Controversial radio personality Don Imus, 79, died last week at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas. There’s an old Latin saying — “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” — which roughly translates to “do not speak ill of the dead.”
What did those ancient Romans know? Let’s bury Imus for what he was: a hurtful, unfunny, marble-mouthed, foul-mouthed racist whose time was long past.
Imus started in radio in 1968 and joined WNBC in New York three years later. His brand of radio was new to New York: irreverent, and irascible. He took on all comers, but over the years, all comers pretty much reduced to minorities, especially African-Americans and Jews.
It came to a boil in 2007 when he called the mostly African-American Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Advertisers bailed on his show and Imus lost his TV job over that remark, which he later described as “just an idiotic comment meant to be amusing.”
Name-calling as "humor"
That was the biggest problem with Imus. What part of calling college girls “nappy-headed hos” is amusing? It wasn't just a one-off error in judgment. After a few years of being innovative and imaginative, racism and name-calling became Imus' lazy go-to brand of humor.
He called PBS anchorman Gwen Ifill, also African-American, a “cleaning lady.” He called book publishers Simon & Shuster “thieving Jews” and later laughed off the slur as being “redundant.” He called Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz a “beanie-wearing little Jew boy,” and something more offensive, which I won’t repeat here. He reportedly made racist remarks about Howard Stern’s African-American sidekick Robin Quivers, while they all worked at the same radio station.
Was his good deed even good?
In 1998 Imus bought and opened the Imus Ranch in New Mexico and invited seriously ill children to come stay there for free and experience how a working cattle ranch operated. Imus and his family also spent vacations on the ranch, which he claimed as a charity.
However, in 2006 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Imus Ranch spent $2.6 million on just 100 children who stayed at the ranch for 10-day visits — which comes to nearly $30,000 per child. The Journal said, for that kind of money, the children could have their own suites at the Waldorf-Astoria. The newspaper also highlighted a similar charity that provided basically the same experience for 150 children with one-sixth the budget of the Imus Ranch.
Imus reacted furiously to the Wall Street Journal scrutiny, calling the reporter “a dishonest punk” and said he owned a $30 million home in Connecticut and therefore didn’t need to use the ranch as a vacation spot. He added, "Am I spending too much money per child? If you believe that, don't give money to the ranch."
He put the ranch up for sale in 2014 with an asking price of $35 million, eventually selling it for $12.5 million four years later.
A few years ago, a group of Lamar High School kids were in my house, complaining that the school was being forced to change its nickname from Redskins to Texans. I told them, this is the right thing to do, Redskins is a racial slur and it’s offensive. It if hurts a group of people, change it, it’s no big deal. Of all the things to worry about in years to come, your high school’s nickname won’t be one of them. Look, my high school’s nickname was “The Minutemen,” after Revolutionary War soldiers. I’ve never once referred to myself as a Minuteman. (Now, I’ve been called that, but unfortunately it had nothing to do with my high school...)
I’ve always disliked Don Imus and never respected him. It’s not because I’m not a fan of racial humor — I love Chris Rock. It’s not because I don’t like sexual humor — I’m up to 3 am watching Jimmy Carr videos on Youtube, check him out. It’s not because I don’t like dark, sick humor — I go to Anthony Jeselnik every time he’s in Houston. Or political humor (Lewis Black) or vicious humor (Comedy Central roasts), squeaky clean (Jerry Seinfeld), filthy dirty (Dave Chappelle), or slapstick (I still laugh at the Three Stooges).
I used to think the funniest person who ever lived — in my lifetime — was George Carlin. Now I’m thinking it may be Larry David.
Imus: Not funny
But Imus was none of the above. I’ve been around a lot of radio talk hosts and worked with quite a few. Some good, some very funny, some lame, some honest, some phony, one who (I think) doesn’t believe a word he says but I can’t prove it. There was one, though, I especially enjoyed working with: Pat Gray, who left Houston to join Glenn Beck’s network. I thought Gray was nuts, he thought I was the devil. I thought it was crazy that Gray never drank a Coke (caffeine), kissed only one girl in his life and married her, and never saw Caddyshack. But he was true to his faith and I respected him for it. Plus, and most important, Gray made me laugh.
There was nothing about Imus that I respected. As Shakespeare sort of said, I come to bury Imus — but good — not to praise him. Don Imus’ hate and bigotry weren’t funny, just unoriginal and all too common.