Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Creeping into Unfunny Territory

Actor Rob Lowe, it turns out, can be creepy and even creepier, as he proves on a currently running ad for DirecTV that an advocacy wants pulled.

roblowe_r620x349He is just creepy enjoying life with DirecTV, but creepier as the cable guy. And, he apparently is offensive to people who suffer from something called pee-shy, a social anxiety disorder involving urinating in a crowded, public place.

Shy bladder syndrome, according to an advocacy group, afflicts 7 percent of the population or some 21 million Americans. It seems few people with this problem attend concerts, drink too much and relieve themselves anywhere they can find.

The ads featuring Lowe are genuinely funny. When his cable TV goes on the blink, the creepier Rob Lowe goes to a swimming pool and watches people through binoculars or lurks in a movie theater sniffing a woman’s hair. You would think that would have generated complaints from the YMCA and movie theater owners.

The scene that caused a flap, however, includes both the creepy and creepier Rob Lowes in a public restroom. Creepy Rob Lowe advises viewers not to be like the creepier Rob Lowe, who says he cannot pee with a bunch of people around. This has caused the International Paruresis Association, which advocates for people with shy bladders, to pull the ad.

Humor is a tricky thing. You can offend when you don’t intend to or least expect. Whether the marketeers behind the DirecTV ad knew they would offend is anyone’s guess. One PR analyst said they may get more mileage out of the Lowe ad because of the flap.

The more fundamental and interesting question is whether it is good form to make fun of people with a real problem. If your problem is having rotten cable TV access, that’s real, but not funny. If you have a problem with peeing in public, without being intoxicated and oblivious, that is a real problem and it isn’t funny either. The difference here is that the forlorn cable TV customer has a choice; the person with a reluctant bladder doesn’t.

rob-loweIt is very human to make fun of something we’re not – or hope not to be. It is a defense mechanism. But as our culture has marinated, we have begun to realize that differences can be positive, not threatening; conditions can be challenging, but not disqualifying.

Humor always has been a way to cut through the tension over differences or the unknown. Making fun of something can make it more approachable, make it okay to talk about seriously.

But humor also can scald. It can underscore stereotypes. It can deepen wounds. It can humiliate. Especially when someone’s condition is humiliating.

Humorists, even the best of them, can’t totally avoid some offense. But in the hands of expert funny people, caricatures can take on an endearing quality, not an offensive one. Think about George Bush I who reveled in watching SNL’s Dana Carvey’s comic portrayal of him.

The creepier Rob Lowe straining in a public bathroom doesn’t rise to that level of endearing, good-natured ribbing. There are a lot of other ways to make the same contrast between creepy and creepier. DirecTV and its ad team should have known that and avoided making creepy into crappy.


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