Trigger Warning: Everything
When I was a teenager, those “Baby on Board” signs were huge. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was one on somebody’s car. They were the stick-figure family stickers of the 80s. And so, just for the hell of it, I bought one. I burned the edges of the thing with a lighter and took Testors red model paint and created blood spatters across it, even drawing a little handprint “in blood,” and stuck it in the window of my car. My homemade “Dead Baby on Board” sign remained there for a good year or so.
So, how would you have reacted to something like that? Would it make you laugh? It sure as hell made me laugh. This could be because I’m a misanthropic prick who’s spent a substantial portion of his life gleefully pissing down the back of polite society. It could also be because I’m someone for whom “inappropriate” and “hilarious” are usually synonymous. Then again it could simply be that I thought it was funny. And nobody gets to tell me what I should or shouldn’t think is funny.
Last night while standing around a Hollywood restaurant waiting for my girlfriend to get off work, I glanced down at my phone and noticed that a friend of mine had tweeted out something she claimed had left her “speechless.” Curious, I opened up the tweet to see what was getting her hackles up and was immediately confronted with the image of an old sweatshirt, torn and stained with what appeared to be faded blood. At the center of the shirt was the Kent State University logo.
My first reaction to this was to quickly bring my hand up to my face to stifle a burst of laughter. I was only somewhat successful in this endeavor.
The web ad from Urban Outfitters promoted the shirt as “vintage” and claimed that, as there was only one available, some lucky buyer had better “get it or regret it.” The price tag on the thing was $129. As you probably know, Urban Outfitters would go on to quickly pull the offer down and issue an entirely horseshit apology for it, but for a while it was out there, trolling all of humanity with a ludicrously offensive middle finger to good taste that you could actually wear. It was really fucking awful. But dear God was it funny.
Yes, I get it. Four innocent people were killed in 1970 when the National Guard indiscriminately fired into a crowd of protesters on the Kent State campus. It was indeed a national tragedy and at the time wasn’t the kind of thing that should’ve been fodder for jokes, tasteless or otherwise. But I probably don’t need to tell you the formula, often attributed to Mark Twain, used to create a lot of really great comedy: humor is tragedy plus time. And you just can’t call “too soon” on something that happened 44 years ago.
The whole point of comedy is often to take our pain and suffering, confront it head on, and repurpose it in the name of making it less psychically debilitating. Laughing at something defangs it and hopefully leaves it not-quite-as-intimidating for us as individuals or as a society. This is why, while it’s not essential for everyone to find the same things funny, it’s necessary to preserve each person’s right to find funny whatever the hell he or she chooses to.
There’s nothing at all wrong with not finding something funny, but we now live in a world where there exists a mechanism for stomping out anything that doesn’t coddle everyone’s delicate sensibilities. There’s a segment of the population that demonizes the willfully transgressive and which doesn’t seem to be happy unless it’s got something to complain about. Jesus, the fallout from the Kent State sweatshirt has itself been hysterical, with people who weren’t even alive for the shooting it parodies clutching their pearls and taking umbrage — because of course that’s what we do these days. It feels like that’s all we fucking do: react to things that offend us.
— Dana DeArmond (@danadearmond) September 15, 2014
@UrbanOutfitters are you serious w/that Kent State sweatshirt? It is appalling to think that someone at your company thought that was cool.
— MónicaCarmenBirakos (@monicabirakos) September 15, 2014
Look, it’s a really rude gag but it’s still a gag. I can understand being offended by the fact that a faux-edgy hipster shithole like Urban Outfitters is behind it — and that their apology is so entirely full of crap — but the shirt itself is harmless and kind of hilarious. It’s tasteless, sure, but so is a lot of really funny stuff.
Like this, for example:
Did you laugh at that?
If you did, you don’t get to be pissy over a bloody Kent State shirt that somebody’s probably going to wear as part of what I promise you will be the least offensive Halloween costume we’ll see this year.
If you didn’t, well, you don’t have to. But I’ll make you a deal: you don’t tell me what I can laugh at and I’ll do you the same favor.