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I'm Offended!

My detour into the mega-rude t-shirt world.

By Charles Demers 11 Apr 2006 |

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There's nothing unique about the fact that I, like many of those in my age cohort, have had a bad experience whilst experimenting with the online dating service Lavalife. What I do think was fairly special about my own Lava-disaster is that an otherwise lovely conversation with a young woman who shared my interest in film ended with her pledging an admiration for Adolf Hitler's non-genocidal accomplishments. It quickly became clear, however, that my aborted Nazi courtship had less to do with problems inherent to online dating and more to do with yet another internet phenomenon: the proliferation of deliberately, brazenly offensive t-shirt sites.

My phone call with the young woman - let's call her S. - began turning sour when she started to warn me about her sense of humour. According to S., she'd lost friends because of it. Specifically, it turned out, she had lost a Jewish friend, after having directed his attention to a purportedly hilarious t-shirt for sale on one of her favourite websites. The shirt that S. had picked out read "Love him or hate him, Hitler killed a lot of Jews." When I asked what it was that she had found funny about the shirt, she explained that it raised important questions about the positive things that Hitler had accomplished. I quickly ended the conversation, hung up the phone and adjusted my Lavalife profile in order to specify my anti-fascist dating preferences.

'Feed Lindsay'

But the next day, I visited the site of her favourite shirt shiller, in order to get a better idea of what sort of girl I'd passed up; it was my first experience in the online world of offensive t-shirts, a niche market that trades in a sense of "humour" based exclusively on a shock-value exploitation of hilarious subjects ranging from racism to sexual violence to cervical cancer. Sure, t-shirts with punchy statements have been around for a while, demanding to know where the beef is. Then there's the whole celebrity t-shirt phenomenon: from "Free Katy" (from Tom Cruise and Scientology) to "Feed Lindsay" (during Ms. Lohan's more blatant eating disorder phase) to "More George, Less Bush" (in support of George Clooney for president). Then, of course, there are sites where you enter your own (offensive) statement and the company prints it and sends it to you.

But these, dear readers, are whole new depths. Now, sites such as these can ask for no better product placement than to have a PC prude like me grasp his brooch, wail 'I never!' and ask for the smelling salts - so I'm not going to share their names, much less urls, with you here. But the three I surfed have all the vulgar and hate-filled quips you never wanted or needed to see - are you in the market for a comfortable garment, ranging in size to 5XL and reading 'I Take the "THE" out of Psychotherapist'? No? Didn't think so.

The oddest homepage of the bunch manages to mesh the loathsome frat boy humour on display at similar sites ("No Means Eat Me Out First") with a bizarre collection of 9/11 conspiracy shirts. Consumers choices run the gamut from the whimsical ("Gee, How'd They Get All Those Bombs Into the Twin Towers") to the direct ("Bombs Blew Up the Twin Towers" or "Show Me the Plane Hitting the Pentagon") to the categorically obscure ("Where were Payne Stewart's F-16 Escorts on 9/11?"). Not bad for a website that also sells thong underpants reading "Say My Name Bitch!" and "Thanks for the Drinks". Additionally, the online availability of such waggish undergarments raises further questions as to what I missed by having backed out of my Lavalife experience so early.

The best defense…

The offensive t-shirt craze seems like a fairly logical (if ugly) outgrowth of the general trend toward the shocking in youth-oriented comedy culture, from South Park to Family Guy and, now, beyond. In this comic strain, the main comedic currency is offense given; the act of offending audience members is taken as artistically meritorious in and of itself. In my view, the trend was squashed -- intellectually, at least, though clearly not commercially -- seven years ago, when GQ writer Andrew Corsello wrote that "It's all too inept to be offensive. Ultimately, [South Park's] talking turd and his brethren do offend, but for the wrong reason -- because they presume to offend."

But apparently, the offense-for-the-sake-of-offending school still has some supporters. Recently, a message board used by Vancouver's sketch, improv and stand-up comics erupted into a minor controversy over an "Offensive Joke Contest". Admittedly, the dust-up had as much to do with the way that the contest's upstart progenitor presented himself on the discussion board as it did with the contest itself. But when the young author of the competition wrapped it up - "[S]o that's that... hope someone enjoyed... and more importantly... someone was offended by it." - one of Vancouver's most gifted stand-up comics was quick to respond: "Um … did anyone actually enjoy that?"

Unsurprisingly, the not-so-good people at my Lavalife ex's favourite t-shirt site have jumped on to the infamous Danish cartoon controversy bandwagon; you know, great Danes think alike. Like a rude t-shirt site for grown-ups, the Islamophobic editorial cartoons hid an unfunny, hate-filled agenda behind a puerile and de-contextualized paean to 'freedom of speech'. Right on cue, one t-shirt site actually features a quotation from the First Amendment on each page. Another now offers a shirt depicting Muhammad (Ali, the boxing legend) with a bomb in his turban, featured on the site alongside a caption reading "He's a pretty shaky guy to be wearing a hat made out of high explosives." Sigh. About as classy as a Scandinavian op-ed page.

Of course, as a comedian myself, I have a vested interest in keeping the art form from being degraded and devalued by an onslaught of senseless, shock-value chicanery. After all, if folks stop hiring stand-ups, I'll be left with nothing but the shirt on my back. And I don't want to be left wearing one that says "I'm Not Getting Jiggy, I Have Parkinson's."

Charles Demers is a Vancouver writer and comedian, and a founding editor of Seven Oaks Magazine.  [Tyee]

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