Race in Comedy: Ironic or just racist?

Originally published Aug 2, 2012

I’ve noticed a greater tendency in modern mainstream comedy to attempt to ironically co-opt racist stereotypes. Ideally this type of race comedy can combat racist ideas by laughing at the absurdity of the stereotype and those who believe them and not the stereotype itself. This is a difficult line to walk and it seems it’s done wrong more often that it’s done right. The end result is problematic: many mainstream comedies may end up unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes instead of deconstructing them.

The Usual Suspects

Family Guy, for instance, routinely revels in race-based humor. Most of that boils down to creator Seth MacFarlane’s “shock-and-awe” style of comedy—we’re talking about a show with a gay baby that routinely flirts with the family dog, after all. But we can make a distinction here: MacFarlane’s clearly not advocating pedophilia or validating such ideas with those jokes. On the other hand, racist caricatures like Consuela the cleaning lady might actually validate the lingering racism of some viewers—in fact it seems it seeks to. After all, the Consuela joke seems to work only if the viewer can buy in to the concept and relate – “Hey, don’t you guys know a Mexican lady like this?” At this point, we’ve taken a step past simple black humor and into minstrelsy, haven’t we?

Family Guy is such an outrageous show, I feel I should normalize the argument with other examples. One that easily comes to mind is the recurring gag in the Hangover movies involving the Asian gangster Mr. Chow’s tiny penis. To belabor the point in the second movie, there’s an extended shot of the penis, which is briefly mistaken for a mushroom that Zack Galifianakis tries to eat. Hilarious. Are we making fun of the small-dick Asian stereotype or reinforcing it? When you consider Hollywood’s long-standing unwillingness to cast Asians as leading men (and when they do, they never get the girl — even when it’s Bruce Lee!) this stereotype of immasculine Asian males isn’t that funny. Before you argue that Ken Jeong being in on the joke robs it of its racist power, I’d counter that it might, in fact, have the opposite effect.

Another example is the lesser-known G4TV show Code Monkeys, an 8-bit animated show about programmers working for a video game company. The show featured a token black character “ironically” named Black Steve. Black Steve is angry, foul-mouthed and hates white people, but in a way that’s comical and non-threatening—after all, Steve seems to be the only smart person in the office. But I don’t understand who Black Steve is for. I don’t think I’m supposed to relate to him. He just seems like an inside joke for white people.  Similar caricatures of blacks have popped up in movies like The Sitter, prompting me to wonder who this humor is aimed at since, as a black person, I don’t feel “in” on the joke.

Walking the Line

It’s tough to walk the line between making fun of stereotypes and perpetuating them – just ask Dave Chappelle. Chappelle’s Show had cutting edge sketches (like a favorite of mine that parodies MTV’s The Real World by having a white frat boy move in with a bunch of rowdy blacks who end shanking his father and sleeping with his blonde girlfriend). The sketch draws attention to the irrational fears that drive the willingness to believe such stereotypes to begin with. Stereotypes say a lot about the people that conceive and believe them, a fact cleverly illustrated by some Chapelle’s Show sketches. Still, Chapelle himself began to wonder if audiences were laughing at him rather than with him and ultimately walked away from the show when he noticed fans would parrot quotes like “I’m Rick James, bitch!” while missing the larger points of his comedy.

It is possible to do racial and ethnic humor well without pulling punches. In its heydey, In Living Color did it quite well. The more recent Little Britain USA cleverly explores both American and English stereotypes and has plenty of bite. Strangely enough, both Seth MacFarlane and Adam de la Peña (co-creator of Code Monkeys) have shown to be capable of more thoughtful race humor in their other projects, American Dad and MinoriTeam respectively.

What’s the big deal? It’s all in fun, isn’t it?

Perhaps part of the problem is that creators of these shows mistakenly assume we live in a post-racial society and that these stereotypes no longer have any real power. Unfortunately, the evidence disproving this is everywhere.  I also notice that in the backlash against political correctness, many comedians, including lefties like Bill Maher, have proudly embraced some racist conceits in the name of speaking “the truth”. This precisely is the danger of stereotypes: they are easy to believe because they are chauvinist and self-aggrandizing. Maher openly perpetuates a stereotype of Muslims as backwards women-hating zealots because it makes his own culture seem superior by comparison. This is a conceit held by many Americans, including some would-be progressives. Willingness to believe this stereotype undermines a conversation about America’s own struggles with feminism when compared to more progressive Muslim nations.

My point here is not to allege that the creators of these shows are racist or anything remotely inflammatory as that. My point is just to insist that we ask a little more from mainstream entertainment. Classically, our most fondly thought-of humorists didn’t seek merely to offend; they challenged conventional ideas and offended as a byproduct. I want to make it clear that the likelihood of offending minorities with these jokes isn’t the problem—stereotypes do actual harm to everyone. For example, no one pays attention to the majority of Asian drivers they encounter who drive well (or the non-Asians that drive poorly) but when they encounter an Asian making a driving error it validates the “conventional wisdom” that they all drive poorly.  This stereotype and many much more harmful ones are dangerous because, over time, they morph into something that is taken for granted as fact or common sense. Willingness to believe nonsense makes us all dumber.  Comedians can do their part by challenging us to think a little more.


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