I have been doing professional stand-up comedy for more than twenty years, and I have heard just about every racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, ageist, anti-feminist, and anti-transgender joke there is. Sometimes the jokes emanate from other comedians and sometimes from comedy club audience members. However, very infrequently do they come from fellow elected officials. In this case, however, that is not true. State Sen. James “Sonny” McCullough is setting himself to lose his seat on the basis of his exposed racist values.
And he made it worse by declaring afterwards:
"It was not an ethnic slur...It was never said in a slanderous way toward African-Americans or the Chinese. If they took it that way, I certainly would apologize. I never took it that way.""...If they took it that way, I certainly would apologize."??? That's just like saying, “Hey! Come on. It’s just a joke! Lighten up.”
However, it’s not just a joke. Your sense of humor is a great window into your core value system. We should judge people’s core value system not just on the basis of what they say during prepared speeches. But what they say in spontaneous moments. This is especially true of those in public office. Remember Virginia Senator George Allen in 2oo6. His casual use of the racist term 'macaca' for a dark skinned person was caught on YouTube, and cost him the election.
At my annual program for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities on humor in government, we always have a panel consisting of myself, a professional political stand-up comedian, political cartoonist Jimmy Margulies, and sometimes another elected official. In the past, we have had the pleasure of having join us Dena Blizzard, the former Ms. New Jersey, and current stand-up comedian. We have had comedian Scott Blakeman from The Late Show with David Letterman and Barry Weintraub from ComedyCentral. And Assemblyman Jon Bramnick has joined us as well, as he is listed as the ‘Funniest Lawyer in New Jersey’.
There are great lessons to be learned from those elected officials who used humor wisely ---like John Kennedy and Ronald Reagen. And from those who used it poorly ---like Dan Qualye, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
The question of what is appropriate humor will be debated for years. However, at the NJSLOM session we have always come away with the following universal truths regarding humor:
1-Always make yourself the butt of any joke.
2-Never make an ethic joke.
3-Always know your audience.
State Sen. James “Sonny” McCullough is most definitely learning the hard way. He should have attended my program at the League.