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ALS and Talking Teddy Bears

ALSTA logoThe ALS Therapy Alliance (ALSTA) garnered a bit of publicity this week for its strident criticism of a line in the movie Ted. The line, spoken by actor Mark Wahlberg to his co-star—a talking Teddy Bear— is, “From one man to another, I hope you get Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

While I applaud the organization’s efforts to raise ALS awareness, I can’t really get behind the moral outrage in their press release.1 They claim the line “comes at the expense of people afflicted with ALS,” that the tweeting of it by movie fans is “dangerous,” and that it sends the message that the disease is “a laughing matter.” Now a Facebook page has been created to extend and amplify ALSTA’s criticism.

Marky Mark talks to a teddy bearI won’t be seeing the movie2, but not because I’m offended by this line. I don’t feel it comes at my expense, and I surely cannot see any real danger in the sophomoric twittering of it. Dangerous how? I don’t suppose the ALSTA believe that the tweets will lead to an actual rise in the incidence of the disease. They must feel that by making it a laughing matter, the movie and the twits will lead people to dismiss ALS as “not serious” or unworthy of attention (i.e. funding and research).

But the disease isn’t being mocked here, nor are those of us who suffer from it. In fact, the line seems to suggest that ALS is a very scary thing; the baddest disease around and one that no one would ever want. Marky Mark is saying the meanest thing he can to his improbably-sentient little stuffed toyfriend. The only worse thing he might say is, “From one man to another, I hope you drop dead.”

Because it would be worse to drop dead, right? I think so. I’d rather be alive with ALS than dead. Yet who would be offended by the line “I hope you drop dead?” No one would.

It’s a comedy. A bad comedy, maybe, but not because of this one line (which sounds like a clunker to me). I believe in comedy nothing is sacred. To me this doesn’t mean that anything goes: there are offensive comics and offensive jokes3. But there really isn’t any broad subject matter—including death and disease—about which it should be impossible to find humor. A couple of years ago, I believe, Laura Linney starred in a Showtime comedy series about living with cancer. The recent movie 50/50 was a comedy about cancer written by a cancer survivor (well-received, it took its share of rabid criticism).

There really isn’t anything funny about the reality of ALS (unlike cancer, no one “beats it”), and it’s hard to imagine a comedic approach to it that would really work. If anyone, perhaps Monty Python could have created a funny skit about it. They made us laugh about Hitler, live organ donors, leprosy, cancer, murderers, the plague, leg amputation, cannibalism and the Spanish Inquisition. Maybe they could have pulled it off. I wouldn’t have faulted them for trying, but it might have proved to be the nut they could not crack. I think we know it’s beyond the capabilities of Seth MacFarlane and Mark Wahlberg.

If I were to have composed the press release for ALSTA, I might have written something like:

Teddy bears cannot get ALS, nor can the disease be “wished upon” anyone. However, thousands of humans are diagnosed with this terrible, fatal disease every year. An equal number die of it each year, because 73 years after Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech and almost 200 years since was first reported4, there is still no cure and no effective treatments for it. Here’s how you can help …

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  1. I can’t find the complete press release on ALSTA’s website, but here is the version published at www.bioportfolio.com:

    The punch line, “From one man to another, I hope you get Lou Gehrig’s disease,” is being tweeted and re-tweeted among movie fans.

    This dangerous yet popular saying is trending just as July 4th marks the 73rd anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech from major league baseball at Yankee Stadium. The New York Yankee slugger’s battle with ALS cut his amazing career short, but left an inspirational, honorable legend for others to follow in the wake of this disease. ALS disrupts muscle function while leaving the brain intact, ultimately causing patients to become “trapped” in their own bodies. There is no cure; life expectancy is just four to six years.

    “The box office smash hit Ted, a comedy film based in Boston from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, is sending the wrong message about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). We want to make it clear that ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is not a laughing matter for people and families suffering from this life-threatening illness. The punch line in the movie Ted comes at the expense of people afflicted with ALS,” said Traci Bisson, project research manager for ALS Therapy Alliance.

    “We are not condemning Seth MacFarlane,” Bisson continued. “We just want to stop this alarming trend before it becomes too widespread. We work every day with a dedicated community of supporters to raise awareness and funds, aiming to wipe out ALS. We hope the filmmakers move beyond the unfortunate way Lou Gehrig’s disease is used in the film and join us in finding a positive way to raise awareness and research funding to help find a cure.”

  2. A movie about a grown man and his talking teddy bear? A big hit? Really?
  3. As an example of what I consider an offensive attempt at humor, two Houston radio schlock-jocks called Stephen W. Hawking a “piece of meat” and one of them said, “I don’t even think there is a guy in there anymore. I think that’s a corpse they wheel around like ‘Weekend at Bernie’s.’ That head never moves and supposedly this voice coming out of there saying all kinds of things.” This rightly provoked a bit of a reaction.
  4. The first (non-scientific) report of it was written in 1824 according to Wikipedia.

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