The Mystery of Superstar Forgiveness in the Age of Apology

A trio of talented awful people: Woody, Bill, and Roman.
A trio of talented awful people: Woody, Bill, and Roman.

We live in the Age of Apology, where knee jerk reactions are the norm, and thin-skinned political correctness reigns. Politicians, pop stars, athletes, actors, comedians, talk show hosts, and church leaders are pressured into insincere public apologies if they “offend” some special interest group or another.

But the Age of Apology has little to do with true forgiveness. Forgiveness in the court of public opinion serves another function altogether.

Send In The Creeps

Exhibit A: Woody Allen. Woody Allen was in a relationship with Mia Farrow for years, helping raise her adopted daughters. But in 1992 Allen separated from Farrow and began a romantic relationship with her adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn (when Woody was 56, and Soon Yi was 19.) Recently, Woody Allen’s biological daughter with Farrow, Dylan, accused him of molesting her when she was a child.

Woody Allen is a creep.

But he’s also a brilliant artist whose career spans over 50 years. Critic Roger Ebert called Woody Allen “a treasure of the cinema.” Woody’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” is amassing award nominations. Audiences and actors alike look past Woody’s personal faults and continue to enjoy his art.

Roman Polanski is despicable, too. In 1977 he admitted to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He worked out a deal that would spare him jail time, but when that deal fell apart, he fled the country and hasn’t set foot on American soil since.

But Polanski still makes great films. In 2002 he won the Best Director Oscar for “The Pianist.” Actors are eager to work with Polanski, and producers finance his films. Evidently his crimes can be overlooked, too.

Mel hates Jews, but makes awesome movies!
Mel hates Jews, but makes awesome movies!

Despicable Hollywood Creep #3: Mel Gibson. Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rants, and hate-filled voicemails to his ex-girlfriend show serious personal problems. Mel Gibson isn’t on Woody Allen or Roman Polanski’s level (either as an artist or a criminal) but — for whatever reason — he DOES NOT get a pass. Nobody wants to work with old Mel anymore … at least not at the moment or for the foreseeable future.

Why are some loathsome artists forgiven while others aren’t? Why is Alec Baldwin A-list and Mel Gibson on the blacklist? They’re both entitled jerks with explosive tempers. Why can we separate the man from his art in one case, but not the other?

Time heals wounds, and public perception and political climates change. Death helps, too. When an artist is long gone, his work can finally be viewed objectively, apart from the way he lived life. Charles Dickens was a terrible husband and father. Pablo Picasso was a philanderer. Writers Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were anti-Semitic, as was composer Richard Wagner.

“We Forgive You, Rock Star!”

Today we forgive Chris Brown for beating up girlfriend Rihanna, though a generation ago we couldn’t forgive Ike Turner for doing the same to Tina. We absolve Marv Albert of sexual assault and Michael Vick of animal cruelty, but come down hard on Paula Deen for racial slurs she uttered decades ago.

There are parallels in the world of sports. Alex Rodriguez (baseball cheat) is on brink of flushing his legacy down the toilet. Lance Armstrong (cycling cheat) already did, along with Barry Bonds (baseball cheat), and Aaron Hernandez (serial killer).

Others athletes are forgiven. Tiger Woods (adultery), Pete Rose (sports gambling), Kobe Bryant (sexual assault), and Ben Roethlisberger (sexual assault) have all outdistanced their checkered pasts.

My job as a journalist is to try to make sense of things, to look for repeating patterns, find consistency in apparent chaos. But I can’t find any logic or order in Public Forgiveness. Apparently it works on a sliding scale based on the severity of your crime versus the magnitude of your talent, but as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski show, the scale is far from accurate.

He may have been a kid toucher, but that didn't stop people from loving the King of Pop!
He may have been a kid toucher, but that didn’t stop people from loving the King of Pop!

Forgiving celebrity sins isn’t about true absolution anyway. It’s a plot device to move stories forward. People love familiar stories, and we look for them in the lives of wayward actors and athletes. We love to see the mighty fall. We love even more when they get back up and keep fighting, battling against the odds. Everybody loves an underdog. Forgiveness is the device that allows our heroes to rise from the ashes.

Disgraced actor Shia LaBeouf  (drunk/violent/plagiarist) is reinventing himself while begging Public Forgiveness. LaBeouf recently did a live performance piece called “#IAMSORRY” wearing a paper bag over his head with the phrase, “I’m not famous anymore,” written on it. LaBeouf sat silent and alone at a table full of props while art goers milled around him. Props included an Indiana Jones whip, a Transformer toy, daisies, a ukulele, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a bowl of nasty Tweets, a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, and a book by author Daniel Clowes, whom LaBeouf was accused of plagiarizing. One reviewer of “#IAMSORRY” said, “it was apparent LaBeouf had been crying, and the experience was surprisingly touching.”

Maybe turning apology into performance art is the next evolutionary step in the Age of Apology.

If so, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen need to put on Oscar-worthy performances.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, February 2014

Comedy means never having to say you’re sorry!

In light of my insensitive comments about Lou Ferrigno‘s disabilities, I’ve decided to run this article which shows how my opinions (and sense of humor) have changed.  

Tracy Morgan is a professional comedian. He’s one of the stars of NBC’s “30 Rock,” and did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live. He says funny things, and, like any professional comic, sometimes he offends people with his humor.

Tracy Morgan—kidnapped and forced into Apology Tour.

But did Tracy Morgan go too far last month when he targeted homosexuals during his act at a comedy club in Nashville?

I don’t know, because I haven’t seen or heard Tracy Morgan’s act, nor have I read a transcript.

And neither have you.

No recording of Morgan’s act exists. The outrage over his act is based on one gay blogger, Kevin Rogers, who wrote about Morgan’s act on his Facebook page, and the story spread from there. Since Morgan issued a quick apology, you assume he’s guilty as charged.

“Say you’re really, really, really sorry!”

But Morgan’s apology wasn’t good enough. His fellow co-stars, Tina Fey and Chris Rock tossed him under the homophobic bus, and now Tracy Morgan has become a poster boy for homosexual tolerance. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has taken Tracy Morgan hostage, and now he’s on an “apology tour,” meeting with leaders of the gay/lesbian/transgendered community for more public mea culpas and photo ops.

[Speaking of which, is it off limits to poke fun at the transgendered community, too? Better outlaw all those classic comedy clips of men in drag, everyone from Milton Berle to Benny Hill to Eddie Murphy.]

The trouble here is one of sincerity. Tracy Morgan doesn’t sound sincerely sorry. I’m sure Tracy Morgan doesn’t actually endorse violence against homosexuals, and he’s sorry for implying so. But I think his bigger concern is losing his “30 Rock” paycheck. He’s a comedian telling jokes on a comedy club stage…he shouldn’t have to worry about offending anyone.

I question the sincerity of GLAAD, too. I don’t know how much the leaders of the organization are genuinely upset by Morgan’s comments (which, again, were actually heard by very few people) and how much GLAAD chose to seize this opportunity as a “teaching moment,” making Morgan an ersatz spokesman for homosexual tolerance and understanding. It’s a noble cause, but I’m not sure making Tracy Morgan walk the plank over a dumb joke is the right way to promote it.

Comedy 101 — Somebody’s Gonna Get Hurt

The first rule of comedy — of life, really — is keep your sense of humor, and don’t take yourself too seriously. If you’re going to laugh at others, you’d better learn to laugh at yourself first. All jokes are funny, until they hit close to home. If gay humor doesn’t offend you, surely another joke will: ethnic humor, jokes about the elderly, or maybe a gag about a “dumb blonde”.

If you want to ban offensive humor, let’s start with two of the oldest gags in the book: the fat joke and the retard joke.

As the father of an autistic son, I no longer find humor in goofing on developmentally disabled individuals (“Timmy!”). I cringe every time I hear someone describe a frustrating or ridiculous situation as “retarded.” (Probably the same way a homosexual feels when they hear something wimpy or ineffectual described as “gay.”) If the person you’re joking with doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand your humor, then you’re not being funny. You’re being cruel.

Chris Christie
NJ Governor Chris Christie isn’t fat! He’s just big boned!

And, as a guy who has struggled with “weight issues” since childhood, enough already with the fat jokes! We’re not all lazy slobs! Some of us are well-groomed and hard workers! Look at Governor Chris Christie! We’re big boned! We have slow metabolisms!

Ah, it’s a losing battle, and maybe that’s for the best in the long run. Comedy demands basic building blocks, seeds sown early in life, and when I see my kids enjoying the rotund hero of Kung Fu Panda or dumb-but-lovable Patrick on Spongebob Squarepants, I accept that jokes about the obese and the addle-brained will survive another generation.

The homosexual community has made great strides toward equality – just last week the New York State legislature legalized gay marriage.

But gay jokes will still be around, too…for better or for worse.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, July 2011.