Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Laughing at Lindsay: Late Night Ethics

The day that actress Lindsay Lohan failed to appear for a guest spot on “The Tonight Show” could well have been (at least one hopes this is true), the low spot in her young life. Arrested for DUI and cocaine possession just two weeks after leaving rehab and while still facing penalties for an earlier drunk driving episode, Lohan put both her career and her freedom at risk, and made it obvious to anyone with both a head and a heart that she was a young woman in the midst of a health crisis. Was her conduct excusable? Of course not; she endangered her passengers and other motorists. Has her path to this crisis been paved by her own arrogance, foolishness, recklessness and irresponsibility? Sure.

Is watching a talented, beautiful 21 year old with everything to live for wreck her life amusing, satisfying or fun?

Well, you tell me.

Jay Leno obviously thought so, as did his studio audience and such talking heads as Robin Meade of the CNN Headline News morning show “Robin and Company.” Leno and his writers decided that Lohan’s missed gig gave “Tonight” an opportunity for a side-splitting send-up. “Saturday Night Live” alum Rob Schneider (he of such deathless movie classics as “The Hot Chick” and “Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo “) appeared in drag as “Lindsay Lohan,” and had the audience rolling in the aisles with such exchanges as this one:

Leno: Do you have a favorite among your films?

Schneider (as Lohan): I’d say “Herbie Fully Loaded.” Herbie was the car; and I was fully loaded! 

Leno had already mined this comic vein in his monologue, when he said in reference to Lohan, “I thought our main competition was David Letterman…, not “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted!”

Funny stuff. Lohan’s behavior pattern makes it very likely that she is an alcoholic, especially combined with the fact that her father is one as well, and the disease is as hereditary as it is deadly (just ask Drew Barrymore). Alcoholism is one of the top causes of death in the U.S. and the world, and has the added bonus, unlike most illnesses, of hurting virtually every person or organization alcoholics live with, work for, care about and love. The earlier an individual prone to alcohol begins drinking excessively, the more serious, long-lasting and difficult to treat the effects are. Some of those effects include brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver (which is usually fatal), and premature symptoms of aging, not to mention being a menace on the highways. Several movie critics mentioned that Lohan, playing a troubled teen in her recent film “Georgia Rule,” looked like she was 35. Guess why.

It’s all so hilarious. One can only imagine the mirth Leno could create if Lohan acquired a really funny disease, like Parkinson’s, MS, cancer or AIDS.

I know, I know…”lighten up!” And you have a legitimate point. Drunks and their mannerisms have been comic fodder since Shakespeare and before. Dudley Moore, Red Skelton, Dick Van Dyke, Dean Martin, Foster Brooks and many other comics (several of them recovering alcoholics themselves) did genuinely funny drunk routines. Such routines, however, were extensions of the principles of slapstick, in which unrealistic violence and misfortune triggers laughter. Today the most familiar comic drunks are Homer Simpson and his friend Barney, but no reasonable person would regard their antics as cruel or mean-spirited, because the drunks being ridiculed are cartoons, just as Moore, Van Dyke and Brooks were cartoonish…and nobody is destroying themselves.

Lohan, however, is a real drunk, and desperately needs help, not ridicule. All those who watched a bloated and incoherent Anna Nicole Smith in her horrific reality show on E! should know by now that they were giggling at a young woman in the process of killing herself. Britney Spears’ latest bizarre meltdown, destroying designer gowns and using the bathroom with the door open in front of strangers, signals an accelerating downward spiral of a pre-maturely burned-out pop star descending into serious mental illness, with its attendant risks of disability and suicide. She has two young children. More fodder for late night gags?

Leno, a show business veteran, knows all about the human devastation of alcohol and drug addiction, and must realize that by mocking Lohan’s desperate state he is trading human compassion, kindness and decency for cheap laughs. Contrast his conduct with that of Craig Ferguson, host of the “Late Late Show” and one of Leno’s less heralded competitors. In February, Ferguson began his show with a rambling ten minute apology for past instances when he made jokes at the expense of Hollywood celebrities in the throes of substance abuse problems. It was the day that Spears had her first celebrated breakdown that sent her into rehab, as she inexplicably shaved her head as the climax of a series of odd public exploits. Ferguson explained that he wouldn’t make any jokes about Spears, because as a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for fifteen years (and who once came perilously close to killing himself), he remembered being where Spears seemed to be. These are real people who are suffering, he said: “We should be making fun of the powerful people, not people who are vulnerable and need help.” (You can see the clip at

With that moving speech, Ferguson showed that he has solid ethical instincts and that the professional pressures of getting laughs at almost any cost would not cause him to abandon them. He saw that Spears was (is) a young woman in trouble, and didn’t devise rationalizations to justify being cruel to her because she was rich, famous, and irresponsible. He applied the Golden Rule, and was able to empathize with her crisis. Jay Leno and his team, in contrast, saw in Lindsay Lohan only an inviting target.

Leno has a reputation as one of Hollywood’s nice guys. The Scoreboard thinks it is time for a reassessment. Nice guys don’t laugh at people who are in genuine pain; they don’t mock young women who are in the process of destroying themselves, and neither do ethical human beings.

Craig Ferguson has proven that he is both nice and ethical. And he can count on at least one more viewer from now on.

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