Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Friends and foes: On race and comedy

I've seen a few comments here and there about race and humour, following the video that went viral of Brett Eidman getting punched out for racially taunting Asian audience members under the guise of comedy. It's an issue that regularly comes up whenever a comedian or other celebrity says something about race: why do some people get away with race-based jokes and others don't? Why does someone like Eidman catch a beating for making fun of a particular race, while the likes of Dave Chappelle and Russell Peters have made a very lucrative living out of it?

I've written on this matter before, but I have a little more to add.

I should first state that even the likes of Chappelle, Peters and others who do it well can still cross the line sometimes, so we shouldn't look at this in overly simplistic terms. But overall, there is a difference between them and someone like Eidman, or like Michael Richards in the rant at black people that so severely damaged his reputation.

For the most part, the good guys play with the stereotypes rather than just regurgitate them; their comedy involves a degree of intelligence; they do not display contempt for the race they are making fun of; and most importantly, they are actually funny.

To a large extent, it comes down to whether the comedian comes across as a friend or a foe.

What does that mean? Think of Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, who routinely make fun of both black people and white people, and most everyone else for that matter. But rarely if ever would a reasonable person conclude from their jokes that they don't like any of those races. Which is perhaps why their fanbase extends well beyond the black community. Likewise, Russell Peters has based his career almost entirely on ethnic stereotypes, and is perhaps best known for routines poking fun at Chinese people. Yet you will always find Chinese people in his audience.

Peters, to a certain extent, gets Chinese culture and Chinese people, at least more than the average non-Chinese observer. His riffs on the Chinese go beyond the lazy stereotypes that have been done to death. He does accents well enough that it's obvious that he has studied their nuances rather than just the superficial. It's pretty clear that Peters has hung out with a lot of Chinese people (and most everyone else he pokes fun at) and views them with respect. He is a "friend".

Other comedians, however, seem like foes. Using Brett Eidman as the obvious example, there is no love or respect for Asian people in his repulsive "Dom Fok" character. Slanty-eye glasses and a dumb "ching chong Chinaman" accent suggest contempt for Asians, as does repeating stupid, played-out lines like "Me love you long time" and "Me so horny". He comes across like a schoolyard bully, taunting someone just because they look different.

Friends can poke fun at each other about their race and culture, and for the most part it's okay because you know that joking aside, the friend still respects you and what you are. That's an entirely different thing from being a bully.

Knowing where that line is is a hard thing to know, of course. It's one reason why conservatives often don't seem to get why the likes of Rush Limbaugh is routinely branded a racist for his racial jokes, when more left-leaning comedians are let off the hook.

Check this clip of Rich Vos talking to a primarily black crowd. He's doing something lesser comedians wouldn't get away with - making fun of black people, as a group, to their faces. He's actually doing something very clever - he is making fun of black comics who make fun of white people, yet is indirectly making fun of black people in general. And apart from one dumb heckler, the crowd are on his side, and even seem to appreciate the balls it takes to say what he is saying. Why? Perhaps because it feels like there is an affection behind his poking fun, his execution is so smart. And he's funny. Being genuinely funny can help you get away with a lot.


  1. Good post, ES.

    I think that it's not just a matter of friend versus foe, but also insider versus outsider.

    This applies not just to racial comedy, but any general criticism directed at a group.

    For example, someone like Bill Cosby can denounce inner city black pathologies, and a few Michael Eric Dyson types notwithstanding, have his message well received by a large number of black Americans. But Bill Cosby is black, originally from the ghetto, and isn't one of those bought and paid for black conservatives, so his message has more credibility.

    However, if a white conservative were to say the same things Cosby said, it would come across as racist bullying from a hostile outsider, who couldn't possibly relate to their experience.

    People in general don't respond well to hostile criticism from outsiders. This in part explains the frustration you occasionally see expressed by anti-racists. "Why won't white people talk about racism?" "Why won't they listen?"

    Well, again, white people, like people in general, do not respond well to haranguing and criticism coming from hostile outsiders. Especially when they're told, in a semi-authoritarian manner, that they're supposed to just sit down, shut up, and take it.

    And, since this post is about comedy, I think this is the reason why white people will accept black comedians such as Chris Rock, but not a black comedian such as Paul Mooney.

    Chris Rock does indeed make fun of white people, but he kind of does it in a playful manner. Even I of all people find some of his white jokes funny.

    Paul Mooney, on the other hand, comes across as very hostile and bitter towards whites, and sounds like he belongs more at a Nation of Islam rally than a comedy club.

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