Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Comedy is not "equal-opportunity"

I'm late to The Root's review of Matt Stone and Trey Parker's "The Book of Mormon," a musical currently playing on Broadway. But I'm glad I found it. It puts the lie to a common defense of people who traffic in humor based on stereotypes about POCs or women or the GLBT community or any other marginalized group--the idea of "equal-opportunity" offense.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys who created South Park, like to boast that they are equal-opportunity offenders. Which is true. Over the past 10 years that their potty-mouthed, thumb-in-your-eye animated series has been on the Comedy Channel, they've mocked gay people, black people, Canadian people, Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology, the Pope and, most infamously and dangerously, the Prophet Muhammad.
Now Parker and Stone have brought their act to Broadway. The Book of Mormon, the new musical that they've written in collaboration with Robert Lopez, the co-creator of the equally irreverent Muppets-style musical Avenue Q, sends up the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, celebrity do-gooders and the people of Uganda. Read more...
About the people of Uganda...Writer Janice C. Simpson points out:
Despite these woes, the villagers are portrayed as good-hearted, if simple-minded, people. One keeps referring to an old battered typewriter as her "texting machine." Another stomps around talking about raping babies because he believes that doing so will rid him of HIV. A dream sequence is set in hell, where the devil's main disciples are Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran, who, a song explains, is there for his part in helping to free O.J.
It's all played for can't-you-take-a-joke laughs. But how funny can it be that AIDS has ravaged Africa, that warlords oppress their fellow citizens or that women and children are subjected to forced clitoridectomies? Parker and Stone, who call themselves libertarians, have gotten away with this kind of cavalier attitude toward serious subjects for years because of their ability to sugarcoat it with faux irony. Which explains why even diehard liberals routinely turn a blind eye to their anti-gay jokes.
See, here's the thing: No comedy is really equal-opportunity. Why? Because our society is not equal opportunity. We are not all the same.

President George W. Bush was fodder for comedians and most everyone else during his tenure in office. That must have been hard for him. But at the end of the day, George Bush was the leader of the "free world." He has power and comes from a family with power. He is wealthy. He is endowed with both white privilege and male privilege. He has access to tremendous opportunity. No matter how many stupid jokes you tell about George Bush, none of this is likely to change for him. Nor will things change for people like him. Put it this way, no one is likely to stop hiring heterosexual, Christian, rich white men, because of George Bush.

But this...

Black men are regularly branded as hyper-sexual and freaks for loving fat assess, which of course all black women possess. They really are more likely to be targeted by police officers--sometimes with fatal results. Latino men really are thought of as lazy. Unemployment rates really are higher within the black and Latino communities, for a lot socio-economic reasons, perhaps including that employers are loathe to hire people they view as lazy, criminals--yes? In a society that still suffers from racism, people of color live with the real consequences of stereotypes. The same can be said with women/sexism, gay people/homophobia, etc. It is not "equal" that Lisa Lampanelli took a potshot at the bald, white guy in the front row; our society has no long history of discrimination against bald, white men. He left that comedy show still privileged, while the men of color in the audience left the show possibly unable to get a cab outside the venue, because, you know...

And here is another thing, there is not a stereotype that Lampanelli can spout that I have not heard someone say without irony or jest. Lampanelli says she is joking and praises audience members for being able to "take it." But how are we to tell the difference between racist fuckery and funny?

Once, in my freshman year in college, a bunch of us were gathered in the community lounge watching television when one of my floor mates walked in. "Will someone go down to the laundry room with me?" She asked. "I'm just so scared that some big, black man will come in and rape me."

I will never forget that.

I will never forget it because I was the only black girl in the room and one of few on campus...because my brother and father and grandfathers and uncles are not rapists...because no one else in the room blinked an eye or challenged the statement and, at 17 years old, hours from home and outnumbered, I was too scared to.

I suppose if my fellow co-ed had been on stage at the Improv rather than a dormitory lounge, her act would have killed.

This heinous bit from Eddie Murphy's "Delirious" was performed at a time when gay people were even more demonized and homophobia more rampant that today, when the community still doesn't have equal protections or rights. So, does the fact that Eddie Murphy also makes fun of heterosexuals make this an example of equal-opportunity comedy? Are homosexuals and heterosexuals viewed and treated equally in our society? Alrighty then.

This post isn't a treatise against all "edgy" comedy. I laugh at a lot of stuff that crosses the line. In fact, my husband and I were big fans of South Park some years ago. Two of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt and Kevin Hart, say some things about women that have me giving the side-eye (while laughing riotously). But there are bits and comedians that cross the line. And when lines are crossed, some people are burdened more than others. It's dishonest to claim any different.


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