I really enjoy the comedy & everything discussions in Ian Boothby’s “No And” Facebook group and I found myself going off into the weeds on the topics he’s been discussing, and I thought it’d be nice to have a place to stash my thoughts, half-baked and ill-informed as they are, about the comedy world (the little of it I inhabit). Hence, this blog. On to the content!
The original post that inspired this one discusses comedy shows involving white performers in blackface over the years. In each of these performances, the joke, of course, is always at the expense of the character involved – what a rube this dummy is! Everyone knows that blackface is wrong, that’s why this so funny, ha-ha! Ask any of these performers who’ve donned/written a scene about blackface, a caricature-ish Chinese accent, etc., about their work, many years after the fact, and you’ll get the same genre of responses:
right before hastily switching the topic to all of the cool white people things they’ve been working on since then 1.
There’s been a myriad of apologies and too many high-profile names to count over the years, like
…. we didn’t start the fire… 2
Clearly, we’re not lacking for examples (or apologies). But why haven’t these pinnacles of comedy withstood the test of time? Perhaps they just didn’t have the right KIND of black makeup? Maybe we’re all a bunch of sensitive snowflakes that can’t take a joke? Maybe their “I’m not a racist” chickens are finally going to lay that “immunity from criticism” egg and finally they can go back to having tons and tons of money in peace 3. (Also for the rest of this rambling post, I’ll primarily be talking about the use of blackface and its harms, but the same ideas hold for mocking accents, “asian eyes”, and other forms of caricature.)
As with all comedy, context is really important, but I find people tend to over-emphasize the current, performative context of the bit and ignore the historical and subtextual context of the performance. If you’re a comedy writer and your “gag” in all of these caricature bits over the years is “this character shouldn’t be doing blackface/a mock-chinese voice/etc.”, congratulations! You’ve managed to turn the playground taunt “Haha, psyche!” into a high-budget, 200+ year old tradition of minstrelsy.
Caricature, like many realms of comedy, is enticing precisely because it’s forbidden. The rules are there to hold us, as comedians, back, right? The teacher says “Don’t talk in class” and I say to my friends “Wouldn’t it be funny if I made a scene during social studies?” Society says “It’s not a great idea to engage in racism”, and the white comedian says “Listen, the last hundred comedians tried this ironic racism and failed, but THIS TIME, I, and I alone, got this. Finally, your white free-speech saviour has arrived, because I have something worth saying on this topic.”
As far as I can tell, the comedic thinking on this topic tends to start and stop at “I myself am not racist. This will be funny because it’s embodying something that you’re not supposed to do, and the joke will be that my character is dumb.” Which, truly, is a first draft, bargain basement level of thinking. The improv comedy maxim of “play to the top of your intelligence” is telling because nobody ever asked the most-obvious followup question:
Again, as far as I can tell, no white comedian engaging with ironic racism in their work has ever, ever thought about the answer to this question. At the very worst, the answer to this question would force them to not do a thing that they wanted to, which, as we all know, would be the worst possible result for everyone. Truly the answer to this question, in no way affects the outcome of their lives – the list of comedians listed above are either still working or collecting fat stacks of residual money from reruns of their very popular, very well-regarded television shows/movies. Their material well-being has not been and will continue to not be affected. So why bother? To answer this question for a white comedian, as with all questions about race, is to risk having the security of your whiteness be at stake. Don’t open the Pandora’s Box, you won’t like what you find. (Having no knowledge of Greek mythology, I assume that people use this expression to referring to a box containing the world Pandora from the James Cameron Avatar movies, which I agree, would suckkk). Because to answer the question is to admit that something is wrong, that you did something wrong, that the world has something wrong at its core. And you couldn’t be responsible, because you worked hard and were funny and were recognized by your (mostly white) peers and got to where you were because of pure talent alone. And so the box remains closed.
The quick and dirty answer is a classic setup-punchline:
It’s a classic bit from the good ol’ vaudeville days! *tap dances under a spotlight before a giant shepard’s bow yanks me off-stage*. The apologizing comedian’s thinking here has just engaged in the setup without the historical context of the punchline. As a result, they can always fallback on the ol’ “I was just pushing boundaries, I didn’t intend to be racist” tropes without understanding really what those boundaries are there for and where they came from. The harms caused by (mostly) white people doing caricatures of non-white people has a long and sordid history. From brown kids being bullied in schoolyards with “thank you come again”, the catchphrase of the Indian character Apu 4, to the portrayal of black men as having “brute strength” being used as justification for their continued brutalization and murder at the hands of the police, the harms of depicting caricatures to people of colour, which continue to this day, cannot be overstated.
There’s also precedent for them avoiding so-called “punching down”. The comedians listed above, to the best of my knowledge, even in the “free speech heyday” of the early 90s, wouldn’t have made a Nazi joke at the expense of Jewish people in public5, because for all the failings of the education system, the general populace is at least somewhat aware of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people, and so it would be more obvious that they’d be punching down. In the case of BIPOC folks, the general population of white people isn’t necessarily aware of the history of systemic marginalization and oppression they’ve suffered at the hands of white people in power6. So white comedians, as a result, feel more empowered to push the boundaries and find where the funny is.
Presenting a “hot take” on racism when your show is mostly/all white people is also not inherently that interesting or effective. When the use of racial caricature becomes the only form of representation of a minority in your art, even if it’s for a “racism is bad” takedown, then the person on the receiving end of the art (the artee? art ingester? these are bad names) only ever gets the white side of the story. We all know the different types of white people that white people can become, because we’ve all seen Friends, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, Fraiser, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City, Mad Men, Dawson’s Creek, 7th Heaven, …. We all have had opportunities to empathize with the white experience, because it’s all we, as a society, have been presented with.
A caricature’s ability to dehumanize and misrepresent becomes dulled when Black people are allowed to experience things other than racism on-screen, when Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other Asian people in general get to tell stories that are presented as uniquely their own, when people who’re usually relegated to small, uninteresting roles finally get their voices heard. When was the last time you got to see/read a story from a Black or Indigenous person’s perspective? The representation for non-white folks in the media is changing slowly, but as a capitalist society, there hasn’t been as much of a value placed on non-white stories and performers. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of this system that in order for non-white people’s stories to be “worthy”, they also have to be “marketable.” Hopefully it’s “cool enough” to say “Black Lives Matter” even when they’ve always mattered, and will continue to matter even if popular trends change.
So, comedians inadvertently perpetuate the harm they’re allegedly against by saying absolutely nothing of import on the topic of racism. It’s inherently difficult to comedically engage with racism by trying to play with the mechanisms of racism, because most of the time, you just end up doing racism instead. And “Racism is bad” isn’t an inherently new or interesting comedic take, especially coming from white people. Even the best of the best can stumble, like the old Dave Chappelle anecdote goes,
The remedy? Knowing that your perspective is inherently limited. You can’t be anything you set your mind to be, no matter what your mom told you when you were a kid 7. You can’t be Black/Asian/Latina/Indigenous just because you want to be. You can’t know, on a fundamental level, the struggles that BIPOC have faced, and continue to face, because we live in a society that upholds white supremancy. You didn’t create it, but we all participate in this racist society, knowingly or unknowingly, and thus are responsible for dismantling it (white supremacy, not society, but you can try to dismantle that as well if you want). Know that your own experiences as a white person moving in the world have given you a false sense of what other people experience – it’s not your fault, breathe.
Whether you like it or not, your art is inherently limited by your own experiences. What can you do about it? Read the many many wonderful books out there to get a glimpse into non-white, non-straight male’s experiences 8. Donate to all the things 9. Make sure you have something worth saying before you say it. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, shut the fuck up and listen to those that do. You don’t get to have an opinion about other people’s lived experiences. Know that everything isn’t for you – BIPOC folks sure are aware of it. Be okay with the fact that not everything is for you. Say the phrase out loud “I don’t really get why that’s funny, maybe it isn’t for me. But maybe I should try to understand it anyways.” Eat. Pray. Live. Laugh. Love. Do none of those things. Know your own strengths and play to those. Knowing your strengths can also give you the insight for when you need to step away and let someone else with a different set of experiences into the limelight. And be assured, if this whole comedy thing doesn’t work out for you the white comedian, you can always drop out and settle for being president or prime minister or whatever.
Ignorance isn’t a shield nor a particularly compelling sword. It won’t stop the tide of criticism and it won’t absolve you of your fuckery. Comedy is hard, learn more, do better, be better. And for the love of all things funny, don’t do blackface.
Also, I really hate that last one the most, that is some bullshit. ↩︎
Maybe I’ve tried to make my “bad metaphor-making, cliche-merging” horse to water, but it would not… never mind, I’ll stop. ↩︎
At the very least, a google search for “comedian apologizes holocaust joke” lists a very different set of comedians than the ones listed above. Perhaps they weren’t timely enough to read this article. Or listen to any person of colour who wasn’t on their payroll. ↩︎
These most recent Black Lives Matter protests have helped wake people up to that realization somewhat, but in general, not so much. ↩︎
I once got the note from an improv teacher that “You can play anyone as long as you’re coming from a place of respect.” But how can you truly respect someone if you don’t know their experiences and can never really know them? This improv teacher was white, so it stands to reason they felt like they had knowledge of All Things. Personally, I’ll just stick to playing weird gollum creatures that are off-putting but secretly want love. ↩︎