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Sunday, January 24, 2016


A few years ago all hell broke loose when a group of Mummers, all Caucasian men, wore Native American headdresses. At that time I wrote, “Sometimes it’s fun to worry about inconsequential minutiae, but the fact is Native headdresses have been part of the Mummers for decades. Since the Mummers are about feathers, it should come as no surprise that some brigades would opt to use a Native headdress as part of its ensemble.”

While I don’t wish to revisit that instance in this column, I will visit this year’s Mummers controversy — the uproar surrounding the parade’s parody of Caitlyn Jenner and the ‘high crime’ of stereotyping Mexicans with brownface and other people supposed to be Mexicans dressed as dancing tacos.
There are good jokes and there are bad jokes. There are also lethal jokes that shake up nerves and sensitivities. Take Sarah Silverman, a political comedienne who in one comedy act claims that if Jesus came back from the dead, she would gladly crucify him all over again. She takes to the extreme Jonathan Swift’s maxim that “nothing is above satire,” be it abortion, religion or sex. Silverman is wise enough, however, not to say anything untoward about Mohammad because there may be unsettling consequences to that. Sometimes self interest transcends the desire to get standing ovations. I do not like Silverman, but I would never impose on another person’s cup of tea (gagging Silverman) if they happened to be a fan.
Why do I bring up Silverman? I suppose it is because the comics division of the Mummers Parade see themselves as part of this great American tradition of scandalous satire. Here’s what the very Catholic (and conservative) author G. K. Chesterton said about satire:  “A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” The satire we see in the Mummers Parade is not the smart, refined satire of “Gulliver’s Travels,” but satire of the most rustic sort: bargain basement parody.
Uproar over the skits performed at this year’s parade did not come from die-hard Mummers fans lining Broad Street; they came from a few City Hall power brokers, the new mayor, a couple of suits and ties who makes their living behind desks and the new Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick. They believe they have a job to do and that is to keep our city out of the business of showing disrespect.

Here’s part of what Mayor Kenney said about this year’s parade: “It’s all about education and it’s all about explaining to people who might not understand that sometimes you do things that are offensive to people, whether you meant to or whether you didn’t, you still offended them.”
Every single one of us is guilty of offending people whether we mean to or not. When a man who is walking ahead of me on a sidewalk suddenly clears his throat and spits a huge glob of mucus right in front of me, I might be offended. When the well-dressed elderly woman hears a risqué joke on a city bus, she may be offended. The people waiting for the morning rush hour El at Front and Girard may be offended if they have to watch a couple engage in lusty, inappropriate public affection. You might be offended when you have to witness the antics of a two year-old child ducking under the banquet tables at an adult holiday party because the kid’s father was too lazy to hire a babysitter. We are offended everyday by offenses great and small.
The 2016 “offensive” Mummers skits, for the most part, was typical Mummery. Mummers comics, generally, are not Union League members or Harvard grads, but raw Philly-types who drink beer, have strong opinions and cuss. The comics have always been especially outrageous, so much so that a Mummers observer from 1978 wouldn’t have noticed anything peculiar about the 2016 skits.
If anything, the parade is a shadow of what it used to be. The new, sanitized, “Disney” Mummers Parade is just a little more exciting than watching a 4th of July parade in a small town in Utah. In fact, compared to what the parade was like in the 1970s, it has become a practice run for performances before TV cameras and for those special shows in the Convention Center. In prior years, the parade usually lasted until midnight. There was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street then, an actual atmosphere of joyful revelry and personal involvement as people on the street camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched on past.

As for the Sammar Strutters who adopted a Mexican theme and performed in brownface, Mummers comics have been dressing up as wenches, colonialists, British soldiers, Frenchmen in white powder puff wigs, nuns, Arabs, Turkish sultans, Hawaiian princesses, former presidents and cops for decades. It’s all about dressing up and getting attention, not about nuance in comedy A Mummers comic routine will not have the subtle humor of a 19th century drawing room. This is the raw belly laughter of a working class city.
When the Finnegan New Year’s Brigade preformed their Jenner skit with the Wheaties and the Fruit Loops boxes they were indulging in typical working class Mummers rough comedy. If anything, use of the Fruit Loops box was out of sync because Jenner has never been gay. (The word ‘fruit’ has been used as a gay insult for ages, so the Mummers got it wrong). Bisexuality was not part of Jenner’s life as Bruce. When an interviewer asked Catilyn after her transition if she was now officially a lesbian because she still has a sexual interest in women, she refused to answer the question.
Now we have a mayor who wants to give catechism lessons or sensitivity lessons to Mummers comics. He wants to organize them into classrooms and elevate their minds so that they won’t do things like make fun of Caitlyn Jenner. Mayor Kenney wants the comics to learn that there are some subjects that their comedy routines cannot touch.
The skit was not, as the Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick said, “Transphobic and disgusting.” I believe that’s going way too far.
While some calm discussion needs to ensue regarding the Mummers use of brownface, our new mayor should not be so much of a Pooh Bear tool for the agenda of a few ideologues in City Hall.