A raunchy standup comedy performance at an Air Force base has prompted a review of which entertainers can perform for all service members.
Jokes told in the Aug. 10 show at RAF Lakenheath, England, prompted the vice commander of the 48th Fighter Wing there to walk out on the performance and later write a blistering commentary accusing the comedian of making jokes about sexual assault.
The jokes were “beyond the scope of what should have been discussed in a military place,” Col. Mark Ciero told Air Force Times.. “This is not a discussion about free speech. It’s a discussion about a location for talking about issues that are adverse to our culture, adverse to our sexual assault awareness.”
Comedian Mitch Fatel, Ciero said, depicted sexual assault “in a positive light” by making jokes about spiking a woman’s drink in order to have sex and removing a woman’s undergarments while she was asleep.
“The one that we got up and left on was essentially he was describing oral sex and using a gesture to encourage a lady to basically move south on his body and then a gesture to encourage how to clean up afterwards,” Ciero said. “Then he made a comment about CSI and evidence, and that to me was the absolute red line that goes against our culture, goes against our sexual assault awareness and that was too much and I felt at that time it was time to leave, and my wife and I got up and started for the door.”
After the show, Ciero complained to his chain of command and wrote a commentary for Lakenheath’s website accusing Fatel of verbally assaulting the audience.
“No airman, no human, deserves the depravity shrouded in comedy associated with our military,” he wrote. “We are empowered to confront challenges and our commanders are now engaged to ensure sponsored shows are supervised.”
But in a lengthy rebuttal to Ciero’s objections, Fatel argued that his act is a “celebration of women and relationships” and is dedicated to empowering women.
“Nowhere in my act do I talk about forcing a girl to give me oral sex or getting rid of evidence of this assault,” Fatel wrote on his website. “I do a joke where my wife tells me she loves giving oral sex and so I childishly can’t wait and encourage her to go ahead. It begs reality to misconstrue this as ‘assault.’ ”
Asked about Fatel’s comments, Ciero declined to respond. He did not write his commentary to judge Fatel’s act or even to highlight the parts he thought were offensive, rather he wanted to show airmen that when someone says something that goes against the service’s core values, you need to take action.
“I probably should have interrupted and done something else to kind of steer the message differently or to at least get the idea across to the audience that this is not appropriate for a military installation, a military venue and our culture,” he said.
Armed Forces Entertainment, which booked Fatel, will not contract with him again because his performance was “not in line with DoD’s values, standards and policies,” said Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Erika Yepsen.
“The current contracts dictate entertainment shall be wholesome and adhere to the standards of good taste,” Yepsen said in an email. “Specifically, the rules prohibit offensive material regarding race, religion, national origin, sex, military rank, military service, or disability.”
In the past year Armed Forces Entertainment had been looking for more celebrity entertainment acts, but Fatel’s performance has led to a changes in its vetting process, Yepsen said.
“The revised vetting process includes better research and multiple approval authorities for performers,” she said. “We are also working more closely with entertainers to ensure they understand our standards of conduct and appropriateness of their material for our DoD audience.”
In a phone interview, Fatel said he made sure that his act was scheduled as an adult show and scheduled for late in the evening so that no children would be present.
“All the shows where there’s bars so that people understand that this is a night for adults; this is not a night for kids,” Fatel said. “This is a night for a bunch of adults to get along and let off steam and have a fun time.”
The key to comedy is stepping right up to the line without actually advocating bad behavior, Fatel said. Since few people actually enjoy doing terrible things, comedians can tell from the audience’s response if they’ve stepped over the line.
“By in large, nobody is going to laugh at something that really, really advocates or shows the glorification of somebody being hurt,” he said. “If somebody saying something, if they really did mean that in some way, they would be booed off the stage.
“What I think Col. Ciero fails to realize is that these men and women in our military are very, very smart, intelligent people who understand and — just by the fact that they’re in the military — want to do good in their lives. If anybody, without Col. Ciero telling them, felt that in some way I was advocating the misuse of power against a woman, I could tell you I would have been booed off the stage immediately.”
When he jokes about spiking his wife’s drink so that they can have sex on their first date, Fatel expects the audience to understand that his wife would not have married him had he actually drugged her. Adults should be trusted to realize that a joke is silly, not real.
“It scares me to think that these people, who we are entrusting with our lives, we really don’t think that they’ll be able to discern that that’s not OK, that that’s a joke,” Fatel said. “I defy anyone to tell a joke where in some way you don’t laugh at it because it sounds so absurd or so stupid.”
In the end, Fatel said the troops are the ones hurt by this controversy because now any shows they get to see will be sanitized to the point of boredom.
“One of the things I keep hearing from people writing me is, ‘We are so bored on these bases and now we’re going to be even more bored,’ ” he said. “It’s not high school and it’s not junior high school. These are adults, these are adults who decided to serve our country.”