Right off the bat, I’d like to note with extreme emphasis that this isn’t intended in any way to suggest that my experiences producing satirical cartoons is anywhere in the same universe as the tragedy in Paris. This post is entirely about protecting satire and shouldn’t be taken as an attempt to compare my personal incidents with the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. Got it? Okay, let’s go.
In addition to writing about politics, for nearly 20 years I’ve also directed and produced cartoons. In all, I’ve made around 800 animated shorts. Most of them have been posted on the internet (as you might’ve gathered from my discussion with Joe Cartoon), while others were music videos or aired on television as part of an animated sketch show I created and produced for VH1 and MTV. Nearly all of my shorts featured satirical content, either shitting all over celebrities or politicians or even other cartoon characters. Regarding the latter, the following cartoon spoofing Spongebob Square Pants never made it TV:
You might recognize a cartoon I produced in May of 2000 called “Napster Bad” in which I totally annihilated Lars Ulrich’s lawsuit against Napster. Overall, it was one of my least offensive shorts. To wit: in a later Metallica cartoon, in which Lars and James Hetfield count down — New Years Eve style — to the removal of Napster from the internet, instead of a Time Square ball drop, the count down was illustrated by one of Lars’ actual testicles dropping into his scrotum. Just to be on the safe side, I remember calling my entertainment lawyer at the time and asking her whether Lars could sue me for suggesting that he suffered from an undescended testicle. After gasping, my lawyer told me that there’s no law against bad taste and it’s unlikely I would be successfully sued.
At that point, she explained that satire is considered protected speech in the United States, pointing to Larry Flynt’s successful pursuit of Jerry Falwell after the televangelist tried to sue Hustler Magazine for suggesting that Falwell had sex with his mother. As we discussed yesterday on The Daily Banter, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell established satire as protected speech in the U.S., preventing public figures from suing for damages due to published/broadcast/etc satire. The Court ruled:
“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”
That said, I’ve received more than a few cease and desist letters from various celebrities. One of the most memorable incidents involved college basketball announcer and perennial March Madness spaz, Dick Vitale. I’d always been fascinated by Vitale’s unquenchable enthusiasm for the annual NCAA tournament and wondered whether there was anything that could dampen his spirit. Was his hyperkinetic adulation stoppable? What could he physically endure and still maintain his pulse-pounding zeal for the brackets?
So, in March of 2001, I wrote and animated a cartoon titled “Dick Vitale Goes Apeshit.” In it, Vitale delivers a pre-game report from center-court at an NCAA match-up, and wagers that he’s so pumped about the tournament that he can easily finish his report “with a rusty farm tool lodged in his skull, baby!” And then he rams a sickle scythe into his head. Blood squirts out and Vitale collapses. After a long beat, Vitale pops up laughing and continues his report with the tool in his brain. The cartoon continues on with Vitale doing more and more damage to himself until finally we see Vitale inside the (wait for it) urethra of an elephant while holding several sticks of TNT. BOOM! Fiery explosion. Roll credits.
Tasteful? Hell no. In fact, looking back it’s more than a little embarrassing in terns if both production values and content. But is it protected speech? Absolutely.
A few days later, I was in Manhattan for a meeting when my agent frantically informed me that Dick Vitale’s lawyer called and said Dick Vitale was very angry about the cartoon. Evidently, one of his assistants showed Dick the cartoon and the frenetic sportscaster literally went apeshit. I like to imagine Vitale watching the cartoon, initially delighted to see himself in cartoon form, then slowly growing more unhinged as the various scenes of self-abuse worsen. Then the elephant joke. Blood drains from his head in shocked horror, followed by a maniacal call to his lawyer during which Vitale describes the cartoon: “It’s me, Dickie V! There’s this cartoon on the interwebs showing me getting racked in the balls by a dwarf on roller skates, baby! Then I’m inside an elephant’s dick, baby! And it explodes! Baby!”
The next day, a cease and desist order arrived threatening legal action unless I removed the cartoon from the internet. Naturally, I refused. Instead I quoted the letter in a press release and sent it to, well, everyone, exponentially increasing the visibility of the cartoon. Whoops. Of course, there was nothing else Vitale could have done, given that Supreme Court precedent regarding lawsuits against satirists.
No other nation in the world protects satire from legal action. Not one of the leaders who pretended to march in Sunday’s rally in France represent nations where satire is protected speech. This makes living in America a vital component to what I and so many others do for a living. Put another way, I’d never be able to move to England or France and create cartoons about British recording artists (and their dysfunctional balls) or sportscasters abusing themselves without risking numerous lawsuits.
We often ridicule the notion of American Exceptionalism because it doesn’t always seem like a substantive boast, but this is one area where the U.S. is indisputably exceptional. While 40 world leaders pretended to march while pretending to support satire in the face of a brutal enemy, none of them are actively pushing an agenda to protect satire. Frankly, I’m glad Obama didn’t participate in such a transparent and hollow gesture, and I’m exceedingly grateful I don’t live in those countries.
Thank you, Mr. Flynt.