Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fall Thee Well

Several people of my acquaintance were thrilled to see Jerry Falwell die, spitting out "Good riddance!" and hoping that his passing was a painful one.

While I understand the anger, even hatred, for this dreadful man, I cannot join the celebration, partly for karmic reasons, but also because it's pointless. Falwell was a tent revivalist clown who gained political power on the wave of the Reagan upsurge beginning in 1979. Right place at the rightwing time. That he was taken seriously as a political, at times moralistic, commentator by the Liberal Media showed that you can say the craziest, hateful shit, and if you claim to be speaking for God, it will not seriously hurt your career. But Falwell didn't create the environment he so ably exploited -- a significant chunk of Americans share the apocalyptic belief system that Falwell personified on a grander stage, and just because he's now gone doesn't mean that this mindset is weakened in any way.

Though he remained one of the top American religious celebrities to the end, Falwell's real political influence faded long ago. It was easy to mock him and his poisonous reasoning, for everytime he popped off about the latest national sin, he looked merely old and ridiculous, just like his still-living pal, Pat Robertson. But go back to the early years, say from 1980-84, and you'd see Falwell at full strength, his organization, the Moral Majority, wielding serious political and cultural clout. People were actually afraid of the man and what he might do, and brother, did Falwell seize on that. I've written before that many comedians wouldn't go after Falwell and the religious right back then, especially at the broadcast level, where the wrong joke or premise might scare off advertisers pressured by Falwell's group. It was, in many ways, a timid time.

"SNL" did very little to mock Falwell, and when it did, the parody was broad and de-politicized. "Fridays", on the other hand, went straight for Falwell's throat and trashed the religious right on a pretty regular basis. The show lost sponsors and affiliates due to this and other outrages, but it appeared that the "Fridays" crew didn't really care about that, because if they did, they wouldn't have showcased the harsh attacks to begin with. (However, ABC cared, for obvious reasons, and this played a part in "Fridays" being cancelled.)

"Fridays" portrayed evangelists as closeted queers, racists, nazis, and raving lunatics. In one direct assault, "The Moral Majority Comedy/Variety Hour", Falwell, played by Bruce Mahler, hosted a show celebrating attacks on gays, feminists, and the Bill of Rights, while promoting book burnings, beating up liberal figures like Jane Fonda and George McGovern, showing "typical" liberal parents zonked out on drugs while letting their baby die from neglect, a white supremacist magician who makes black people disappear forever, and a Plasmatics-type band who become Christian rockers playing a punk version of "God Bless America." Nobody else on American TV performed this kind of material back then, and you had to be there to fully appreciate its effect. "Fridays" nailed Falwell when he was at his most powerful. Problem was, they were practically alone.

But for sheer satirical viciousness, not even "Fridays" could match Larry Flynt, who ran a very nasty, and funny, attack on Falwell in a 1983 issue of Hustler. This was nothing new -- Hustler was always filled with political and cultural satire, much of it in bad taste, but some of it incredibly sharp and intelligently written. (The Realist's Paul Krassner was a Hustler editor/writer for a time.) Flynt's trashing of Falwell was squarely in this tradition, and Flynt made sure that Falwell felt the sting, which the Rev. intimately did.

In a parody of the then-print ads for Campari, which interviewed celebrities about their "first time" (wink wink), Flynt went immediately over the edge and didn't look back.

FALWELL: My first time was in an outhouse outside Lynchburg, Virginia.

INTERVIEWER: Wasn't it a little cramped?

FALWELL: Not after I kicked the goat out.

INTERVIEWER: I see. You must tell me all about it.

FALWELL: I never really expected to make it with Mom, but then after she showed all the other guys in town such a good time, I figured "What the hell!"

INTERVIEWER: But your mom? Isn't that a bit odd?

FALWELL: I don't think so. Looks don't mean much to me in a woman.


FALWELL: Well, we were drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari, ginger ale and soda -- that's called a Fire and Brimstone -- at the time. And Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation.

INTERVIEWER: Campari in the crapper with Mom . . . how interesting. Well, how was it?

FALWELL: The Campari was great, but Mom passed out before I could come.

INTERVIEWER: Did you every try it again?

FALWELL: Sure . . . lots of times. But not in the outhouse. Between Mom and the shit, the flies were too much to bear.

INTERVIEWER: We meant the Campari.

FALWELL: Oh, yeah. I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit. You don't think I could lay down all that bullshit sober, do you?

Falwell sued Flynt for libel and "intentional infliction of emotional distress." While jurors in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia did not buy the libel charge, they did believe that Flynt meant to hurt Falwell, and awarded the offended Rev. $150 grand in damages. Flynt appealed on free speech grounds, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which agreed with Flynt and overturned the lower court's decision.

Humorists and satirists owe Larry Flynt big-time for that. And in a way, they owe Jerry Falwell a debt as well. They don't make 'em like the old Lynchburg bigot anymore. I mean, Mitt Romney?