In Poor Humor

Jokes abound about Detroit’s bankruptcy, but we may still have the last laugh.

As the hoary old joke about being from Detroit goes, it’s like having a homely little sister: You can make fun of her mercilessly, but if somebody else does it, you’re going to knock some teeth out.

But, hey, maybe it’s time to loosen up a bit. Because, from all corners of the world, Detroit is going to be the butt of jokes, intentional and unintentional, for the foreseeable future.

It’s not like this is the first time anybody ever made a joke about Detroit (as fans of the Zucker brothers, we remember a few notable ones), but to see them come so thick and fast when the city is so vulnerable is something of a surprise.

For instance, look at all the wordplay that has been employed by news organizations across the country. They seem to be unable to resist making jokes big and small about the city’s hard times. The Economist asks “Can Motown Be Mended?” — with a chart of the city’s population labeled “The wheels come off” and a subtitle about selling off the city’s assets that reads “Ain’t too proud to beg.”

You’d think the people at Time magazine — which rented a house in Detroit and spent some time here among the city’s people — would show a bit more sobriety in its coverage. And yet, a story by Time’s assistant managing editor Rana Foroohar says, with a slightly ironic smirk: “… Detroit has acquired bragging rights that make it the envy of no one.”

So many have turned this pinch into a punch line that even The Daily Show’s John Oliver pointed them out, with such catchy phrases as Motown “singing the blues” or “America’s Motor City runs out of gas.” Oliver got it right, pointing out, “Does that tone seem appropriate to anyone?” — before introducing his own irreverent wordplay, of course.

OK, we’ll take it as an upside-down compliment: We’re so iconic that plays on words leap to mind. And, of course, Oliver is a comedian, and we expect jokes from those quarters. But for humor to be fair, you have to get the facts right.

For instance, Jay Leno joked about Detroit, saying that the population and tax base got smaller and the government got bigger, thanking the heavens that this could never happen in Washington, D.C. Har-de-har-har. But did Detroit’s government get bigger? With schools closed, parks closed, employees laid off, services curtailed, it seems that the government has gotten anything but bigger. So we should be as wary of comedians as we should of commentators, because they often seem just as ready to put their oar in when it serves their purposes. Even the relatively decent John Oliver got it wrong when he said the city “hired” Kevyn Orr, which marred an otherwise funny routine. That eagerness to use Detroit’s predicament as a sort of lever to get laughs, the facts be damned, is something worth fighting back against.

But comedians, at least, mostly abide by the rule that you never make fun of little people, only people big enough to take it. With the exception of the folks at The Onion, that is, whom we’ve long felt have at least a few people on staff from Detroit. We got a little grim laughter from their recent “Onion Report” informing us that the “Detroit Bankruptcy Might Transform City into Some Kind of Hellish, Depopulated Wasteland.” Pretty funny, guys.

Sometimes the humor isn’t even intentional. Take a recent piece by Tom Geoghegan, from the Washington, D.C., bureau of the BBC News. In a bit of unintentional levity, Geoghegan offered “Detroit: Six ways ‘shrinking’ cities try to survive” as a sort of primer on what Rust Belt cities can do to cope with population loss, dwindling tax revenues, rising costs associated with crime and social problems. We were eager to see what sage advice the BBC would cull from other cities. Top of the list? “1. Demolish derelict buildings …” Now, call us jaded and cynical, but we’ve been knocking down derelict buildings for years, and we keep getting … more derelict buildings. The piece also advises Detroit to give the land the house formerly occupied to a neighbor for $25. So, let’s get this straight: The city needs more revenue to balance its finances, therefore it should spend several thousand dollars to knock down a house, then sell the land to a neighbor for $25 and end up with less density, which means fewer tax dollars collected per square mile? Whatever. This piece would be hilarious if it weren’t so ridiculously serious.

Among all the gibes, jabs, jokes and gags, I’m proud to say that we Detroiters can give as good as we get. In an editorial for the New York Times, Rolling Stone scribe and Detroit native Mark Binelli jokes about the idea of selling off the DIA’s assets, writing: “Why stop there? Perhaps as part of a settlement, Mr. Orr can negotiate with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to play at creditors’ annual shareholder luncheons, or work out a deal wherein laid-off autoworkers perform free annual tuneups on the limousines of bank executives.” Now that’s funny!

To end this on a serious note, all the people chortling over the plight of Detroit would do well to take a look at our city’s history. We’ve had bad times before. In 1933, the city defaulted on its bond payments and had to use promissory notes. Hell, we’ve had much, much worse times. We’ve had three ugly riots. We’ve been invaded and occupied. The city has existed under three different flags, and for centuries before that as a native settlement. We’ve burned to the ground and come back. Detroit isn’t going anywhere. Rising from the ashes is part of our makeup and motto.

But does anybody think this will be the last municipal bankruptcy? What about today’s places with sunny statistics? Don’t forget: Detroit was the fifth-largest and the richest city per capita in 1960, just a half-century ago. Who could have predicted what it would look like today? Similarly, can anybody guess what cities without three centuries of history will look like in 50 years? If the cost of gas continues to rise, how many millions will still call car-centric Houston home? If fresh water runs out, will residents still stream into Phoenix?

Yes, humor is a great way to deal with reversals. We, as Detroiters, are big enough to laugh at ourselves. But if it can happen to once-mighty Detroit it can happen anywhere. So we’d all do well to remember that bit about “who laughs last.” 

Michael Jackman was born in Detroit. You can reach him at [email protected].

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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