“You’ve heard the old saying: Once you go black, you’re a single mother.”
This is a racist statement, right?
By any social standards, to say this would be completely unacceptable, but when it’s said to a room filled with thousands of people from all different ethnicities, it’s met with near-deafening laughter.
Why? Because when Skippy Simon says it onstage, it’s comedy, not racism. Somewhere amongst the black jokes and fake Asian accents, comedians have managed to turn the stage into a safe place for prejudice.
Blatant ethnic discrimination in everyday society may be diminishing, but it seems that the use of racially charged humour has been on the rise. With nearly every mainstream comedian — from Louis C.K. to Canadian standup Gerry Dee — perpetuating ethnic stereotypes in their sets seemingly without consequence, the question must be asked: is it still considered racist if we’re calling it comedy?
“I talk about race in my set, but I don’t have any jokes that are necessarily racist,” says Christian comedian Daniel Woodrow. “If you talk about it tastefully and you talk about it right, it can be done.”
Woodrow says Michael Richards, the comedian who played Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld, is an example of racial comedy gone wrong.
During that now-infamous 2006 set at West Hollywood’s The Laugh Factory, the Seinfeld actor was interrupted by an audience member who heckled his already racially motivated dialogue. Richards then singled out the heckler and barraged him with a series of racial slurs, going as far as calling him the n-word while suggesting he would have been a slave 50 years ago.
“He was trying to be funny, but he crossed that line. I genuinely don’t think he has those views, but he started using derogatory language out of anger and ended up nearly ending his career,” says Woodrow.
The shocking part about standup isn’t when the audience gets offended. It’s how infrequently they actually are offended.
Race in comedy isn’t exactly a recent development: humour looking to make a satire of racial stereotypes has been a reoccurring theme in comedy clubs since the stages were first built. For years, comedians like Richard Pryor and Kevin Hart seem to have been casually using the n-word in the forefront of their acts in an attempt to re-claim the word. But it’s debatable as to whether doing so is helping diminish the power of racist words, or simply adding fuel to the fire.
“You can say more on stage than you could say to someone just walking by on the street. There is a little bit more grace,” says Woodrow. “But people do still get offended. There are a lot of race and sexual issues in the world, and you have to respect that. It stops becoming funny when you start breaking social standards. Comedians who aren’t aware of that are the ones who insult their crowds.”
Woodrow’s outlook is anything but biased. As a half-black, half-white 26-year-old comedian who was raised by two white parents in a prominently Christian home, his background greatly influences his view on racial humour.
“I make white jokes and I don’t find them racist because white people have never been a minority,” says Woodrow. “White jokes are far more accepted than black jokes because white people have never been the victim; they’ve never had a history of hardships. Poking at someone’s white guilt is far more acceptable than picking on a minority, because there’s no real grounds for white people to be offended. That’s why people find it funny.”
And judging by the growing popularity of targeting white people as the punchline in humour, he might be right.
The 2008 book Stuff White People Like contains 224 pages of stereotypical white person behaviour and interests. Although the book, born from the popular blog of the same name, generated acute controversy with its debut, it still managed to stay on the New York Times best sellers list for six weeks.
“You can talk about any race you want and make it either racist or not racist; the only difference is your intention,” says Patrick Stewart, a comedy writing and performance student at Humber College in Toronto.
“Racism is rooted in hate, but proper comedy is done with good heart and good will. Comedians take those dark subjects like race and sexual issues and talk about them in a way that takes away their power,” says Stewart.
Comedians seem to have the mentality that anyone is fair game as long as you keep the game fair. Racial humour has become a cornerstone in the comedy world, and the industry has developed its own heedful understanding of the difference between an acceptable punch line and a racial slur.
But a comedian doesn’t have a set without an audience to laugh along. Although comedians have the power to bring voice to racism in popular culture, the audience has the bigger responsibility to call racism for what it is.
Flickr photo (cc) by CleftClips