Many people only know Justin Theroux, if they know his name at all, as the future Mr. Jennifer Aniston. They probably don’t realize that he’s a successful actor in his own right, with a résumé ranging from comedies like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Zoolander to much creepier fare like American Psycho and Mulholland Drive. They are almost certainly unaware that he is a screenwriter as well, whose credits include Iron Man 2, Rock of Ages, and Tropic Thunder. But if he can make an impact with his newest project, with which he hopes to tear down the walls of political correctness, he might become a household name.
Theroux is no stranger to testing the boundaries of PC. Tropic Thunder featured Robert Downey. Jr. essentially performing in blackface (technically speaking, Downey’s character, an actor, underwent “pigmentation alteration” for his role as the black sergeant). In one controversial scene, Downey’s character explains to Ben Stiller’s that an actor should never go “full retard” if he wants to win an Oscar. The politically insensitive phrase drew a lot of criticism, which irked Theroux. In a recent interview with Elle, he said,
There’s a certain point where political correctness becomes extremely conservative and it skews to a point where it becomes humorless… You have to be sure of what your target is, who the joke is on. I was so saddened that people were offended by the full-r-word scene, because we worked really hard making sure that joke was aimed at Hollywood and actors portraying mentally challenged people. I remember being so bummed out. They literally picketed us. It was like, ‘Really? Satire is allowed to do this!’”
The Elle article noted that Theroux’s “aversion to PC” is leading him to work on an animated series that would challenge our politically correct sacred cows: “a long-germinating project modeled on All in the Family.”
In case you are too young to have experienced it firsthand, the groundbreaking All in the Family was one of the most controversial and yet beloved sitcoms in entertainment history. Featuring the brilliant Carroll O’Connor as lovable old conservative crank Archie Bunker clashing with hippie son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic (a young Rob Reiner), it captured the fiery generational conflict of the era and handled it with humor, insight, and fairness (neither ultra-conservative Archie nor ultra-liberal Meathead had a monopoly on wisdom, and they often learned from each other). It dealt with a whole raft of social issues that network television (the only television there was) normally wouldn’t touch. There hasn’t been anything quite like it since.
Apparently, in Theroux’s new All in the Family, the Archie Bunker character will be liberal rather than conservative. It remains to be seen whether this will be a positive or not, or whether the show will grapple seriously with the social issues of the day or simply aim to offend; Theroux hints that it might be the latter, which would be a disappointment: “When was the last time you were super offended?” he asked the Elle interviewer. “I might be like, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!’ Or, ‘It’s not my thing,’ or, ‘It was a stupid joke.’ But there’s such a sensitivity now. Political correctness has become really insidious.”
Insidious indeed. In fact, I’m often surprised and disturbed that many young people don’t understand what political correctness actually is, or how threatening it is to our freedom of speech, a precious freedom often taken for granted. Too many believe that PC is simply a set of language guidelines to protect people’s feelings from hurtful words – which sounds very considerate. But the term actually began in reference to the Communist party line, which determined the “correct” positions on political matters. It defined the boundaries of what ideas and language were “acceptable” to discuss and hold, and which ones would get you a midnight knock from the secret police. It is a means of controlling ideas and attitudes by restricting, and in some cases redefining, language. The totalitarian possibilities of that are terrifying.
Taking on political correctness shouldn’t be just about preserving the right to be offensive. It’s a matter of holding free speech sacred. If Justin Theroux can pull off a fair-and-balanced program that seeks to champion that concept rather than simply insult, then it will be a welcome, important change in the television landscape.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/28/14)