Lena Dunham and Chris Rock: A Tale of Two Controversial Comedians, and What's Gender Got to Do with It?
If you watched this week’s SNL hosted by Chris Rock, you already know the episode royally sucked, save for two things: Rock’s opening monologue and Prince’s eight-minute jam session. If you didn’t see the episode, what you did miss out on is one of the most awkwardly begun, cringe-worthy-turned-into-brilliant routines I’ve ever seen. I really wished the cameraman would have gone for some audience reaction shots, because the transformed expressions must have been gold. After remarking on it being the night after Halloween and the night before the New York Marathon, Rock segued into how terrible it must have been for Boston Marathon runners to reach the finish line after 26 miles, only to hear someone yell “Run!” One of the things that struck me was Rock calling the bombing “…probably the most frightening, sadistic terrorist attack ever” to a live New York City audience, but damned if he didn’t get away with it.
From there things got better, with Rock transitioning from one terrorist act to another — 9/11 — suggesting a name change for the city’s “Freedom Tower” to the “Never-Going-In-There-Tower” (can’t argue with that), and on to the commercialization of Jesus’ birthday. While at first it seemed a stretch for Rock to claim that one day we’ll have 9/11 day sales, he’s right, “It’s America, we commercialize everything.” You really need to watch the entire routine to appreciate how daring Rock’s bit was, it’s what we’ve come to expect from the comedian. He challenges us; purposely cuts right to the nerve-pinch, and digs right in. I love the fact that you can see how nervous he is at the outset, and pushes past the quiet, non-reaction from the audience until he gets into the groove, and scores some laughter. Making us really think about and face ourselves, no matter how awful and strange and ugly we are, is what the best comedians do.
If New York City could laugh, so could we; the headlines reflected a willingness to “go too far” had earned Rock mixed reviews, and acknowledgement that despite making us cringe, it was at worst, controversial. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised at how tame reactions were, but then again, we’re talking about violence, killing people and blowing things up, as opposed to — oh, I don’t know — sex.
On the other end of the controversy spectrum, over the weekend excerpts from Lena Dunham’s new book Not That Kind of Girl were published in a piece headlined “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister.” If by now you haven’t read the referenced paragraphs, Dunham admits to being a curious kid who looked at her younger sister’s vagina, plied her with candy for kisses, and possibly masturbated beside her in bed. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that though there’s probably some truth behind Dunham’s stories (“Don’t trust the narrator”), they’re also being told to comedic effect. Why some people have such a difficult time reading Dunham as a comedian, I’ll never understand, but if you think she (and her editors) didn’t know what they were doing with this book, you’re wrong. She’s already challenged our ideas/acceptance of women’s sexuality, body-types, relationships; while Dunham’s slant on her own coming-of-age might make you cringe, it also makes some people smile and laugh.
Lena Dunham is a challenging, provoking young woman, whose snippet of a story is mere evolution from Eddie Murphy’s “GI Joe up my ass” bathtub tale, and we were cool with that, weren’t we? What is it about Dunham, other than her gender, that won’t allow for her pushing all our uncomfortable buttons just like Chris Rock does? And why is it somehow more palatable for him to joke about people being blown up and killed than for Dunham to joke about her childhood sexual curiosity? Right now, the biggest difference between their weekend controversies is that you can watch Rock’s monologue in full, but most of us have only seen a couple of Dunham’s paragraphs, taken out of context. Personally, I don’t for a minute think the author did anything more than share a questionably funny, enhanced tale of her childhood “weirdness,” similar to the uncomfortable sliced-from-her-own-life stories she shares on Girls. Exactly how that’s so outrageous as compared to her male counterparts joking about equally uncomfortable subjects, I don’t know. And for those of you worrying over Dunham’s poor sister:
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