Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Who is allowed to laugh at black culture?

Today's New York Times includes a review of comedian Chris Rock's New Year's Eve stand-up performance at Madison Square Garden. the review alleges that while Rock is still edgy and, most importantly, funny, the comedian has shifted his approach to racial comedy over the years. Kelefah Sanneh writes:
 
Where once he held forth conspiratorially, flattering fans by sharing taboo insights with them, now he is more likely to hold forth confrontationally, as a way (perhaps) to acknowledge the Michael Scotts in the crowd. Where once he was mainly descriptive, now he is prescriptive too. Monday's set included a long bit about when it is permissible for white people to use his favorite racial epithet (there is only one hypothetical occasion, and it involves extreme suffering); advice to women with careers not to complain to their nannies; and an explanation of why no one should have been surprised when Don Imus made his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Conscious of the weight on his shoulders, Mr. Rock now seems a little less roguish and a little more righteous. Almost out of the blue, he asked, "Do you know how much better Seabiscuit's life was than my grandfather's?" And a riff on Regis Philbin built to a climax that was shocking and amusing in equal measure. SOURCE

"Michael Scott" refers to the lead character on NBC's popular "The Office." Despite Scott's professed tolerance, he often horrifies his staff with social gaffes related to race, gender and sexual orientation. In a recent episode, Scott performed Chris Rock's infamous "two kinds of black people" routine and later wondered "How come Chris Rock can do a routine, and everybody finds it hilarious and groundbreaking, and then I go and do the exact same routine, same comedic timing, and people file a complaint to corporate?" 
 
My question is not why non-black people need to tread carefully when finding humor in African American culture. I find it disingenuous when people claim to not understand why jokes at a group's expense (or certain words) are not appropriate when they come from outside of the group.My question is, is it okay for black folks to laugh at the racial stereotypes often found in comedy? What does it say about us? And what responsibility do black comedians have to censor what they say when their words have the power to influence mainstream perceptions of our race? 
 
The topic of race seems to be a mainstay for modern black comics. Some, like Chris Rock, are able to tackle sensitive issues deftly. But a bunch are BET's Comic View-type hacks that traffic in "black people do this" and "white people do that" jokes. If you've ever heard these ubiquitous comedians, you know that in their routines the things black people do are always negative. We have bad credit. We have bad attitudes. We are always late. We are lazy. We do drugs. Black men are unfaithful. Black women are loud, aggressive and emasculating. Both black men and women are hyper sexual and crass. 
 
These gross generalizations and stereotypes don't seem to bother black audiences or black comedians. Is it because we have internalized society's negative view of us? Though we'll go to battle if a Don Imus cracks wise about black folks, do we secretly believe all the bad things people say? I find it telling that Dave Chapelle was okay with his TV show's often prejudiced content until he noticed that a white guy was laughing a little too hard at the jokes.
 
I'll admit it...I laugh at Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle. Can't stomach the Comic View brigade, though. I would be surprised if there is a black person who hasn't ever nodded and smirked at one of those "black people do this" routines. But laughter seems a lot like acceptance and knowing that makes me awfully uncomfortable.
 
Is it really okay for me, a black woman, to laugh along with stereotypes? And even if, as black people, popular comics have the right to send up African Americans and our habits, is it prudent for them to do so? Are they just polluting the social atmosphere, keeping black minds colonized and stoking prejudices in white minds?
 
Surprisingly, on this issue, I don't have an answer. Maybe you do. What do you think?

5 comments:

Mes Deux Cents said...

Tami,

What no answers!? I come here for answers! Lol.

I'm in the minority I think on this subject. I don't find anyone who uses race as comedy funny.

I hate the Dave Chappelle Show, I hate (as you know) The Boondocks. Thankfully I don't have cable so I don't have to support any of that stuff, including the racist show Comic View on BET.

I think in 2007 racial humor is trite and the sign of a small mind. It's doesn't matter if it's coming from a Black or White person.

And your thoughts about Black people laughing at Comic View; first, I think those people in the audience are not a fair representation of Black Americans. It's like going to a Jay Z concert and asking the concert goers if they have a problem with hip hop's negative images.

And by the way I never thought Chris Rock's Two Kinds of Black people routine was funny. In fact I thought it was racist.

But like I said I'm sure I'm in the minority on most of this.

Great post!

Jennifer said...

I wasn't going to leave a comment on this post because as someone who does not identify as African American, I thought that it wasn't really my place to comment on what I thought was appropriate (or not) to laugh at with respect to African American comedy/comics.

And then I thought that this is part of the point--I mean about who has the authority/right to comment/talk/laugh. And I also admit, very sheepishly, that I have laughed along with Dave Chapelle, even though at times I have felt his comedy made me uncomfortable and/or crossed certain lines of race.

I think a lot of it is context driven--I know that I have laughed at a lot of Margaret Cho's comedy, but there are other moments, like when she's mimicking her Mom's accent--that I feel uncomfortable, because I am so aware that other non-Asian American, non-child-of-immigrants, non-non-American accented people are going to listen to Cho and think it's OK to start mimicking her mimicking her Mom and thus perpetuate the "funny" Asian accented woman.

I think your question is so great, and in so many ways unanswerable, because humor is subjective. But in terms of "racial" humor, I think the line for me is how it is going to play to people outside of this community and the probablity of it being misconstrued and used in a racist way--laughing at the community instead of with the community.

Tami said...

MDC, yeah I know you have no patience for this stuff. And I feel guilty that I think some of it is funny.

And Jennifer, interesting you should mention Margaret Cho. I've heard her mimic her mother and it made me uncomfortable. I can see how someone might make the leap that because this high-profile Asian comedian mimics a Korean accent, then it's okay. It's an endorsement of the sterotype of sorts. Not really...but that is how the mainstream reads it I think.

Are minorities the only ones doomed to second guess our comedy? Larry the Cable Guy has become popular by playing a stereotypical redneck. Are there Southerners on some other blog fretting about how his act bolsters stereotypes about folks from the South? Of course, ethnic minorites and members of the GLBT community face a much more painful past in this country. Stereotypes against these groups have much more dire consequences.

Jennifer said...

Tami,
That's such a great point about the agonizing that folks who are marginalized (read: queer/poc/women/other-abled/working class) do, and I also wonder about the Larry the Cable guy type of Southern red-neck comedy. From the few things I've seen in "the South" it appears as if the humor is widely accepted and promoted.

I'll see if I can find out from my "native informants" south of the Mason-Dixon line about how redneck humor is seen and whether white Southerners or working-class white Americans are bothered by Larry-the-Cable-Guy type humor.

SheCodes said...

I'm with mes deax cents.

I am from Carribbean descent, so I am coming from a different standpoint. West Indians rarely do the things that the comedians describe as 'black', and we are just as black as black Americans and possibly more.

Frankly, I think that it shows a profound lack of creativity and talent. IT'S THE SAME JOKE, over and over again. I think that it's just a reincarnation of the blackface minstrel, and I have no appetite for it.

It's time for comedians to shut off the coon show and to start evolving into multifaceted artists.

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