the nature of the audience dynamic in today’s political environment. The immediate perception from most audiences is that every joke is an attack.
“Not as bad as being a minority in Florida…”
This particular line is layered.
The audience has an immediate reaction to the surface of it: ‘not as bad as being a minority in Florida.’ I believe that they perceived the comment initially as a general negative attack on minorities. This happens in the first second after the comment, which results in the “Ooh.”
Remember the comment was a play on the previous sentence when he uses the term ‘minority owner.’
When Maher said ‘minority owner.’ His comic brain saw an opportunity to do a double-entendre play on the word ‘minority.’
Given a few seconds to ponder and process, the audience then sorts it out in their heads as to what Maher meant exactly by that comment:
‘Is he just making fun of minorities or is he doing a play on the word ‘minority?’
I believe his intention was that Trayvon being a young, black man, got a bad deal in Florida. Also, since Zimmerman is also a minority and living in Florida, he could be saying that both of them have been or will be treated poorly.
Problem was, his intention of the joke was misunderstood, because it had a vagueness to it. It lacked specificity. So the audience did what all overtly politically correct audiences do, they reacted that the joke was an attack on minorities, so they “ooo’ed.”
You’ll notice that once some people had a moment to process the underlying meaning of the joke or what the intended target was (Florida, the jury, unfairness of the process, etc.), there was a smattering of applause indicating that they ‘got’ it.
So what do we learn from this? Sometimes, being specific is crucial for the audience to understand the immediate meaning of the joke so that we get the audience to respond the way we intended them to.
Immediacy is not necessary for all styles of jokes, but jokes that have a perceived meaning that could be taken as racist, sexist, or an attack on anomalic sensitivity (person with a wheelchair in the room, dwarf or little person), while on T.V. with limited time to explain, specificity is crucial.
What if Bill clarified the joke by saying, “Better than being a minority in a Florida court these days.” Or “With the raw deal Trayvon got, it’s better than being a minority in Florida these days.”
With that simple clarification, he could’ve turned the “ooh” into an applause.
But with a live audience, you never know.
NOTE: How sensitive can an audience be?
I remember a friend of mine was appearing on The Tonight Show. Previous to his appearance, the band had a musical featured on the piano who was a ‘midget,’ (or little person–just to stay P.C.). While my friend was in the greenroom prepping for his set, the midget was playing the piano. The audience loved the midget. Then my friend comes on for his set, unaware that the pianist tearing it up on the piano was a midget. The comedian opened with two midget jokes…
He couldn’t recover from there and wasn’t invited back to Tonight.