Sunday, November 13, 2005

"Mr. Terriyaki" - When Humor & PC Collide

As I was reading about the upheaval that is taking place among some fiction writer's over remarks made last weekend by author Dean Koontz at a Men of Mystery function, I started wondering about where humor and political correctness collide and racism begins.

It seems that Mr. Koontz, a prolific author, was having some difficulty getting his name removed from a movie that is being made based on one of his books, "Hidaway." The CEO of the movie company is Japanese and Dean Koontz sent him a letter referring to him as "Mr. Terriyaki." Of course, this was in bad taste and to relay this anecdote to an audience for which you are the Keynote Speaker was probably not the wisest decision that Mr. Koontz has ever made. As a matter of fact, Koontz used that time to read several of the letters that he had written to this person.

In one letter, Koontz, who was experiencing great frustration with this unresponsive CEO, is said to have stated, ""Dear Mr Teriyaki, My letter of 10 November has not been answered ... I would assume your silence results from the mistaken belief that World War II is still in progress and that the citizens of your country and mine are forbidden to communicate. Enclosed is a copy of the front page of the New York Times from 1945, with the headline, 'Japan Surrenders'."

According to other authors present his remarks drew rounds of laughter with some dabbing their eyes. Yet other authors have taken great exception to the speech. One such author, Lee Goldberg, questioned "What if the CEO was black? Would Koontz have addressed his letter to "Mr. Fried Chicken" and joked about the good old days of slavery and discrimination?"

Novelist Charles Flemming was equally outraged and issued the following statement on his blog:

"A few minutes into an otherwise amusing talk, our keynote speaker Dean Koontz began an extended story about a disagreement with a Japanese executive. In an attempt to bully or shame the executive into making a business decision unfavorable to his own company’s interests, Mr. Koontz invoked images of Pearl Harbor, the firebombing of Tokyo, the Bataan Death March, the concentration camp depicted in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and the 1960s monster movies “Godzilla” and “Mothra.” He referred repeatedly to the recipient of this correspondence as “Mr. Teriyaki.”

"This is roughly the equivalent of writing to an African-American executive and invoking images of watermelon, lynchings and Little Black Sambo; of writing to a Jewish executive and making jokes about bar mitzvahs and Bergen-Belsen; of calling a gay executive “Bruce” and saying it with a lisp; or of referring to a Latino executive with words like “wetback” and “greaser.”

"Is this funny? The story was met with considerable laughter. I found Mr. Koontz’ remarks extremely offensive, and the audience’s reaction to them extremely depressing.

Our free speech rights as American citizens and our privileged position as writers guarantee us a voice. But our responsibility as artists and as human beings should discourage us from using our voices to denigrate others – even if they are Japanese, and the author is writing from a 2.5-acre, 25,000 square foot home in Orange County."

In the meantime, Koontz says that he stands by his remarks and that they were meant as humor.

Personally, I find most ethnic jokes offensive. Yet there are those people - and I know a few - who are in no way racist in their personal lives and they can get a real charge out of such things.

However, author Fleming raises a very good point. Freedom of speech does require a certain degree of responsibility - on the part of all of us. In today's atmosphere, one would think that someone of Dean Koontz' stature might be a little more circumspect in his attempts at playing a comic.

So...when it is meant to be humor does it make this sort of thing more acceptable? From everything that is being bantied around on the blogs and message boards, it appears that the majority of the writing community were greatly offended.

1 comment:


    Way to go Koontz!


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