Imus in the Maelstrom
A former staff member wonders if the joke's on us
The door to WFAN’s studio opened wide catching my eye and as I looked up I was greeted with the words “What the f*** are you looking at?” from none other than the legendary shock jock, Don Imus.
I had no idea how to react. Was Imus serious or joking around? There was no time to react but I stalled with a stuttering, “Excuse me?”
Again the words bellowed at least 20 times louder, “What the f*** are you looking at?”
I decided that I needed to play ball and go toe to toe with the acid tongued, leathery skinned morning man and replied sternly, “You, ya ugly bastard!”
Imus smiled and said, “Well stop looking at me, there’s no need to be looking at me unless you’re some kind of sissy queer.”
This was my initiation into the locker room atmosphere where grown men behave like pre-pubescent boys. Imus with his sidekicks Bernard McGuirk and Charles McCord have always maintained a take-no-prisoners style of radio program. Everyone is fair game. That very morning that Imus greeted me with his foul mouth he had also began his program with Kinky Friedman’s “They ain’t making Jews like Jesus anymore.” Why was that the choice for the start of the show? It was Yom Kippur. He then proceeded to call nearly every Jewish person who worked at the station to see if they would answer the phone in violation of the Jewish tradition to not use any electronic devices on the most solemn of holy days. His Jewish colleagues took it in stride, with one executive producer anticipating his call and leaving a clever message on his answering machine.
“Hi this is the Cohen’s and we’re not answering the phone because of any religious reason, but rather, out of fear that Imus may call. Oh well, have a Happy New Year and I’m going to atone for my sins now.” Hysterical, and it even left the I-man himself in stitches. He shook Cohen’s hand the next day, admitting that he had been beat at his own game.
Now Don Imus has made the headlines because he called the Rutgers women’s basketball team a bunch of “nappy headed hoes.” Black leaders everywhere have called for his resignation even after he issued a public apology.
I saw a bunch of sides of the man who everyone is accusing of racism when I worked at WFAN in the mid-90s. His charity work comes straight from the heart. I’ve seen him comfort children with cancer and parents who lost a child to SIDS. Even this alleged class bully has a soft spot. But I’ve also seen Imus lash into colleagues for being late, or for simply not being funny. I watched a female personal assistant be reduced to tears and another nearly had a nervous breakdown. Working with Imus is never for the timid–the demands are high. Simply being in Imus’ crosshairs is dangerous business on-air or off. Always a tough interviewer who never leaves challenging questions in his holster, Imus lambastes all comers with a mix of clever questioning and toilet humor.
But how far is really too far? Imus’ show has always been about humor, but recently he has turned to covering serious issues and politicians have used Imus’ show as a forum to have a few laughs and roll out a couple of social programs or intriguing ideas. The line between the two formats he straddles—humor and political talk—make the occasional listener wonder what can be taken seriously and what is satire. But considering everything he’s said on-air over the years, I wonder why his recent comment has set people off?
Don Imus continues to say that his show is not journalism but satire and comedic in form. The sad state of affairs is that the Imus crew is really an intelligent group of folks who have the ability to come up with a smart joke 90% of the time and yet often take the lazy way out and take aim with cheap shots. Even if the crew has the best of intentions in making light of stereotypes, how many people even get the joke?
Like Archie Bunker, Imus blurs the line between humor and racism, and we his listeners accept his satirical characters as “lovable bigots” seeing remnants of our own bigotry or those of our parents and grandparents all the while laughing them off rather than becoming penitent. Imus and his crew are guilty of the same sin that many of us commit: we try to rationalize our bigotries by making light of them and make racism out to be no big deal. Deflating racist barbs with a laugh is not a cure-all for obvious injustice and bigotry but neither, I might add, is crucifying an entertainer (cf: Michael Richards).
Perhaps the joke is on us. If Imus is a loudmouth bigot who aims for the easy joke too often then what does that say about those of us listening and laughing? Ultimately, I don’t believe Don Imus is a racist anymore than I think everyone who laughs at his off-color humor is. I do believe this incident calls us to reconsider what is appropriate public discourse and, given Imus’ numerous apologies and explanations, I also think it’s an opportunity to forgive.
The fact is, regardless of what we think is funny or appropriate, at some point we all have a responsibility to turn off our radios, step out of our insular cocoons and actually try to work for justice among all people, black and white, male and female, gay and straight, Muslim and Jew etc.
But instead we cry racism and never bother to change the channel because we really don’t hear the voice that is our own beneath the squawking of a loudmouth shock jock.