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It stars the very funny Josh “The Ponceman” Perry, who is an aspiring professional actor and has Down Syndrome.
If you’re like me, your first reaction after laughing (it’s a good little show that’s very funny in its own right) was, “How am I supposed to feel about this?”
Discussion and more video, after the jump.
First of all, let’s talk about why the show is funny — because it’s not just because people like laughing at people with a mental handicaps.
Each episode is pretty consistently structured — the retarded policeman pulls someone over, the person tries to play dumb, ingratiate the cop or otherwise not to get in trouble, and the cop sees how much he can get away with before the person drives away. The actor seems aware of what’s going on and to really be enjoying himself, and a lot of the scenes are him amusing himself in front of a captive audience. Check out episode 2:
People pulled over are artificially subservient to cops, walking on eggshells and trying not to upset them – and that they act similarly around the mentally handicapped. People pulled over by cops also often think the cops are stupid (thus the title, “Retarded Policeman” is a light pun).
The difference is that the mentally handicapped are usually low-status, while cops are high-status. To borrow from improv parlance — the “game” here is putting a traditionally low-status character into a high-status position, which brings out the childlike quality of police power trips and the embarassing situation of being really afraid that you’re going to get in trouble by saying something wrong to somebody you think is stupid.
This is a real truth-in-comedy situation, where the funniest moments are the honest ones — like this episode, my personal favorite, which teaches the familiar lesson that if you give people weapons that looks like toys, they’re going to play with them:
Let’s go quickly over one of my favorite exchanges in the previous episode. It’s got an old-school vaudeville charm:
WOMAN: “What’s wrong with you?”
POLICEMAN: “I’m retarded! What’s wrong with you?”
POLICEMAN: “Then why does your face look like that?”
WOMAN: “Like what?”
POLICEMAN: “Ugly! High five!”
Can you spot the problem? He admits that he has something wrong with him.
In this day and age, a mental handicap isn’t supposed to be something wrong with you. It’s just supposed to be different. Special. (The way Ponceman taps his own Specialness is quite ironic — I could go on and on about that too.)
There’s a very good reason for this — despite the amazing work of educators, therapists, doctors, friends and family, succeeding at any number of endeavors in the face a mental handicap, especially one as serious as Down Syndrome, is phenomenally difficult, and it generally isn’t something a person can ever “get over” completely. It’s a lifelong challenge. So if it’s something “wrong” — and the word carries a great deal of moral force — then the person will never really be “right.” That’s far too harsh a judgement to pass on anybody. It makes them far too easy to dismiss, abuse, or otherwise disrespect or harm.
So, in this day and age, if you have to live with something for the rest of your life, and it isn’t something you are responsible for yourself, then it can’t be “wrong.” It can be unfortunate, or challenging, or difficult, or even “a pity” or “a shame,” but If you condemn an essentially unchangeable quality, condition or circumstance, you condemn the person, and mercy and decency call on us to be better than that.
We go so far in showing mercy to people who suffer from no fault of their own, that we call victims of random acts of violence “heroes.” Thankfully, that little chestnut is on the wane (yay mixed metaphors!), but in a world where everybody shares a common guilt, the only people in the right are the suffering (yay Irish Catholics!).
And while the excesses of this ideology are easy to mock, the core of it has some solid worth to it.
Still, this steps too far into the philosophical — the demand for treating the mentally handicapped with dignity and respect comes from a political and charitable movement that fights against practical real-life abuse and shaming. The need for this protection is intensified by the fact that these are generally not people who can defend themselves, and as such it is the basic obligation of the government and the public trust to extend them protection.
We do not want to return to the days when the king had somebody with Down Syndrome or a deformity or other mental condition chained to a chair so he can laugh at him.
Finally, there’s the matter of not being bad people. We do not aspire to be sadists, and we should not condone and encourage excessively sadistic entertainments.
For all these reasons (and a few more), we should be hesitant before we laugh too hard at Retarded Policeman.
We can take comfort in thinking that Ponceman seems aware of what he’s doing and claims to want to do it, like in this video response:
That is his sister, by the way, whom you might recognize from Episode 1. I have no reason to believe she doesn’t have his interests at heart, but of course you don’t want to take that sort of thing for granted.
But that urges us toward a stance that Ponceman must be abused by his family, he must be an unwilling victim, and that our judgement on the personal lives and intentions of the makers of Retarded Policemen is so solid as to trump any counterclaim on their part.
This is the height of arrogance. How dare we? How dare we assume this guy is being abused? He sure looks like he’s having a lot of fun. He is also living his dream — his show is successful online – he’s got millions of hits. Is he not allowed to be an actor? Comedians mock their own faults all the time; it’s part of the craft. Is he not allowed to mock his own faults because we have determined they are too faulty? That there is too much wrong with him for him or us to be allowed to laugh at it? That seems far less kind and merciful than it seemed a little while ago.
Of course, we don’t want to condone things like minstrelsy (which many African Americans participated in onstage over its century or so of cultural primacy), so it is definitely possible for people to make jokes about their own faults in a way that we cannot support. But can we condone Comic View?
Comic View — well, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
It is cruel to stifle Ponceman “for his own protection,” and this project is probably not the proudest thing he could have done. Still, while it’s an important part to play, but there are only so many guys they need to play Corky.
Retarded Policeman is very aware of its place in the cultural history political correctness, and its non-cop characters, by and large, and constrained by a contemporary courtesy and respect for the mentally handicapped that would be uncharacteristic in a truly cruel piece. I don’t think this totally excuses everything “wrong” with it, but it points to a basic worthiness that helps strengthen the case for the series and against its detractors. This episode in particular addresses cultural sensitivity:
(As the Wil Wheaton episode (I’ve done enough embedding – and yes, that’s actually him) states, it kind of falls apart with the blowjob bit, which, if you watch deleted scenes and outtakes for the show, was thrown in because the shot they originally intended to take, where the two of them get with two black women in the car and drive around getting crunk to hip hop music, was spoiled because of reflections off the windshield — I tell you from experience; shooting moving cars is hard! So try to forgive the bad ending.)
So, where does this leave us, and where does it leave Ponceman?
My take — I think it’s probably good if this stuff makes you a little uncomfortable. I wouldn’t show it to kids, and when I recommend it, it’s always alongside a discussion of some of the issues it raises.
But, I don’t think it constitutes abuse at all, I don’t think it encourages abuse, and I think it has certain subtexts that indicate that maybe the reason this is possible at all is the great strides made in understanding mental handicaps and treating the so-challenged with respect. That adjustment has been messy and silly at times, and the solution we’ve come has its ridiculous aspects. Can we laugh at it without undermining it? I think so — I think we have to believe we can if we hope for it to truly endure.
And in general, I think this is a pretty solid test case for not censoring media with potentially sadistic or socially unfavorable or frowned-upon content. Even if you determine this is bad for you to watch or an immoral series to make, I would encourage you not to attempt to force anybody to not make it or not watch it through shaming or condemnation. Because there is a real guy there who wants to be a comedian and should be given the same opportunities as other people who succeed in entertainment by setting their flaws into stark relief and showing us truths about ourselves. And also because you shouldn’t be a dick and ruin other people’s fun as long as nobody is really getting hurt.
Finally, I do think the show is very funny, and I would urge people not to feel compelled to judge works of art strictly by whether or not they agree with their morality.
Watch the show, see if you like it, enjoy it if you can, and if you can’t, discuss it and figure out why, because that engagement is in itself a positive act.
Oh, and yeah, in case it got lost in all the cultural criticism, I think this show is really great. Good work, mediocre films! Let’s go Tazy Crazy!
So, I’ve typed a ton. What do y’all think? Do you like the show? Hate it? Sound off in the comments!