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The Right to be Funny

The Right to be Funny …From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

Bear with me as you read this column. I’m not used to writing anything this heavy, but the tragic murders that occurred in Paris last month really hit home. I’ve been making my living as a standup comic for 35 years. Add in that I’ve been doing four hours of talk radio a day at 94WIP for almost 20 years. That’s a ton of jokes and satirical comments.

What is it about religion that riles people up so? My live standup show virtually makes no religious comments at all anymore and neither do I on the air.

However, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, I wonder if I would still have a vibrant career today if it wasn’t for one song that put me on the map more than 30 years ago.

I was performing at the Comedy Factory Outlet in downtown Philly. I had a piano player back then (Andy Trackman from South Jersey) and I used to perform a song that my brother and I wrote called “Nuns.”
“Where do they come from?
Where do they go?
What are their real names?
I bet you don’t know.
They’ve been around for millions of years
They were the one thing that dinosaurs feared.
NUNS! Stronger than you and me
NUNS! Looking for someone to beat
I hope it’s not you, I hope it’s not me
NUNS!”

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There was a lot more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it. The song was inspired by my Catholic grade school upbringing and the years of beatings I took at the hands of the Sisters. As funny as the audiences found the song, there was also a ring of painful truth to it.

John DeBella, formerly of WMMR’s Morning Zoo, hosted shows at the Outlet on Friday night. He loved the song and the reaction it got from the crowd and said to me, “You record that, and I’ll play it.”

Well, I did record it. And he did play it. Day after day for months. It became a local hit. I put it out on a vinyl 45 (if anyone remembers them). It eventually landed on an album and sold 19,000 copies. You can still buy it today on CD. Then Clark DeLeon of the Philadelphia Inquirer did a major piece on the song and all hell broke loose. A picture ran with the article of a nun threatening me with a yardstick. (It was my mother, by the way).

DeLeon got enough angry letters about it that a few weeks later he wrote a follow-up. Then all the area talk shows started calling me to appear. I had never been a guest on a talk show before. AM Philly, a TV show on Channel 6, had me on with a nun. I was young and just starting out and I just rolled with it.

The weird thing is that “Nuns” was about as controversial as I was ever going to get. Oh, I have jokes with some edge to them today, but nothing any writer or talk show host will build an article or show segment around. I’m not Bill Maher (and I like Bill Maher). All I did with “Nuns” was “write what you know,” which is the oldest trick in the book.

There’s no doubt it was “Nuns” that kick started it all for me. Yeah, it’s a funny song. I’m proud of it. I think it was well recorded for someone who had never produced a record before. However, it was the uproar that it caused amongst some religious types who did not see the humor in the song at all that actually made my comedic bones.

But at no one point did anyone shoot at me with an assault rifle. No one attacked me as I left a nightclub and walked down some lonely street by myself at 2 a.m. What in blazes has happened?

Some people are just so easily offended these days. I know that makes me sound like some old fogie, but how many times have you heard someone say that All in the Family would never make it to the air today? So it’s not just my opinion.

Look, I have very close friends who go to church or temple every week. I myself do not, but if they get some sort of peace and comfort out of it, great. We certainly need more calm and gentle people in this world.

However, sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if there was no organized religion at all. I’m no numbers cruncher, but I have certainly heard historians much smarter than me state that organized religion is responsible for more deaths on this planet than anything else.

I wonder if these same friends of mine, who I respect, would get the same solace if they just quietly prayed in their homes. I certainly pray. I’m all for prayer.

I’m just sick of turning on the news and seeing innocent people slaughtered in the name of religion. People killing someone else because of their religious beliefs? It’s getting where I don’t want to turn on the news at all.

All this anger also rears its ugly head in smaller and more personal ways.

If I make any comment on religion at all, even if it’s a 100 percent positive one, someone always twists it and somehow gets offended. Then it gets really weird. They won’t just write me. They’ll call the station and get my boss’s name and write them also. How is that “religious?” The end result? I never mention religion at all on stage or on the air anymore. I just don’t need the hassle.

But think about that for a moment. If that’s how I thought back in the beginning of my career, I never would have written “Nuns” at all. And people to this day still come up to me and smile recollecting that song. And what’s wrong with that? Even worse, however, is killing someone because they were attempting to make someone laugh, which basically is what Charlie Hebdo was doing. I grew up on Mad Magazine. I wrote a tribute in this very magazine to the awesome Joan Rivers when she died and she skewered everything that breathed and we certainly adored her, didn’t we?

Look. I’m just a big doofus in a bowling shirt. I’m not speaking for anyone but myself. I myself am not an insult comic, but I certainly laugh at Don Rickles, The Onion, Howard Stern, Lisa Lampanelli, to name just a few who work in that vein. I also love Jerry Seinfeld and Brian Regan, who do not. Vive la diff’erence.

People have the right to make fun of your weight, your race, your sexual preference, your favorite team, and yes, even your religion. You have the right to not like it. You have the right to speak out on your behalf. But, duh, you do not have the right to kill someone over it.

I’m just a regular Joe Schmo. I don’t have the answer to anything. So whenever I don’t know how to end a thought, I invariably turn to something my mother would say to me. And in this case? It’s “take a chill pill.”

Thanks, Mom.

Big Daddy Graham is a renowned stand-up comedian and overnight personality on SportsRadio 94WIP. Check out his new podcast, Big Daddy’s Classic Rock Throwdown, at BigDaddyGraham.com.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 11 (February, 2015).
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Author: Big Daddy Graham

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