opinion

You don't like a joke - sue! How it happens in Philly

Stu Bykofsky, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Tuesday, August 15, 2017, 2:45 PM

General manager John Barry and owner Brendan Smith (right) at Smith’s Restaurant in Center City, with the controversial chalkboard.

When the Great Recession struck months after he opened his Center City restaurant in 2007, Brendan Smith made a business decision that would define him, for better and worse.

To lighten the dark economic mood, he started putting jokes on chalkboards in his windows to give passersby a laugh, and perhaps lure them into Smith’s Restaurant & Lounge, 39 S. 19th St.

The chalkboards became Smith’s trademark. Customers did come in. So did lawsuits.

Smith, 46, a Southwest Philly native, got sued on two occasions over — get this — bad jokes.

By bad, I mean politically incorrect, maybe even hurtful to some people.

The first one that landed him in court was this: “I like my beer how I like my violence — domestic.”

The joke may be awful, but isn’t it protected free speech?

A woman’s group didn’t think so and slapped him with a lawsuit.

He was flabbergasted.

We seem to be in an era where even humor must be bleached by political correctness. As comedian Gilbert Gottfried observed, “The big thing now is, you tell a joke, and then you have to apologize for it.”

On the day I spoke with Smith, his window sign read: “Open Sept. 2017. Sandals North Korea. Mind-blowing vacations.”

“Maybe if you were from North Korea,” he says, “you wouldn’t think my sign is funny.”

On the advice of his attorney, Smith settled the women’s group’s suit for $15,000.

Smith’s sign wasn’t obscene. It didn’t advocate violence. Why would it be actionable? His attorney did not return my calls.

The second lawsuit followed this gem: “I was on my way home from work when I got a kitten. I had to swerve, but I got him.”

An animal-rights group sued him.

“They have to find reasons to be pissed off,” grouses Smith, who settled out of court for $5,000. I’m an animal lover, but the joke hurt no animal.

Then there was the Bruce Jenner joke, with a different outcome.

“If Bruce Jenner went missing, would his picture be on a carton of half-and-half?” wondered the chalkboard.

“The LGBT community went frigging crazy,” says Smith, “and it was so fast.”

The different outcome was the result of a visit by Nellie Fitzpatrick, then the city’s director of LGBT affairs.

“She wasn’t looking for money,” says John Barry, 36, Smith’s general manager. “She gave us an education about why that was offensive.”

Smith says, “I’m not trying to be offensive.” He removes any chalkboard that draws a complaint, but he says he rarely hears complaints.

I found a couple on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“Every time I walk by, there is a new sign in the window that features some type of sexist, racist, homophobic, fat-shaming ‘joke’ of some type,” Camille Johnson wrote June 17.

I went through about 100 past chalkboards and didn’t find that to be the case, but humor is subjective. Typical Smith jokes:

“If you keep following your dreams, they’re going to file a restraining order.” “Don’t be ashamed of who you are. That’s your parents’ job.” “Best relationship advice: Make sure you’re the crazy one.”

Smith concedes that his sense of humor can have an edge, but that lately his jokes “are a little more watered-down than they have been, which is probably a good thing.”

With eight siblings, he says, “all I have is sarcasm. It’s juvenile, it’s very juvenile. But the bar business is juvenile.”

As for being sued? He chalks that up to experience.

Stu Bykofsky, STAFF COLUMNIST

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