Why Can't Detroit Take A Joke?

Detroit, if you can take a dick, you can take a joke.

Comedian Tracy Morgan famously angered various activist groups when he said, “If you can take a dick, you can take a joke,” implying that gay people are too sensitive. Crass; yes. It’s comedy.

Recently I conducted interviews with long-time stand-up comedians Scott Thompson (“Kids in the Hall”) and Gilbert Gottfried. Both echoed the same sentiment: audiences are so serious, so easily offended now.

When discussing his comedy tour with fellow KITH alum Kevin McDonald, Thompson said: “It makes liberal white people so angry. They can’t handle it. They’re the worst. When it’s all white hipsters in the audience it’s the worst … I call them Left-necks!”

Gottfried, when discussing how the public reacts to off-color comedy, said: “Now this time period is so insane; it’s kind of like lynch mobs have evolved into the computer age. Now you can have a lynching without actually leaving your house. It makes it so convenient!”

Yes, now every time a person feels slighted they take to the Internet for an airing of grievances. Don’t like something? Tell the Internet! Better yet, start a Facebook page.

Stephen Colbert is a comedian. He scrutinizes the American political system and its players with piercing wit, offering some welcome respite from the sensationalized shenanigans of this theatre of politics. He’s funny. We like him.

Well, we like him right up until we find ourselves in his crosshairs. Then all of a sudden we have a problem with him. Recently Colbert has taken a few pot-shots at Detroit. (Apparently he hasn’t heard about The Renaissance?) Things like, "...really, we should be suspicious of anyone who willingly goes to (Detroit);” "As we speak, a defunct satellite is hurling toward the Earth where it will destroy everything in its path. Let's just pray it lands somewhere where it can't do any damage – like Detroit;" and "Someone could attempt the unthinkable and walk through downtown Detroit."

These not-undeserved jabs led to the creation of (what else?!) a Facebook page entitled “Colbert Does Detroit (and so can you!),” which currently has 3,429 fans.

“The Colbassadors,” as they are calling themselves, wrote an open letter to Mr. Colbert chiding him for his remarks, urging him to visit, and finally doing what any mature, respectable group of “ambassadors” would do: threaten that if he doesn’t stop saying mean things about us then his career will be ruined. You can view the letter in its entirety here, but allow me to pull some illustrative examples for the class:

"I'm not ashamed to say: you, sir, are a hero and inspiration to me. You are the man I aspire to be … Well, you were."

Here we go.

"Mr. Colbert, you know as well as I do that trashing Detroit is nothing new … I warn you, though: This will be your undoing."


"I'm challenging you to walk through downtown Detroit because I know it will make you a better person."

No, it won’t.

"Think of the long-term, friend. Before long, you'll be crawling the New York Times bestseller list with you're [sic] aptly titled I Am Detroit And So Can You."

No, he won’t.

"Come walk through downtown Detroit. Because soon, this city you malign so casually may be all you have left."

No, it really won’t.

You guys, it's comedy. Colbert is a comedian. Did you get all up in arms and cry when he made fun of Bill O’Reilly, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Anderson Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Christian Bale, American xenophobia or Second Breakfast and fat Americans? – (wait, Detroit is extra fat -- was that a DOUBLE INSULT??) Even Bill O’Reilly took it like a grown-up. Why can’t you? Toughen up, Detroit. For being the city that survived the Apocalypse you all sure are whiny.

Not everything has to be so reactionary, guys. "Someone failed to say nice things about us; LET’S DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!" It’s a lynch mob armed with iPhones instead of torches. Even your outrage is tedious.

So you think everyone should Say Nice Things About Detroit? Reality check: we can’t keep the streetlights on, the buses running, kids in school or people from getting shot. The colonization by white hipsters from all over the world is not happening at a fast enough rate to replace the hemorrhaging of long-time residents and the vanishing tax base. There have been much-touted superficial improvements but ultimately the city is systemically screwed until we start implementing some real solutions instead of putting a bird on it and calling it art.

After decades of negative portrayal in national media, Detroit is finally getting its chance to shine with glowing stories in the New York Times and the Huffington Post and Forbes and the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic Cities and even Food & Wine. In fact, the dominant narrative has become overwhelmingly positive. Unrealistically so.

Despite the push towards an overarching positive narrative, there ARE a lot of things about Detroit that deserve to be made fun of. And maybe if we stopped getting so defensive over every little thing and realize yeah, you know what? There are still a lot of things that are really shitty here – that is NOT an admission of failure, people; it is simply a recognition of reality. 

And if you refuse to see that reality, that is a MUCH bigger problem than Colbert being a big mean meanie. Reality is harsh. Just because we can open a few bars doesn't mean you shouldn't say such mean things! Saying something enough times doesn’t make it true, and cheery censorship is not the solution Detroit needs.

Clearly Detroit can take a dick. A corrupt mayor-felon, a confused City Council, a sexually hyperactive police chief, a collapsed economy, cancerous blight, a general Wild West feel of every man for himself … oh yes, Detroit can take a dick. And if you can take a dick, you can take a joke.

Nicole Rupersburg is a Detroit-based writer.

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