Here's another one of my unprovable theories. Every few days in this country, you see some pundit or political candidate or public figure say something really outrageous or insane…and attention-grabbing. It can be an uninformed male's understanding of rape or it can be some borderline-racist putdown of minorities or it can be darn near anything Pat Robertson or Donald Trump says about anything. But it evokes anger and calls to apologize and it makes you wonder, not why does the person think that but how could they be so stupid as to say it?
I mean, I understand that there are folks out there who hate people with different-colored skin or who attend a different house of worship. What I used to wonder more about is why they weren't smart enough to avoid saying what they said the way they said it. This is especially true of those who are courting votes. You'd think, for example, that every male seeking public office would have learned to steer clear of the topic of rape. You'd think their advisors would have said to them, "No matter how obvious or reasonable it may seem to you, it will come across to many as insensitive and foolish." You'd think Donald Trump would have realized he couldn't engage Bill Maher in a public fight and not come off looking to much of America like a stuffy anal sphincter.
And here's where my theory comes in. I've come to think that while some folks may say outrageous things because they think it'll get them attention and sell books (Ann Coulter comes to mind), I think a lot of them are guilty of Joe E. Ross Disease.
You remember Joe E. Ross, the star of Car 54, Where Are You?, It's About Time and nothing else. Mr. Ross was very funny on those shows and very funny before them with intermittent appearances on Sgt. Bilko. His career dwindled to darn near nothing after the short-lived It's About Time, in large part because he got a reputation in show business for (a) being utterly unreliable and (b) having no sense of time and place.
Regarding (a), it was said he was never on time, never knew his lines and never changed when he was told to shape up or ship out. His biggest role was on Car 54, which ran two seasons. Had it been picked up for a third, Ross would not have been picked up with it. The show's producer-creator Nat Hiken had simply had enough of the guy.
But his career was probably harmed more by (b). It was said that he never once thought, of anything that came out of his mouth, "Hmm, this might not be the right audience for this." Having starred for a time in burlesque, he had a repertoire of filthy jokes — appropriate for those venues, inappropriate for others. He didn't care. The Sgt. Bilko show was shot in front of a live audience for its first few seasons. Then they started filming without one. After every two filmed-without-one episodes were edited, they'd send the films, some audio engineers and a cast member to some sort of theater with some sort of audience. The cast member would welcome the crowd, warm them up with a comedy routine, then the episodes would be shown and the live laughter would be recorded and dubbed onto the shows.
That was how it worked every time…except the week they sent Joe E. Ross.
He got up there before an audience of older and middle-age people — with some children present — and began telling jokes that would make Lenny Bruce blush: jokes about sex with nuns and hookers servicing sailors and…well, you know that kind of joke. You may even tell that kind of joke…but I bet you'd have the good sense not to tell them to your grandparents.
Joe E. Ross did this kind of thing all over the place because he had no such sense. When people ran in horror from the hall, he just kind of wondered what had gone wrong. Everyone had howled at those same jokes when he'd told them at a stag party the week before.
Which brings us to my theory. Some of those shocking/stupid things said by public figures are obviously calculated to get ratings or sell books or otherwise make money. But I think a lot of them are things which when said in the right room in front of the right crowds drew cheers and ovations and fealty. The mistake, like Ross's, was in thinking they'd play as well in a bigger room to a wider range of people. All those nutcase Pat Robertson quotes over the years were things he said on his TV broadcasts without his studio audience moaning or hooting. They just didn't play well beyond the flock.
This is the scary thing to me about someone who gets up and yells that there's incontrovertible evidence that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Socialist Muslim who had Andrew Breitbart murdered. It's not that that person is looney. It's that there are auditoriums in this country where that rhetoric played well for that person…places where they cheered their agreement. In most cases, I don't think people believe rubbish because their leaders say it. I think the "leaders" say it because people believe it. It's what enables them to retain their status as "leaders" with all the perks (the money, the attention, etc.) that are attached.
There are though, let's admit, two key differences between someone like Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul and Joe E. Ross, one being that Ross eventually paid a price for his insensitivity to his audiences. Nowadays, you can make a very good living telling a minority of Americans what they want to hear. Most people in this country think Obama's a pretty good president but you can sell a lot of books to the ones who don't. An awful lot of books. In some areas, you can get elected.
And the other difference is that Joe E. Ross was funny. Sometimes, he was funny in the wrong place and/or at the wrong time. But he made me laugh, whereas Donald Trump doesn't. Not even with that hair of his. I'd trade him for Joe E. Ross any day.