On the Beat With Retarded Policeman

[Overthinking It Magazine is the weekly feature where we give you articles you’ll like all the more since the sabbath gives you an extra minute to ponder them. It may not replace your Sunday morning tryst with the newspaper of … Continued

[Overthinking It Magazine is the weekly feature where we give you articles you’ll like all the more since the sabbath gives you an extra minute to ponder them. It may not replace your Sunday morning tryst with the newspaper of record, but we promise it will give you lots to overthink about. Oh, and if you’re in a newsreader, click through to the site. I spent precious time on that graphic. –Ed.]

For your overthinking consideration, I give you Mediocre Film’s hit web series, Retarded Policeman:

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.

The Good

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:

The Bad

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?”
WOMAN: “Nothing.”
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.

The Ugly

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!

3 Comments on “On the Beat With Retarded Policeman”

  1. nathan #

    So this made me shudder just by reading the title. I thought it was going to be something just awful, like that Jonny Knoxville movie, but there is something redeeming in here.

    Part of accepting this, and maybe the hard part for some of the viewers, is that I had a hard time admitting to myself that I could really believe that a Down Syndrome patient could be this self-aware and interactive. Overcoming my own prejudice was the hard part.

    Once my own biases were acknowledged (at least to myself), I had to admit that this show is at least as funny as anything that Ben Stiller has ever done.

    Another objection, though, is that I don’t think that we who analyze our reactions to this are the majority viewers. It’s more likely that I would never watch this because it makes me uncomfortable, and the people who did watch were the ones who are comfortable with the idea of calling people retarded.

    I suppose that Richard Pryor had to face similar criticism when he started the widespread reclamation of the word nigger by the black community. Josh, by referring to himself as retarded, has taken away the power of that word from anyone else.

    Wow. It’s contagious.
    Now I’m overthinking it, too.


  2. wrather #

    Are you calling Ben Stiller retarded?


  3. fenzel #

    Thanks for the comment, Nathan. Yeah, the overthinking is contagious.

    You definitely have a point, but the ethics of “You and I are doing the same thing, but I’m doing it for the right reasons, and without other information I’m just going to guess that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, therefore I am a good person and you are not a good person.” are as shaky as they are tempting.

    One of the big problems of going down that road is that the relative difficulty people have with communicating their intentions varies very widely, not to mention the methods with which they are familiar/comforable. Somebody might be doing something for the right reasons and just not be communicating it to you in a way you understand. Comdemnnig them for that leans into a form of either elitism or xenophobia.

    Part of training ourselves to read things closely is to be able to bridge the gap in facility and method of communication — to get better at interpreting. Although intention proves to be a bit of a sticky wicket.

    But when it comes to people who are just sort of “out there” and whom we don’t even know, let alone talk with personally, making assumptions like this, even when it’s correct, probably does more harm than good.

    If there’s a good reason to do something, and people are doing that thing, I would rather spread the word about the good reason than insist than those with bad intentions just stop. Although I confess I will do the latter from time to time.

    And my primary concern in thinking about Retarded Policeman was that there may not be any good reason.

    Having looked at it in more depth, I think there are a bunch of good reasons, and I’m very glad Mediocre Films made this series.


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