If anyone can tackle race-based humor without stirring the P.C. police, it’s Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart. Right?
Ferrell’s liberal bona fides are hard to dispute. He spent years mocking President George W. Bush, to the Left’s delight, created the progressive Funny or Die web site, shilled for Obamacare on said site, and even revisited his Dubya character on Broadway.
Hart is merely the hottest movie comic working today, a black superstar whose appeal crosses racial demographics.
Their first movie together, the March 27 release “Get Hard,” should be an early spring smash. Only the film’s sneak screening at the SXSW festival in Austin was anything but a box office coronation. It was a virtual pitchforks and flaming torches affair.
“Get Hard” casts Ferrell as a casually racist investment banker brought down for a crime he didn’t commit. To prep for prison, he hires a black car wash attendant (Hart) to teach him how to survive in the Big House. He just assumes Hart’s character is a thug, even though he’s a squeaky clean family man. Let the barrage of racial stereotypes commence.
‘Racist As F—’
The hipster throng greeted Ferrell and Hart like rock stars prior to the screening. But when the duo left and director Etan Cohen handled the post-screening Q&A, things got ugly. Think a particularly nasty Twitter conversation where nuance gets shoved aside.
“This film seemed racist as f—,” one attendee said. That person wasn’t alone. Indiewire.com summed up the screening’s combustible spirit, while adding other elements of the film were similarly troubling: “Alison Brie also steps in as Ferrell’s ‘cartoonishly materialistic fiancee,’ with Craig T. Nelson playing her cash-rich father, in a portrayal that feels sexist. Variety also blew the whistle on the film’s “offensive” humor with its early review. “If you’re disturbed by white-collar crime, but not quite as disturbed as you are by gay sex, then congratulations: You might possess just the right combo of social conscience and unexamined homophobia needed to fully enjoy ‘Get Hard.’”
Another Variety story suggested the fact that Ferrell’s character isn’t eager to perform oral sex on a man might be “homophobic.”
Somewhere, Mel Brooks is shaking his head, giddy to have created groundbreaking comedies like “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles” in a non-P.C. era. Could he even get a studio lackey to take his calls today with his brand of button-pushing humor? That “Blazing Saddles” script, now considered comedy gold, would need a Kickstarter.com jump just to get some initial funding. The N-word? Forget it.
The Comedy World After ‘Get Hard’
So where does that leave “Get Hard?” Any press is good press, or so the saying goes. Plus, the Ferrell/Hart combination should override any fears of a box-office flop. The ramifications go beyond a single film.
Surely Hollywood insiders are watching the “Get Hard” dustup and wondering just what they can joke about in their next project. Dare they evoke race in their gags? If so, how do they do so without offending someone with an axe to grind and a Twitter account?
Comedy is hard. Making people laugh without stepping on a single toe is making it even harder. There are few places where comedians can try out edgy material without being punished for it. The stand-up circuit used to be such a place. Not any more, with the advent of phone cameras. Tracy Morgan’s 2011 riff on having a gay son had him go through sensitivity-style punishment as a result. Daniel Tosh had to apologize in 2012 for making a rape joke during a stand-up routine.
And, just recently, Comedy Central edited out several jokes from the Justin Bieber roast involving the untimely death of “Fast and Furious” star Paul Walker. Of course the jokes were in poor taste. That’s the whole point of a roast.
We’re finding fewer topics to joke about, and racial humor remains at the top of that “no go” list.
It’s ironic that two of the writers behind “Get Hard” (Ian Roberts and Jay Martel) work for “Key & Peele,” a rare oasis for humor built around racial observations. Still, given the “Get Hard” uproar, it’s likely we’ll see more watered down comedy. Content providers, fearful of the kind of backlash “Get Hard” is currently facing, may chart less challenging jokes.
Exiting Attorney General Eric Holder famously said we’re a “nation of cowards” when it comes to race discussions. Maybe he’s right. After all, we can’t even watch a movie evoking race by two of the most bankable stars in Hollywood without causing a commotion.