Monday, April 4, 2011

Talking racism, sexism with Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K.

On April 1, through Ricky Gervais' podcast feed, I received a teaser for his upcoming special, "Talking Funny." The show, which debuts on HBO on April 22, features Gervais and fellow comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C. K. and Chris Rock talking about their craft. Following is an exchange from the clip, which can be downloaded for free from iTunes, Audible or Gervais' website. I cannot seem to find this extended clip on You Tube or HBO's site:
Louis C. K. (talking about Chris Rock's style of comedy): Chris does it in a way that is even more blatant, cause he'll even keep repeating...If the premise is, y'know, women can't live without money...or whatever it is you're...all your chauvinist bullshit things that you say...
Laughter
Chris Rock (Possibly referring back to an earlier conversation): ...black...sexist
Louis C. K.: He'll keep repeating it...
Jerry Seinfeld: Women can't go down a lifestyle.
Louis C. K.: Women can't go down a lifestyle! That's his thing. Women can't go down a lifestyle. Then he'll explain it from 50 angles and he'll say (mildly adopting Rock's cadence), "Women can't go down in lifestyle. They can't. They can't go down..." And then he'll explain...
Seinfeld: Well, he has to do that, cause that's a richer idea than they're used to hearing from a comedian. So, he has to teach them. 
Louis C. K.: Oh, I think he's doing the right thing, but that's...yeah.
Rock: And a lot of comedians have great jokes and they don't like...Why isn't this working? It's not working because the audience doesn't understand the premise. So, I'm going to make sure...If I set this premise up right, this joke will always work, but if I kinda go namby pamby about setting up the premise...
Louis C. K. (Referring to Rock): One of my favorite bits of his is that when white people are rich, they're just rich forever and ever. Even their kids are rich. But when a black guy gets rich, it's countdown to when he's poor again. 
Laughter
Rock (Referring to Louis C.K.): He's the blackest white guy I know. All the negative things we think about black people...this fucker...
Louis C.K.: You're saying I'm a nigger.
Laughter
Rock: Yes, you are the niggerest fuckin' white man I have ever...
It's hard to capture the spirit of a discussion simply through a transcript. I encourage you to go to one of the sources mentioned above and see the thing for yourself. And I want to know if this exchange makes you as uncomfortable as it did me.




First, I found the conversation to be heaping with tired race and gender bias, masquerading, as it often does in comedy, as edginess. I've heard Gervais and many other comedians say that it's not their job to be inoffensive or make people feel good, the job of a comedian is to provoke and challenge--to make people think. Fair enough. My beef is that too often it is not the status quo that is challenged. That would truly be edgy. And if there is any thinking provoked, it is rarely contrary to the general biases of society.

Women are gold-diggers!


Black people are triflin' niggers!


Hoo-boy! That's some transgressive shit right there! When has it ever been risky to take shots at the marginalized? Is anyone important really going to come for Chris Rock because of his endless bits upholding stereotypes about black women? No.

Second, three rich and very privileged white men laughing riotously over the word "nigger" and the idea of black sex workers with stretch marks and "bullet wounds in their assess" (see below), abetted by one rich and privileged black man, feels a lot icky.




In the earlier exchange I mentioned, Louis C.K. was clearly referring to Chris Rock's famous bit "Black people vs. niggers." And now we reach the in-group/out-group conundrum, or The Chappelle Factor. Lots of black folks laughed along with that Rock bit. It's a classic. It is so well known in the black community that it's easy to believe that it is "ours" and that Rock's association of negative behavior with a certain type of black person is not a problem because WE know better. Except WE are not the only ones listening. Those jokes feel a whole lot different in a room full of black folks watching HBO than they do when white celebrities start referencing them on HBO. What exactly does Ricky Gervais find funny about the "Black people vs. niggers" bit? Is it the same thing I do? Is Jerry Seinfeld laughing with black people or at them? Did Louis C. K.'s smart bits about race earn him a pass to say "nigger"? (Though I disagree with the idea that no white person in any context can ever say the word.) It is complicated, yes?

I find a lot of things funny that are blatantly offensive, but I reject the notion that comedy can never be held accountable for the messages it sends, that it can never be analyzed through a social justice lens, because it is entertainment and art, designed to provoke. 

And there is just something about this conversation between comedians that unsettles me.

What do you think?

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