Last week, one of the ways I distracted myself from writing my dissertation was by watching a Funny or Die video of Wayne Brady and Mike Tyson reenacting Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.” It’s no Drunk History, but I suppose the video, the latest incarnation of the “Mike Tyson being funny” genre, is worth a chuckle or two.
Forget skinny jeans. Mike Tyson is having the best comeback ever. He has been the subject of several recent documentaries, including the gripping, Tyson and ESPN 30 for 30’s One Night in Vegas. He was on The Oprah Winfrey Show last season–twice. Of course, his comeback of sorts was solidified with his cameo appearance in The Hangover. And now, he’s acting silly in a Wayne Brady clip.
This is probably not the most popular position I may take, especially amongst my feminist friends, but I think I’ve always had some kind of compassion for Mike Tyson, even before boxing became infinitely interesting to me. Yet Tyson has also been really, really scary to me. I remember how nervous and tense I felt just watching him on Oprah. And he wasn’t doing anything; he was just sitting there, answering questions in the soft voice the folks over at In Living Color used to occasionally joke about. Yet I think the viciousness he showed during those boxing matches I watched on HBO as a kid was just hardwired in my brain. I can’t seem to comfort myself with the idea that his rage can be contained by a boxing ring. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks about Tyson like this. So this latest manifestation and public obsession with Tyson have me wondering: What are the set of conditions that allow us, the audience to laugh at Mike Tyson?
This Wayne Brady “Every Little Step” bit is supposed to be ironic, I guess. I mean, there’s irony all up in the video: Wayne Brady, after all, is going to bed in a wave cap and his wife is black. Despite my “credentials,” though, I get all kinds of confused when irony is inserted into a conversation. It’s a term employed incorrectly so often that I have to look it up any time someone uses it. Perhaps I should blame Alanis Morrissette for this issue. I say that simply to forewarn you: I may have this Tyson bit all wrong. Still, my quasi-educated guess is that Tyson’s cameos work as a kind of situational irony: wherein the outcome is different from what is expected. When Mike Tyson is on screen, my initial expectation is a feeling of fear. In fact, I actually feel the fear. Then, when Tyson does something silly, that fear is supposed to be replaced with a kind of ease. The feeling I’m supposed to get from watching Mike Tyson doing The Running Man or singing “In the Air Tonight” is similar to the one you feel when your mom or dad comes into your bedroom, turns on the lights, and proves that there are no monsters in the closet. (Of course, the ironic thing would be if your parent opened the closet and a monster did, indeed, jump out of it. But I digress.) I suppose this irony, this fear turned to humor is part of what makes a Mike Tyson appearance funny.
Yet, I don’t think the fact that I can’t shake how scary Mike Tyson can be is the only reason why I don’t laugh as hard as the next person. I think I worry that the line between irony and, well, reality will become increasingly thin, that there will be a point when we cease to remember that we were scared of Iron Mike. And if the public forgets–short as our memory is–that fear, what then becomes of the irony? Does it become tragic? And does Tyson in turn become a tragedy? Will he become a caricature? A buffoon? If we are to believe Tyson’s claims that he has no money, is the possibility that he becomes cartoonish almost inevitable? Most importantly, how strikingly similar will the reasons that we laugh at him in the future be to the reason(s) we laugh at him now?