The Atlantic recently reported that students in a humanities course at Reed College, in Portland, Ore., vehemently objected to a video of Steve Martin’s portrayal of King Tut on “Saturday Night Live” in 1978. Calling the video “racist” and accusing Mr. Martin of “cultural appropriation,” they went so far as to liken his performance to making a song “just littered with the n-word” and saxophonist Lou Marini’s gold makeup to “blackface.”
As someone who not only delighted in Mr. Martin’s performance of “King Tut” that night 39 years ago, but who, along with several classmates, soon after performed it in front of my fifth-grade class (striking stereotypical hieroglyphic poses while singing along to Mr. Martin’s latest album, which included a song from the skit), I am essentially being labeled a de facto racist for treasuring that performance instead of seeing obvious and contemptible slights hurled at the ancient Egyptians by a cold and heartless Steve Martin.
How dare Steve and the backup singers dress in “racist” Egyptian garb and dance in side-view postures that emulate the very way those people depicted themselves? String Mr. Martin up — and do the same to those evil Bangles, who had the nerve to record “Walk like an Egyptian” in ‘86!
As for Blue Lou Marini emerging from a sarcophagus to perform his saxophone solo in cultural goldface, are those students aware that it was the Egyptians who put the Middle Eastern face of Tutankhamun in gold?
My first cogent thoughts, memories and opinions arose during the ominous days of Vietnam and Watergate, so I grew up with — and still retain — a healthy cynicism of the world and an inherent mistrust of the older generation.
Even so, I accept that, to millennials, I am now part of the older generation. That puts me among the breed that sowed all of the terribleness of society and is now worthy of damnation. To be sure, there is much that society still must shed — its pervasive prejudice chief among those ills. But Reed College’s “Reedies Against Racism” are taking their noble crusade beyond the pale of plausibility. That someone could read racism into the “King Tut” performance reveals a mind so conspiratorial that it’s almost begging to find racism wherever it looks.
By coincidence, I had watched the video weeks ago during a bout of nostalgia as my dreaded 50th birthday approached. For someone who has always prided himself on being tolerant to all minorities — an attitude I put into practice numerous times both in my school days and adulthood — not once did any hint of offensiveness enter my mind while re-watching the video. As in 1978, “King Tut” stands as nothing more than a hilarious satirical poke at the marketing craze that accompanied the wizened pharaoh’s American tour — which Mr. Martin made abundantly clear in the song’s introduction.
OK, he incorporated the quasi-derisive word “honky” — an epithet so lame and inoffensive that no white person has ever taken umbrage at it, but one that wasn’t even mentioned by the Reedies themselves.
Sure, good-ol’-boy humor is alive and well — humor that, in its atavistic trumpeting of outdated mores, reeks of authentic racism and infects every corner of the country. “King Tut” isn’t part of that strain. In his assault on common decency, Donald Trump has turned this nation into a raw nerve, hyper-sensitizing everyone to just about everything. Our societal ills existed long before Mr. Trump threw his hair into the ring, but, unfortunately, many who oppose his ilk are becoming reactionary bullies themselves, so much so that, even before Mr. Trump stepped onto the political stage, one of the most straight-laced standup comics around, Jerry Seinfeld, abandoned the college circuit because of its hypercritical political correctness.
College campuses used to be bastions of rational thought; apparently, they’re becoming headquarters for ultraliberal goons who seek to invalidate anything that came before and are, in their way, as sinister as their ultraconservative arch-enemies. The way to combat America’s rising tide of intolerance is not to mindlessly sling the arrows of political correctness ad nauseam. Mel Brooks — whose career has proved quite politically incorrect, thank goodness — taught us that humor is perhaps the most highly effective method of fighting intolerance.
For a generation whose chief contribution to humor is dumb people doing dumb things on YouTube, the younger crowd may not be the best judge of what is or isn’t funny. So, we’d better think hard about going overboard with political correctness before we milquetoast ourselves right into a colorless future.
Randy S. Robbins (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Baltimore.