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Spotlight: Peter Church and Radio’s Revenge

7 Dec

December 7, 2011

Meet the Renaissance Man, Peter Church. When I contacted him about being part of this spotlight week, I gave him carte blanche, as I did everyone. I didn’t know what I would get, but I knew it would be good. As you will read below, Peter Church (known in certain quarters as Jello Again!- and bonus points if you get the reference) is an actor. He appears on stage and video and lends his considerable vocal talents to performing original audio dramas for Radio’s Revenge.

Peter has spent the last six years as a repertory actor for The Classical Theatre Project (Toronto), logging thousands of performances in productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

According to him, the idea for Radio’s Revenge started a couple of years ago with a desire to perform old-time radio scripts on stage for the entertainment of senior citizens. His principal duties around the podcast are as writer and actor. He’ll occasionally step in to help produce, edit and/or direct but those hats are more often worn by his creative partner, Sean Doyle. In other words, he’s taken something I’ve long wanted to do and actually made a go of it. I’m jealous, but on the other hand I am not nearly as talented.

Another one of the good guys, Peter has taken time out of his busy (and I mean that, the man is busy) schedule to give us the essay below. After reading it, I knew that this had to run today, December 7th: Pearl Harbor Day. While WWII is sometimes considered a high point in American patriotism and spirit, it also led to some awful propaganda and stereotyping. So while you recall the tragedy of the sinking of the USS Arizona and think about the soldiers from around the world who died in what was arguably the last great and just war, take a second out to think about what Peter has to say about our culture.

Find him online at www.twitter.com/radiosrevenge and look for him on Facebook here.

 Stereotypewriter.

The issue of racism, sexism, and other cultural insensitivities in vintage entertainment is nothing new.  I’m sure most of us have all heard of instances where a group of people wants to remove the N-word from “Huck Finn” or ban a Bugs Bunny cartoon made in 1941.

“Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips,” 1944, removed from circulation by Warner Brothers. Copies of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection containing this cartoon were recalled and replaced with another cartoon after a very small number of complaints.

I’ve often engaged in this debate and it seems to me that most reasonable people hold a rather moderate position on the subject.  People that appreciate the importance of Art don’t seem to want to sanitize our History.  Likewise, most people who understand History do not seem to want to censor its Art.  I suppose Art and History are actually two sides of the same coin since, at some point, Art actually becomes a way of recording History.

An example of this came a couple of years ago when I was attending the Silent Comedy Short-Film Festival in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  The curator started by describing some racist content in one of the upcoming shorts from the 1920’s, where a white guy spills molasses on himself and is mistaken as a black guy, and a black guy gets flour on himself and is mistaken as a white guy.  He went on to explain that he was having second thoughts about sharing it as part of the festival and wanted the audience’s opinion on the subject.  The audience (about 200 people) unanimously voted for the film to be presented as originally planned.  At the end of the screening, during a talkback session, the consensus seemed to be that it would be irresponsible NOT to revisit offensive material from our past.  How else can we learn from our mistakes?  If we hide our past, or pretend that it’s blemish-free, then we start to re-write our history and can’t properly or honestly build our future.

Woof, woof, woof.

What I’m wondering now is – what does all this mean for someone like me – someone who creates modern comedy based on, or inspired by, vintage entertainment?  In my case, I write and produce radio plays in the setting and style of broadcasts from the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  The scripts are light and fun and need to be suitable for airing on a small-town radio station.  Of course, like the short-film described above, our source material include racial and gender stereotypes that can be abrasive to modern sensibilities.  Here are just a few arbitrary examples:

Radio is a faceless medium and therefore the audience has very little context for who we are or what we do.  As a modern writer, who presumably knows better, do I have a social responsibility to let bygones remain as bygones?  When we live in a culture that regularly produces “shock jocks” and “gross-out comedies”, where is the line between poking fun at nostalgic conventions and simply enflaming current sensitivities?

As an unofficial centre of American Art & History, I’d love to hear answers.  Please post a comment and let me know what you think.

Radio’s Amos and Andy

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15 Responses to “Spotlight: Peter Church and Radio’s Revenge”

  1. JPaulG December 7, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    I enjoyed the artice by Peter Church and loved the comment about sanitizing history.
    Our own government and other governments around the world are doing that every day!

    Like

  2. JRD Skinner December 7, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    Great post, Peter.

    So far as relics of the time go, I’m a fan of letting history stand for itself. How are we to learn from the mistakes of the past if we simply erase them? At this rate, the Donner Party will have involved nothing but smiles and teacups, and we’ll have dropped “Person of Mass” on Nagasaki.

    In re-presenting the scripts, you do, however, get in a bit of a sticky situation. As purveyors of fun, I think its important to show the intention, if not the details – in the same way that the stories of the era reflect the times they were created in, (I’m looking at you, Filipino Kato,) modern retellings should probably be modified to best reflect modern sensibilities.

    The originals are there to be heard, (or read,) but a little updating could go a long way towards hooking contemporary audiences on tales to keep you in… SUSPENSE – otherwise they might just be tales to keep you upset with that housewife who spends the whole show crying.

    Like

    • Peter December 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

      Thank-you, Mr. Skinner! That’s been my gut feeling too… if we were doing radio plays in front of a live audience more often, I might consider including some of the more stereotypical material (at least the audience can see us and has a chance to “get to know us”), but otherwise I’m leaning towards the side of caution (or perhaps just “decency”?) in this case.

      Anyone else?

      Like

      • bmj2k December 7, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

        You are in an interesting position in that if you performed in front of a live audience and would have to deal with neagtive reactions from the crowd as you performed, it would probably alter (and hurt) your performance. You avoid that trap. And while I feel the necessity to err on the side of caution as well, I think that JRD makes an interesting distinction. If you were doing a presentation of an original script I’d leave it as was. But new scripts can still capture the flavor of the times without the obvious racism.

        For example, I think you are familiar with Winston Churchill’s cigar being removed from historical pictures. That’s ridiculous. But if a modern painter created a new portrait of Winston sans cigar, that’s different. It isn’t erasing history, but choosing to present it in a certain way. However, that in itself is problematic. I don’t like it, but if there is still historical evidence of his vice, I can deal with a different interpretation- to an extent. There is no perfect answer to this.

        Like

  3. Thomas Stazyk December 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    Thanks for this posting–another introduction to a fascinating person.

    With respect to the issue of political correctness, I’m fairly rabid on the subject. PC is lying and is wrong for four basic reasons.

    1. As others have said, you can’t change history and if we erase “mistakes” we will never learn from them.
    2. PC is a waste of time. It seeks to make the world a kinder, gentler place where no one ever gets their feelings hurt. That is both delusional and dangerous. We will never solve the problem of man’s inhumanity to man by hiding the truth–and that’s what really bothers me–none of this has made the world a better place.
    3. It is arrogant and ignorant to measure behaviour of people in the past by today’s standards, especially when those standards are the result of self-serving political correctness. You cannot condemn a Bugs Bunny episode from 1941 when Japan was a mortal enemy of the US by the standards of today when Japan and the US are best of buds. No one is going to start hating Japanese people if they see that show. Sony is not going to stop selling us TVs. Actually it should make today’s relationship more precious because it shows how fragile human and political relationships are.
    4. Political correctness often trips up because of ignorance. The best example is the Washington DC staffer who lost his job because he used the word “niggardly.”

    Like

    • bmj2k December 7, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

      Great job Thomas. I agree on all counts.

      Like

    • Mac of BIOnighT December 8, 2011 at 12:29 am #

      “Thanks for this posting–another introduction to a fascinating person.”
      Yep – I’m just one of the many who think Peter is one of the best people out there 🙂 And do check out Radio’s Revenge, too, it’s well worth it 🙂

      Like

  4. Mac of BIOnighT December 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    History should be left alone. As a song I love goes, “I look back now and then to understand where I am now”. Art – as a testimony of history – is precious in that it gives us the chance to see what has changed and if it did so for the best or the worst. Something written or re-written now should reflect today’s sensitivity, while not becoming blatantly fake from a historical point of view (ignoring apartheid, for example, or pretending Japanese people were dearly beloved during the war). But no original should be changed.
    I must admit, however, that I’m against depicting people using drugs or smoking, for example, and portaying those things as cool encourages young people to imitate what they see. I’m not so against touching up the past in those cases. Which contradicts what I just said, showing that there’s no easy answer to this.

    Political correctness is mostly hypocritical crap, if you pardon my French (which is probably a politically incorrect expression, but I don’t think anybody in Paris will get mad at me for using it 😉 )

    Like

  5. The Hook December 11, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    What a potentially explosive topic to spotlight. But then again, that was the whole point, right?

    Like

    • Peter December 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

      (Thanks for the “Like”, The Hook! My whole point in writing wasn’t actually to create controversy, but to avoid it! I was pretty sure people here would be cool examining the issue without the hysteria found at other venues, and I sincerely want to get people’s opinions.

      If I’d wanted to bring up a potentially explosive topic HERE, I’d have mentioned the new Three Stooges remake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2VMq0QzYm0)

      Like

      • Thomas Stazyk December 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

        Is nothing sacred??? But I have to admit, the trailer had me laughing.

        Like

        • bmj2k December 14, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

          I am reserving judgement, but I suspect it will be future presentation of the Late Night Movie House of Crap, which BTW returns on Christmas Day.

          Like

        • Peter December 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

          I’ll confess I was smiling at the beginning… and the actors look like their having a LOT of fun together… but by the time we reached Bikini-Nun I was kind of done.

          Like

          • Thomas Stazyk December 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

            Yes–I had one of those “this has clearly been made to appeal to pre adolescent boys/why am I laughing” moments.

            Like

  6. Peter December 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Thanks for your comments everybody – they are very helpful (and beautifully said!).

    I hadn’t heard about the Washington staffer being fired for his use of “niggardly”… did it ever come up that the word has nothing to do with what it sounds like (I’m not being sarcastic – I’m wondering if that was part of the controversy)?

    The *n* word and niggard are completely different words… and niggard is considered to be “potentially offensive” only because it is similar in sound.

    (It’s a subject close to my heart because we use the word in “Macbeth” and I worry about what the students hear… so far no teachers have expressed concern…)

    Like

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