The uproar over the Comic Cowboys’ parade signs was probably one of the easier things to predict in this rather unpredictable political climate.
As we go to press this week, the simmering debate about offensive signs in the Mardi Gras season’s most irreverent parade reached a full Zatarain’s boil as Mobile’s City Council fielded complaints about the parade, and Mayor Sandy Stimpson declared he had resigned from the organization following this year’s run.
Founded in 1884, “The Cowboys” are generally a must-see for most Mobilians on Fat Tuesday because they irreverently stick it to the rich, famous and politically powerful. But — at least in the past 20 years I’ve been watching them — they’ve also occasionally skirted pretty close to bigotry in some of their signs and run flat over it with others.
One constant target over the years is the predominantly black and very poor city of Prichard, referred to as “Pritchitt” on the Cowboys’ signs. And while there are years Prichard has fairly earned its criticism, the city still took it on the chin this year even when it really hasn’t been in the news.
Jokes about a Pritchitt Uber being a police car and that its city motto is “Born to Get Turnt” didn’t sit well with a lot of African-Americans watching the parade. Jabs at Black Lives Matter and President Trump making America “Mo’ Better” for inner-city blacks also have been mentioned as being offensive.
And now it turns out the mayor was a paying member of this group? Ouch. I can just imagine the smile on former Mayor Sam Jones’ face right now. This was just the kind of duct tape and chewing gum his quasi-maybe-sorta-I’m-thinking-about-it mayoral campaign needed.
I’ve spoken with a few members of the Cowboys over the past week, and while I see the point of view that they make fun of everybody, I’ve also shared with them my personal feelings that those two or three or four signs each year that step over the line into the arena of racial bigotry are an embarrassment to see as a Mobilian.
As someone interested in local politics and an occasional writer of satire, I do look forward to the Comic Cowboys parade each year. But I’ve come to dread the groaners that move out of the realm of political satire and fair comment into areas I doubt many people on the floats would stand beneath without wearing a mask.
A few years ago I’d been down to watch the parade and then headed home quickly because it was raining. But it was on in my living room and I just remember feeling embarrassed that Mel Showers, someone I greatly respect and admire as a journalist, had to sit there and talk about those signs as they rolled past. I’m sure the camera operator cut away from signs several times because they were a bit too racy for daytime TV, but because I’d already seen the parade, I also noticed when they cut away from those that pushed racial stereotypes.
Last year I was talking with an African-American guy I know just before the Cowboys started to roll by. I ended up cutting our conversation short because I didn’t want either of us to have to deal with the awkwardness of reading a few of those signs together.
All that said, I respect the right of the Comic Cowboys to push the envelope and to poke fun at everyone and skewer our community’s various foibles. Any efforts to legislate them out of their rough and rowdy ways — as the governor in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” might put it — would diminish or destroy something that is unique about our Mardi Gras.
Hopefully what this episode will do for the Cowboys is make them step back and take stock, because in all truth, the signs people are complaining about are without doubt the weakest material presented every year. To go from an extremely clever sign about what Hallie Dixon’s boyfriend and a Lagniappe have in common, for instance, to some lame racial barb is offensive to me as a writer and a sign of mental laziness. (Look up the Dixon sign on your home computer!)
After watching this year’s Cowboys parade roll by, I was simply amazed they’d taken the time to slam “Pritchitt” twice but left Mike Hubbard off the table, and barely even hit the Luv Guv or Big Luther. That stuff is political gold, baby! Satirical float sign writers in other cities would be green with envy to have that kind of material, but you’re wasting the space to make crime jokes about Prichard.
Mayor Stimpson did the right thing in getting out of the Cowboys. While I’m sure the vast, vast majority of the group’s members are more interested in having some fun at the expense of the rich and powerful and had nothing to do with the signs in question, the offensive signs are going to tar the whole krewe. And I don’t think the record Stimpson has established over the past three-plus years is going to be particularly harmed by all of this, even though I do imagine we’ll be talking about it a good bit if Stimpson-Jones II comes to pass.The situation is already getting a pretty good head of steam. Councilman Fred Richardson was so excited about it at Tuesday’s meeting that he somehow convinced himself Lagniappe’s last political cartoon of he and the mayor tandem parachute jumping was Comic Cowboy sign with a racist message. Just for the record, Fred, it was a silly joke about the mayor parachuting with the Navy Leapfrogs during Mardi Gras and using such daredevil antics to coerce council members into agreeing with him (pictured). Race wasn’t even a consideration.
But that’s a good example of the flip side of this whole thing — being offended when there’s not really a reason to be. While I agree a small number of Comic Cowboys’ signs cross the line, most of them are plain satire. Satire isn’t always easily understood, but I do think if you look at a few years’ worth of Comic Cowboys signs you’ll see they gore just about everyone’s ox.
The Cowboys’ slogan is “Without Malice,” which is another way of saying “don’t take it personally, it’s a joke.” Hopefully next year they can leave some of the more personal insults in the barn and bring only their “A” material to the streets.