Originally posted on TheGrio
Last year saw the airing of the 62nd annual prime time Emmy awards. The critically-acclaimed comedy 30 Rock was nominated for "Best Comedy Series" for the fourth time in as many years (it was unseated from its throne by the new series Modern Family). The increasingly popular show features the talents of Emmy winners Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and nominee Tracy Morgan, who portrays a character known as Tracy Jordan, a rich black comedian known as much for his childish antics as his broad comedic abilities.
In this setting, Jordan is used as a satirical look at black actors/comedians and their behavior in the white-dominated entertainment industry. He often complains of racism, indulges in debaucherous behavior with strippers, and is accused of fathering children out of wedlock, among other things. The character has been simultaneously criticized and praised--at times being written off as another stereotypical representation of black men and a brilliant use of satire to observe and send up the way Hollywood views and treats black celebrities.
With 30 Rock entering its fifth season, I think about the Tracy Jordan character and its longevity in comparison to other popular satirical representations of black life, namely Chappelle's Show, which went off the air after two seasons, and the recently wrapped animated series The Boondocks, which managed to last three. I have to wonder if the Jordan character can maintain its freshness, humor, and bite or will it meet an early demise like that of its satirical brethren. And that leads me to the larger question: is black satire built to last?
Consider Chappelle's Show. After two hugely successful seasons which propelled Dave Chappelle to "funniest man in America" status and set records with the DVD sales. But with a new $50 million contract in hand for the production of a third season, Chappelle bolted without warning, taking a highly publicized and rumor laden trip to South Africa. In his first interview after returning stateside, Chappelle spoke to Oprah about his decision to quit the show. Part of his reasoning was that during the filming of a sketch in which faeries encouraged various people of different ethnic groups to participate in stereotypical behavior, Chappelle noticed a white crew member laughing in a way that made the comedian uncomfortable. He said it was at that moment he felt he was doing something "socially irresponsible" with his art.
Dave Chappelle as Tron Carter. Find an analysis of this clip here.
But Chappelle wasn't doing anything different than what his prior work would suggest. The difference, as William Jelani Cobb, a professor of history at Spelman College and author of the recent book The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, noted in his 2006 essay "The Devil and Dave Chappelle" was the audience. Where the first two seasons spoke to an audience that was "in on the joke", the audience that tuned in after the infamous Rick James parody was a bit less savvy and aware of Chappelle's intent in using satire. Where the original audience could appreciate the nuance and sociopolitical underpinnings of the "Black Bush" sketch in which Chappelle imagines the backlash that would be received had former President George W. Bush been black, the new audience seemed to only respond to his less intellectual work. And rather than play into that and become the very thing that he was attempting to skewer, Chappelle left.
In contrast, The Boondocks, seemed to overstay its welcome in fall into the exact trap that Chappelle consciously avoided. Noted scholar R. L'Heureux Lewis, a professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York, says "Black satire is one of the most complex forms of social commentary and the first two seasons of The Boondocks added to a long legacy of black satire," but adds that the third season "sacrificed the multi-layered appeal of satire for fast laughs."
For me, The Boondocks started losing its appeal during the second season, when I could notice a shift in focus from the stories centered around the Huey character, pre-teen revolutionary in the making who often served as the show's moral center, to the periphery characters such as the self-hating Uncle Ruckus who often voiced harsh critiques of the black community in ways that would make Bill Cosby blush. The show was losing its satirical edge, in my eyes, in favor of cheap laughs that, as Lewis says, "leave the masses laughing but seldom questioning."
Many fans felt dismayed with the way in which the third and final season played out. Writer Roland Laird seemed to disagree with this sentiment, however, writing for Popmatters.com: "This ability to sharply comment on race and society while at the same time poking fun at black and white people is part and parcel of the subversive comic tradition." Laird is entitled to his opinion, of course, but I think something huge was missing from that season. "Satire has a purpose. It's not only to bring light to the absurd, it's also to turn it on its ear in order to show the correct order," says writer and pop-culture critic Bassey Ikpi, "What McGruder did this season was highlight the absurd and then become part of it."
McGruder seemed to have left the realm of satire in favor of ridicule, denigration, and contempt for the consumers of his show. "I think satire is often what people do to folk with more power or status than them," Cobb says, and McGruder stopped tuning the great deal his attention to those in power and projected it on those he essentially saw as less sophisticated than himself. The result appealed to certain people looking for a laugh at any expense, but for viewers like myself who appreciated the cartoon for its ability to provide keen insight into the sticky fields of race, culture, and politics, it no longer suited our sensibilities.
The shared thread between Chappelle and McGruder is that, essentially, the satire became too much. Whether the fault of the audience or the ability of the artists, their shows burned brightly for a brief period and bowed out, possibly before they had a chance to fulfill their potential. With only two an three seasons to their credit, respectively, their short-lived statuses make me wonder how Tracy Jordan has managed to escape that fate and remain interesting and entertaining for at least four years.
"Tracy Morgan does a brilliant job as this composite of black comedians," Ikpi says, "so much so that you are often surprised and pleased when you spot it." The key has been building a character that is as complex as the black community itself. Jordan plays on stereotypes, defies them, creates new ones, dismantles that identity, and starts all over. Where he was once played a millionaire playboy, he's now a devoted family man who wishes to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (referred to as the "EGOT"). He becomes equally as known for his raunchy comedic offerings as his role as a father. The writers have avoided playing him as one-note, and so far it has worked.
Black satire will likely always be an arduous undertaking and require a certain sensitivity and deft craftsmanship. "Satire works in part by taking a real trait and exaggerating it," Cobb says, "But what do you with black folk whose culture and ways have already been elasticized and exaggerated before you even start with the joke?"
My guess is, we'll just have to play it by ear and enjoy a few laughs along the way.
Mychal Denzel Smith
Stand-up comedians exercise a curious privilege, which allows them to peddle controversial conclusions and uncomfortable insights without suffering the usual scorn and admonishment that comes with challenging systems of power. The comedian's stage seems to be a space that has been engineered for bringing indelicate knowledge about the world to the surface. For instance, the suggestion that Americans are deeply divided by race and class usually causes people to fidget, yet Chris Rock was greeted with laughter and applause when he unabashedly criticized the racialized wealth gap in the United States during one of his performances in Washington DC. Similarly, Louis C.K. received a rousing applause when he discussed his privilege as a white male, and Hari Kondabolu made an entire room burst into laughter by exposing the nonsensical logic underlying stereotypes aimed at Mexican immigrants.
Unfortunately, as with superheroes who use their powers for evil, not all comedians use the stage as a venue for delivering social criticisms aimed at exposing injustice. For instance, comedy is just as likely to reinforce stereotypes as it is to criticize them, or to put it differently, the comedian's stage is just as likely to be a place where knowledge is "indelicate" because it is racist as it to be a place where knowledge is indelicate because it is critical of racism.
Consider Jeff Dunham's ventriloquial act featuring his popular dummy, "Achmed the Dead Terrorist." In the clip below, which is taken from a 2007 performance in Washington DC, Dunham draws upon a number of stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, many of which have been around since well before the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Dunham is not deploying social criticism, but is instead uncritically drawing on racist representations for laughs. He is also reasserting and promoting what is by now a worn panoply of orientalist associations. Arabs and Muslims, like the Achmed character, are typically portrayed as religious fanatics. They are often depicted as irrationally angry, and many are self-proclaimed terrorists. But if they are dangerous, they are dangerous buffoons and are often too incompetent to pull off their own deadly plots.
In this way, stand-up comedians can be understood as articulators of knowledge about the world. As I have argued, they contribute to the persistence of stereotypes at times, but they can also articulate convincing arguments against stereotypes. But what is true of stand-up comedy seems to hold for other types of comedic performance as well. Political cartoons, comedy sketches, and even situation comedies all peddle this indelicate knowledge about the racialized other. In "Ali-Baba Bound," a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1940, Porky Pig runs up against Ali-Baba and his "Dirty Sleeves." The humor is constructed around a basic scaffolding of the Arab as dirty and sneaky. Ali-Baba's Arab underlings in the cartoon are depicted as too primitive to competently use rockets and must must run as suicide bombers toward a colonial fort with explosives strapped to their heads.
The articulation and reinforcement of Arabs as buffoons or Muslims as extremists, the elevation of these images above others as iconic representations ironically limits the field of vision. But shortly after 1940, events would transpire so that for a time Arabs and Muslims occupied a relatively small sliver of American concern. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor the following year ignited a discursive explosion surrounding the Japanese, both those living in American neighborhoods and abroad. It is striking how eerily similar representations of Japanese persons were to those claimed for Arabs and Muslims. However, fed by photographed destruction of Pearl Harbor and the tangible realities associated with the American war machine shifted back into high gear, dominant representations of the treacherous Japanese other went further and faster. Each representation of the "Jap" became more and more fanciful; each illustration seemingly emboldened by the last to push the caricature even further.
"Waiting for the Signal from Home..." Dr. Seuss. February 13, 1942
Celebrated children's author, Dr. Seuss, published a cartoon only weeks before the United States would forcibly relocate 120,000 ethnic Japanese persons living in the United States to internment camps. The cartoon depicts a buck-toothed, fifth column of Japanese Americans lining up from Washington to California for their very own box of TNT. A man with a monocular scales the rooftop of the explosives depot "waiting for the signal from home." Or consider a Looney Tunes cartoon from the period, which is named "Tokio Jokio" and similarly claims buck teeth and buffoonish behavior for all Japanese persons on the planet.
The cartoon elaborates upon many of the typical stereotypes associated with Japanese persons but unlike the Dr. Seuss cartoon, the attempt at humor is harder to miss. Whereas the Seuss cartoon reverberates extant fears about a treacherous Japanese enemy living among us, the Looney Tunes cartoon lampoons them as bumbling idiots. In the Seuss cartoon, their tribal-like loyalties to the Emperor mean they are capable of doing just about anything, but in the Looney Tunes cartoon they are too incompetent to prevent their own Fire Prevention Headquarters from burning to the ground. Such seemingly contradictory representations permeated the American imagination of the time, alternately stoking anxieties while assuring Americans of their national and even racial superiority.
These racist representations aimed at the Japanese were not buried by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japanese cities. Just as before the Second World War, they have proven to be free-floating to a degree and transferable to our emergent enemies. Today, Arabs and Muslims are routinely depicted in popular cinema as incompetent. In our comedy, they are again the bumbling idiots, simultaneously too stupid to successfully perpetrate an attack against us and just stupid enough to commit truly heinous crimes. What was an imagined fifth column, has become the terrorist sleeper cell. In 1942 we feared Japanese Americans were blindly loyal to "their" Emperor. Today we are bombarded with ideas about the tribal loyalties of American Muslims. So powerful are these loyalties, it is often suggested, Muslims would happily kill themselves to bring about the demise of Western civilization. The fanatical Middle Eastern suicide bomber is the new banzai charger and Japanese Kamikazi pilot.
There is a joke that is now getting tossed around the internet, and it goes something like this, "A friend of mine has started a new business. He is manufacturing land mines that look like prayer mats. It's doing well. He says prophets are going through the roof." What this joke, Dunham's comedy sketch, and the Looney Tunes cartoon all share is that they mark historical moments when the racialized other became so thoroughly demonized and devalued in the public consciousness, our undifferentiated Arab "enemies" became so feared for their treachery and immorality that it became possible to make light of hypothetical and real violence perpetrated against them. What does it say about a people when they find it possible to laugh at a joke about a human detonating a bomb which is strapped to his body? One might speculate that it is strangely intoxicating to spot the boogieman tripping on his shoelaces, embarrassing himself, or dying by his own venom. The Achmed character's tired threat, "I kill you!" is funny, perhaps because his voice cracks like a thirteen-year-old boy, and we are entertained by the irony that someone so evil could appear so weak. "Look at the Muslim boogieman acting so foolishly!" we seem to be saying through our laughter.
Of course Arabs and Muslims are not born evil; the boogieman is a creature that gets created in the accounts of what might happen if the nation ceases being vigilant. But the larger point I am arguing is that comedy, which uncritically trades in the negative stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Muslims and is able to make an audience pop with laughter with references to suicide bombing, is only possible because Arabs and Muslims have been successfully demonized and devalued. Comedians write jokes to get laughs, but as I mentioned at the outset, they also operate from a space which grants them temporary license to openly discuss controversial ideas. Comedians contribute to the discourse, just as readily they respond to it, and their sets are just as capable of exposing hidden discrimination as reinforcing it. This is important to consider because what is at stake here is the differential valuing of human life, and the way representations are organized to aid in that horrific project.
Perhaps five hundred years from now, when historians are able to look back on this moment, freed from the myopic principles of vision and division that currently ensnare us, I wonder if they will find it ironic that during this zenith of global information flows, a time when information about the intimate lives of people in distant lands so easily zipped across the planet, Americans persisted in holding fast to such gross generalizations. And if those historians archive the media which depicts the moral panic of these decades, they would do well to note what made us laugh.
Originally published by RH Reality Check.
I saw this video Tuesday evening when a friend posted it on her tumblr page. There was a trigger warning regarding suicide, violence, and bullying. I wanted to share this video because I did not know what to expect while watching and when the video was over I was stunned. Not just with the messaging and representations, but in the possibilities of using this video in a classroom or youth group. Please watch the video below. I’ve posted a few ideas I have on how to use this video, please share some ideas and suggestions you may have!
There are so many ways to use this video with youth. I wanted to share and hope others want to add how they may use this video as well or what discussions you may envision having.
I’d first start by introducing the video. This may require some background of the artist Marsha Ambrosius, who is the other half of the R&B duo Floetry. They reached a height in mainstream popularity in 2002-2003. This is important to keep in mind, as some youth may not know who the artist is because of this time period.
Discussions of Bullying
I’m not sure if the concept of “bullying” would connect clearly with some viewers. It may be that some youth and other folks may view the experiences presented as intra-racial violence and not only bullying. There may also be a connection between bullying and age. Some may view the men in the video as adult males who may be too old to experience bullying in the ways we’ve heard about it in the past several months. This may lead to some interesting dialogue about how bullying can be considered an age-specific experience.
Conversations about masculinity and how it is connected to gender, race, ethnicity, age, geographic location, and ability (to name a few) will also be important. How are racially Black men living in the US expected to present themselves? How was Black masculinity represented in this video (make a list of all the forms of masculinity and Blackness seen, for example clothing, forms of affection, solidarity, etc.). Were there attempts at defending masculinity? How is intra-racial violence affecting our community? (this may be a good opportunity to have information about intra-racial violence as connected to various forms of violence from rape to murder). What could some community responses to violence look like in this situation/scenario?
Discussions on Men of Color & Same Gender Relationships
I’d make it clear that this is NOT a “down low” relationship. Both men have publicly been together and showing affection for and with one another. Living in NYC where the anti-homophobia campaign “I Love My Boo” began in October 2010, representations of men of Color in same gender relationships remain limited (see some of the images here). I have not seen in mainstream popular culture such images since Noah’s Arc (which I’m still recovering from it’s absence in my life) and the film that was released in select theaters in 2008, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom.
The phrase “alternative Lifestyles” is the one thing I have an issue with in this video. My opinion is that this term assumes there is a choice in how people are living and I believe that we do not choose our sexual orientation. I came to this space while working as an intern at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) over a decade ago. GLAAD has a great Media Reference Guide that has a section on offensive and problematic phrases/words to avoid and “lifestyle” is included with this discussion:
Offensive: "gay lifestyle" or "homosexual lifestyle"
Preferred: "gay lives," "gay and lesbian lives"
There is no single lesbian, gay or bisexual lifestyle. Lesbians, gay men
and bisexuals are diverse in the ways they lead their lives. The phrase
"gay lifestyle" is used to denigrate lesbians and gay men, suggesting that
their orientation is a choice and therefore can and should be "cured"
In the beginning of the video the viewer may assume that there is a heterosexual relationship until there is affection in a specific way shown among two men of Color. This would be a useful time to discuss how we assume heterosexuality often, how heterosexuality is seen as a “norm” in our society, and what that does to all of us, not just people who do not identify as heterosexual. Here is a good article about heterosexual privilege and a checklist that may be useful for this conversation.
These are a few things that immediately come to mind and I’m hoping that others will share some of their own. I know over the next several days as I think about this video I’ll come up with more ideas and possibilities. Thanks in advance for all of you who share!
Bianca I. Laureano