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Bill & Ted's Sociology Adventure: Why social context matters in theme park storytelling

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Published: October 23, 2013 at 4:16 PM

It’s rare that social issues come into the realm of amusement parks — but here we are. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure has been cancelled at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood, thanks to an outcry over a series of allegedly homophobic jokes in the show. I’ve seen the show before, but if you have not, you can see a video with the jokes in question over at the Huffington Post.

My initial reaction to the show was pretty much the same as it has been for the past two years: It’s not funny, the jokes are lazy and I did not have a good time. That’s fine. I know a lot of people LOVE the show to death and there’s a big difference between finding a show unfunny and finding a show homophobic. Because I didn’t care for the show much, I didn’t put in a whole lot of critical effort in my review of the event. If you liked the show last year, I figure you liked the show this year.

At some point in the last couple of weeks I heard some rumblings about the offensive nature of the show. I didn’t think much of it because, well, the show is offensive. That’s the point. They make off-color jokes that are supposed to offend people. So I didn’t think much about it until Twitter nearly combusted today as theme park sites and bloggers found out the show had been cancelled.

Phrases like “faux outrage” and “political correctness” and “you’ve never seen the show” and “context” were bandied about like play things. I get it. People are upset because a show they like is being taken away from them and it’s being taken away (in their minds) by people who have never and will never visit Halloween Horror Nights. They might be right. I think they’re missing the point.

Part of what makes off-color humor work is that comedians (usually) attack groups in power. There’s a reason that making jokes about machismo and white people go over better than making jokes about minorities: It’s not funny to make fun of marginalized groups. Now, that’s my opinion on comedy and it is obviously not shared by everyone. But to say that outrage over a homophobic joke is fake or otherwise invalid is, in my mind, kind of disgusting.

Beyond that, it’s one thing to make the joke about a group that is routinely humiliated (and still not treated as equal human beings in over half of this country, you know), and it’s another to say that their feelings — or feelings on their behalf don’t even matter. As a sports writer (I can’t go to theme parks EVERY weekend) this debate reminds me a lot of what’s happening over the name of Washington DC's NFL team right now. The rationale seems to be: The majority of Americans don’t find the name offensive; therefore, everyone who is offended is wrong. [Editor's note: Jacob wrote the name of the team, but I don't want it on the website, which shows you where I come down on that issue. - Robert]

Where that crowd gets it wrong is its belief that this is some sort of a democracy. This is not a case of “majority rules” -- this is a case where if a group is being marginalized and offended, they’re the ones we should all be answering to. I’m not gay and I do not pretend to speak for gay people in any capacity, but if there are people offended by the content of the show, that means something.

Now that’s all well and good, but it is fair to note that the context and content of the show is heavily advertised to prospective viewers. You WILL be offended and if you are easily offended DON’T WATCH is the message given before the show (paraphrasing, but you get the idea). So the comparison is made to an R-rated movie where people ostensibly don’t complain about the content because it’s known that it is created for adults.

That assumes, of course, that homophobia, racism and sexism are R-rated events that are strictly created for adults. The problem with that line of thinking is twofold: First of all, homophobia isn’t the same as gore, sex and violence. Secondly, the idea that homophobia is okay because it’s within the context of an adult event is silly. I would argue that given the context of where this country is in terms of treating gay people like human beings that the jokes are at best lazy and at worst offensive.

My point in all of this isn’t that the show was abjectly disgusting and offensive — far from it. My point is that all of these jokes happen in the wider context of our social construct. Not all jokes intended-to-offend are created equal. So while many may disagree with Universal’s decision to cancel the show, I think it’s important to show a degree of sensitivity towards the groups being targeted and to treat this issue the way it is: complicated. Spending more than five minutes thinking about the situation might lead to cooler heads and better understanding prevailing.

Update: Universal Orlando just posted to Twitter that its Bill & Ted show uses a different script and the Orlando version of the show will continue as scheduled.

Readers' Opinions

From parker reave on October 23, 2013 at 4:42 PM
In my opinion the show (which I saw) made fun of the gay stereotype, it did not make fun of being gay or of gay people.

When the "offended" can cause the immediate unemployment of 30 plus people they become more empowered to force their agenda. I'm upset that Universal caved in to this small hate group.

BTW; the clip used is from the 2006 Orlando show and not from the 2013 Universal show.

From 107.197.221.100 on October 23, 2013 at 4:56 PM
I recently watched the show and found it very entertaining. The show insults everyone and everything so the insults are 'well rounded.' I do not think the jokes were homophobic. I'm sad the show was cancelled completely. Why couldn't they have just taken out the jokes that were viewed as offensive?
From Vaughn Miller on October 23, 2013 at 5:23 PM
I will state outright that I have not seen the show and since I don't live close to Orlando I most likely will not see it. That having been said I have always felt that to use jokes against minorities is the easy way out and whether they are offensive or not is beside the point. I will conceed that if the person making the jokes is gay and is using them in a self depricating manner then fine otherwise just lazy script writing.
From Richard Faraci on October 23, 2013 at 5:38 PM
*edited*
From 74.202.118.163 on October 23, 2013 at 6:06 PM
Wow! In a word, Jacob, THANKS. Thanks for some of the most thoughtful, compassionate writing I have ever seen on this subject. I imagine there will be a lot of backlash from those who have never been targeted by hate-humor, but to try to imply, as some earlier commenter did, that there is any difference at all between making fun of a stereotype and making fun of the people to whom that stereotype is being applied is - well - obtuse, in my humble opinion.

Would that same person say it is okay to make fun of the stereotype of a mentally disabled person, as long as they weren't making fun of a specific mentally disabled person? I certainly hope not.

People are entitled to their opinions, however hateful they may be, but I just wanted to be one who expresses my appreciation to someone who has the guts to write an article like the one Jacob wrote. Score another point for Theme Park Insider and the outstanding people who write for it.

From 172.56.30.78 on October 23, 2013 at 6:18 PM
As a bisexual person, I can say I was not offended nor did I find it homophobic. I know others may have been offended, but is it worse than the way the media and shows such as Glee or old shows like Will and Grace portrayed token gay characters as over the top flaming? What group was really offended here? The gay community, or people claiming to speak for us?
From Andrew Dougherty on October 23, 2013 at 7:13 PM
Well than why not just cut it completely? What about Bill and Ted in the next few years?
From Charles Reichley on October 24, 2013 at 3:55 PM
Illustrative to say the least.

Anyway, didn't want to suggest I had an opinion about the specific show, which I have never seen.

From Anthony Murphy on October 23, 2013 at 8:02 PM
While it's good that Universal made the change, I think that might be a fine line between comedy and offensive actions. I think the joke has to do with Superman always having his sexuality questioned (along with Batman and every other super hero). Should we ban SNL then?

Also, this NFL thing is getting a bit ridiculous. I'm not sure why now it magically became an issue. Not writing it is not helping either..

From David Brown on October 24, 2013 at 12:10 AM
Charles Reichley is a very angry man but, certainly from the UK perspective, he is way off beam with his suggestion that today's younger generation are the most intolerant ever. I can't speak for the US but in the UK young people by and large have grown up with a sense of tolerance. They don't see being gay as an issue, are largely supportive of gay marriage, don't discriminate against gays because they have grown up in a society which, for all its faults, has been gradually opening up to gays for the last 40 years or so. The vast majority of intolerance in the UK comes from older, right-wing people who still cling to the 'old ways' and inhabit a politically dogmatic world. But the world is changing and most young people are totally unphased by that change, and are willing to embrace it.

I think I can guess where Mr Reichley stands politically....

Oh, and congratulations Jacob on a thoughtful and well-argued article.

From parker reave on October 24, 2013 at 1:03 AM
People who have never seen the show now know that the show was homophobic. One review and people all over the world believe the 2013 Bill & Ted show at USH is racist and homophobic. A judgment based not on personal opinion but on the opinion of one person.

I respect peoples opinions - even this guy. I have a difficult time even understanding how anyone can hold an opinion of the nature of the show they have not seen.

I believe that Universal made a mistake in pulling the show from HHN.

From 76.169.65.147 on October 24, 2013 at 6:30 AM
Avenue Q. Everyone's A Little Bit Racist. Nuff Said.
From 132.183.13.51 on October 24, 2013 at 7:03 AM
I'm a gay guy whose seen the Bill and Ted show in Orlando. More than half the jokes in the show (this was two years ago) were lazy gay stereotypes or homophobic "no-homo" jokes. It was not merely a little offensive, the show was full on gay bashing from beginning to end. If they had made fun of blacks or jews the way they did in that show, it would have been shut down years ago.

I can laugh at myself as much as the next guy, actually being gay, I have to be able to handle of that than most, even today. But I was surprised how nervous and offended I was surrounded on those bleachers by screaming guffawing, straight kids. I have to note that, my friend, also gay, was less offended than I was.

For perspective, I am not some crazy politically correct teetotaler without a sense of humor. I like comedy, even offensive comedy. Lisa Lampinelli, for example, is hysterical when she makes fun of gays, partially because she makes fun of everyone and she does so with irony.

The Bill and Ted's show was simply gay bashing.

From Jay R. on October 24, 2013 at 8:08 AM
Interesting topic.....

Not commenting directly on the content of the show (because I haven't seen it) but I do have another zany observation!!!

The fact that it was a "comedy show" that was deemed offensive & pulled from horror nights is kinda thought provoking, in a twilight zone kinda way.

Extreme violence, death, gruesome images, killings, etc. are all over the place.

I'm not saying that if the show was offensive it shouldn't have been addressed....I'm just commenting on how, in a park where all those other things are taking place, it was a show that caused the scandal !!

Because, TECHNICALLY, all of horror nights can be deemed inappropriate.

From Aaron McMahon on October 24, 2013 at 9:29 AM
"When the "offended" can cause the immediate unemployment of 30 plus people they become more empowered to force their agenda"

Welcome to the entertainment industry: you're show gets cancelled, you're out of a job. That's the life you live if you want to be an actor, writer, producer, ect.

From Aaron McMahon on October 24, 2013 at 9:33 AM
Superman is a character they do not have the rights for. The show probably would not be protected by satire or parody laws since there's nothing in Man of Steel or comics about him being gay.

There's a good chance WB/DC sent a cease and desists or threatened a lawsuit especially since the show has gained so much negative attention.

DC sent the Orlando show a cease and desist when they used Lex Luther as the villain in 2006.

From parker reave on October 24, 2013 at 2:14 PM
"Welcome to the entertainment industry"
Thank you for the welcome. Just about to hit year 25 making a living in it. But nice to finally get my welcome.

I still feel bad when 30 plus people lose their jobs because of the opinion of one person. I feel bad when any group of people in any industry lose their job suddenly.

From Anon Mouse on October 24, 2013 at 2:42 PM
As bad as I feel for the performers, if you live by political correctness, you die by it.

Offensive comedy is expected. It is strange that people define what can or cannot be offensive. Lately, there has been a rash offensive gay humor that was called out against major comedians. Often time, the critics/silencers call them ignorant. I wonder if that isn't the point. The nature of humor is to create a strawman and attack it. They create a caricature or stereotype and then elevate the insults to a new level. That's the way it works. If you don't like the stereotype, then I guess... here's another one.

These days, it is perfectly fine to insult white men and Christians, but you can't say anything about any other perceived minority.

Comedy is no longer funny. It turned into a bland fest of safe comedy that insults no one, but maybe another joke about the Kardashians isn't so bad. We can't allow Obama jokes though or its racist.

From Russell Meyer on October 24, 2013 at 2:49 PM
All right, I'll bite...I think it's ridiculous that people have to walk on eggshells in this politically correct world, always worried about offending some person or group. If you find something that someone says or does offensive, you have every right to tell them so, and do whatever you want (within the law) to put pressure on them to understand your point of view. I think that's what was done here, but I think what has happened is that there was an extreme and rapid over-reaction by the offender. Ultimately, the percieved offender has every right to say or do what they want (within the law), and continue to for as long as they want. It's called the First Ammendment, and I think the editor of this website would stand behind that. After all, while I think he's being extreme by redacting the name of the Washington NFL franchise from this story, he has the right to do that, and also the right to redact it from my post appearing on his website if I were to write it. While I'm not a Washington NFL franchise fan (I live in the DC area), I think the whole controversy around the name is offensive (I'm certainly not the only one either), but I don't see the media or others who are continuously debating the topic putting any of the discussion or debate on hold because I am offended.

People in this world need to get a grip. I would say they should just stop being offended by things, but I don't think it's that simple. People need to start taking care of, and worrying about themselves, and not what other people think or say about them. Our society has turned into one that can't even laugh at itself for its differences or idosyncrasies. Stereotypes are never going away since they are a part of human nature, and how we relate to one another. Comedy, in particular, is always going to go right up to the edge, and sometimes over, to elicit laughs. What is different between people is often funny, even to the group being made fun of, and jokes around stereotypes have been around for centuries, and will continue to propogate as long as our species continues to embrace our diversity. If we stop identifying and making fun of our differences, this world will be a seriously boring place.

In the end, people just need to lighten up, and as the famous philosopher M. Python said, "always look on the bright side of life".

From Annette Forrest on October 24, 2013 at 11:28 PM
I think Universal's humor is sophomoric at times...but Universal fans seem to want that. I know the stale jabs at Disney that Universal always makes get big laughs. To me, it's the equivalent of farting at someone. A certain segment of the population loves that, and they love Universal.

Disney never feels any need to take jabs at Universal like that. Universal has an inferiority complex and I guess they need to blow farts at Disney to feel better about themselves.

Too bad they can't just celebrate their own brands and not even pay Disney any mind.

From 195.11.198.1 on October 25, 2013 at 3:15 AM
Uh oh. We have a Disney Fanworst! This has nothing to do with Universal making fun of Disney because they have an 'inferiority complex'. They make fun of Disney because its funny to do so. You came off topic to make a dig at Universal so i'll swiftly pull it back.
I can't really make a comment on the context of the show as I havent seen it but I think some certain minorities take themselves too seriously. Their jokes arent serious digs, its comedy. They're doing it to make people laugh and as long as it does that, it will never stop. Unless the comments made in the show were severely harsh and meant in a serious way to make fun of people then I don't really see why so many people are offended. It's BILL & TED, what do you expect!
From David Kirby on October 25, 2013 at 6:43 AM
I think this has gotten overblown a bit. These jokes seem on par with everything on Comedy Central and as a young, gay, male, they personally don't bother me and I even find them amusing. I think context does play an important part here. Universal is in an incredibly LGBT friendly city, is generally known for being friendly to that community, and many of the actors are probably gay themesleves. When put into that context, it's hard for me to beleive this was inteneded to be offensive or homophobic. Now, if this show was somewhere that is less gay friendly, I could see why that would be more offensive to people. I think this show was rather harmless and to a certain extent, I think tv shows like "Will and Grace" and "Modern Family" that portray gay characters as walking stereotypes are more offensive.
From Eric Fisher on October 25, 2013 at 5:35 PM
I will simply say this: if the audience is warned that the humor has the potential to be offensive, let the chips fall where they will. As long as the offense is equal opportunity. I used to defend Termite Terrace as not being racist (or homophobic - check the "fairy boat" jokes in some of the early cartoons) because they skewered everybody. As long as that is the case - go for it.
From 108.76.249.10 on October 25, 2013 at 7:20 PM
Remember "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but worlds will never hurt me"? I guess that quote doesn't exist anymore. If you do not have thick enough skin to laugh off a stereotyping joke (Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.) then next year buy a ticket to Sea World's Spooktacular or Mickey's Halloween party. Its a Win-Win situation. You won't get offended by anything at those events (unless purple octopuses are gonna be offensive somehow next year) and the rest who want a more adult orientated event (I miss Chucky's insult show and Slaughter World) can get just that. Everyone wins and no one loses their jobs.
From Dave Kuehne on October 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM
Funny how gays can parade their perversions in the street and those who criticize them are 'homophobes' or 'hate mongers'. But gays attend any event they please, and if anything offends them they gripe, complain, protest, insult, curse, threaten. Homosexuals are the biggest hypocrites on the planet. They want to be able to shove their filth in people's faces wherever they choose, and at the same time have all criticism of their own actions banned as hate speech. I have no respect for any of them. They have no rights as far as I am concerned. They don't even belong at an amusement park, or anywhere there are children present. Anyone with a brain knows gays target young boys when they think they can get away with it. Parents should be aware, and keep kids away from places where homosexuals lurk seeking their prey. People are getting sick and tired of our government forcing private corporations and religious institutions to accommodate the perversions of this vile and despicable minority!!! Thanks for the warning, I'll stay away from Universal now that I know they are catering to the whims of perverts!!!
From 173.227.104.102 on October 26, 2013 at 5:32 AM
At the start of the show, they flat out tell you, if you are easily offended to leave...immediately. Shouldn't that be a clue to well leave if you are easily offended? That is like complaining that a strip clubs has naked girls, it is the nature of the show to offend everyone and a lot of people enjoy that type of show, you don't see the celebrities it bashes coming out all offended do you?
From David Brown on October 26, 2013 at 6:59 AM
If ever a post needed Moderation (in all senses of the word) it's that last one from Dave Kuehne.
From Tim Hillman on October 26, 2013 at 7:56 AM
Easy there, Dave. Some of your comments are way over the top, and if you substituted, blacks, women, Jews, Catholics, Italians, etc., you might realize that you are sounding rather hateful and myopic in your post. While there are unsavory elements to the gay community, similar unsavory elements exist in all groups. (Are all men rapists? Are all women like the Kardashians? Are all Jews stingy? Are all blacks on welfare? These are stereotypes!) The media tends to focus on the darker part of society, but the truth of the matter is that most gays like most straights are ordinary people who just want to live their lives in a quiet and respectful way. You've got to be careful of falling for the stereotype.

Jacob; excellent and thoughtful article with a lot of good points.

Humor, as a complex art form is used to entertain, but it is also used to shape society. When used properly, it can take off the rough edges and gently chide people to modify their behavior to conform more acceptably with the mainstream. When used improperly, it can incite and encourage unacceptable behavior from certain parts of society. The rules are complex. For example, black comedians are given more latitude when making jokes about black society just as the Blue Collar Comedy Tour can take potshots at rednecks, but the opposite is not true. It is okay for Eddie Murphy to make fun of Jessie Jackson's mustache, but it would seem hateful if Larry the Cable guy tried the same thing.

Within a limited area, it is permissible for all comedians regardless of their stripe, to make fun of the stereotypes in society, but the usage has to be within the context of the performer, the venue, and the audience. Cross the line too far (which is a subjective definition) and the performer has gone from humor to hate.

Open season with attack humor on the groups in power is also debatable. As a WASP male, I'm deeply offended by shows that portray men and fathers as bumbling idiots. I'm also offended by use of the F-bomb and GD. I tend not to watch TV shows that stereotype men in this way, and I'm selective about the comedians that I listen to, but I also believe that society as a whole is affected in a negative way when groups who are perceived to be in power are openly attacked with offensive humor. However, the definition of offensive is subjective.

On a different note: Robert, I will no longer use "Washington DC's NFL team" potatoes in my potato salad. The very sight of them is offensive, and I resolve to use only Yukon Gold or Idaho potatoes in the future. ;>)

From Ozzie Perez on October 26, 2013 at 8:20 PM
Hey, Dave Kuehne, I have a brain and I TOTALLY agree with you. My gay best friend calls me about once a week saying "Hey Ozzie, can we go to Disneyland today so I can target young boys since I will get away with it"? So I take him to the bad part of town, drop him off and let some bad people beat the gay outta him. But, its not working Dave! A week later he calls me again with the same request. Now, I don't claim to have a bigger or smarter brain than you, and thats why i desperately need your help! Any advice you can give me on how to keep my monster of a best friend away from lurking around theme parks targeting kids?

And in case that brain of yours hasn't figured it out yet, this post was an example of sarcasm! Sarcasm:the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny. Have a great day Dave!

From Ozzie Perez on October 26, 2013 at 8:20 PM
Hey, Dave Kuehne, I have a brain and I TOTALLY agree with you. My gay best friend calls me about once a week saying "Hey Ozzie, can we go to Disneyland today so I can target young boys since I will get away with it"? So I take him to the bad part of town, drop him off and let some bad people beat the gay outta him. But, its not working Dave! A week later he calls me again with the same request. Now, I don't claim to have a bigger or smarter brain than you, and thats why i desperately need your help! Any advice you can give me on how to keep my monster of a best friend away from lurking around theme parks targeting kids?

And in case that brain of yours hasn't figured it out yet, this post was an example of sarcasm! Sarcasm:the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny. Have a great day Dave!

From Ozzie Perez on October 27, 2013 at 2:13 PM
Sorry for the double post :(
From 49.183.163.145 on October 28, 2013 at 7:25 AM
I was heartened by the author of this articles approach to this issue. Thankyou.

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