I don't often watch the late night talk shows anymore. If I do happen to have them on, as I did the other night, I watch Letterman.
I happened to be watching this week when Don Rickles was on and he made a joke that bombed:
[Rickles] was absolutely killing the audience on David Letterman's show the other night with his trademark scorched-earth put-downs. Rickles seemed at the top of his game -- until he tried to tell a joke about the new president-elect. Not even a well-timed rimshot from the band could have saved him.It was just a quick bit in which he imagined Obama, faced with his first international crisis, telling his advisers he couldn't be interrupted because he was busy playing basketball.
Apparently, people got uncomfortable when an old white guy mentions our first black president in the same sentence as "basketball."
I don't read entertainment news because, well, its vapid and soul-sucking, so I don't know what kind of attention this seeming faux pas has been getting. But it certainly was enough to get an op-ed in the Washington Post today.
If President-elect Obama had not campaigned as a basketball player, or put up videos of him playing basketball on his campaign's YouTube site, or talked about basketball being his "first love", I could see a certain amount of "Oh no he didn't just say that" directed at Rickles. But Obama repeatedly played up his b-ball skillz as a reason to vote for him--especially in places like Indiana. (The night before the election, ESPN played this interview where Obama talks about the wisdom of his coach whom he favorably compares to Bobby Knight. This is my best guess as to how he won the once unquestionably red Hoosier state.*)
I can understand the sensitivity of the Letterman audience that led them to think that the boundary-pushing comic may have gone too far, but he didn't. Funny? Perhaps not. But Rickles is not a racist and his joke wasn't either.
Lighten up, America. It is still ok to poke fun at people--even if they're black.
*And just in case you're wondering, that's a joke too.