Comedy serves as a fascinating yet controversial area of analysis in sociology. The way comedic performances frame sensitive subjects such as racism, sexism, and classism tell us much about society and about ourselves as viewers. In many instances, comedians seek to make their audience laugh through whatever means possible—including the use and reproduction of harmful stereotypes--in order to gain popularity and earn a living. However, in some cases comedians can serve as formidable weapons of cultural transformation because of their sanctioned authority to progressively debate even the most difficult topics. Accordingly, comedy has the potential to encourage audiences to critically think about why the joke made them uncomfortable and why they laughed at the joke. In analyzing humor from sociological perspective, it is important to consider what these jokes reveal about ourselves and our society. Using Sarah Silverman’s video, "I Love You More" (a.k.a. “Jewish People Driving German Cars”), this post considers what activist role comedians can serve in raising awareness about racism, and what, if any, boundaries should be drawn by comedians targeting race in their performances:
In this video, Sarah Silverman explores and critiques many different racial and ethnic stereotypes. She sings lines like “I love you more than Jews love money” and “I love you more than Asians are good at math.” To elaborate on one example, Silverman articulates that “Jewish people driving German cars” is similar to “Black guys calling each other niggers.” When the narrative cuts short to two deadpan African-American men, they stare at her in all seriousness and do not laugh at the comparison; the tension created from the scene is unsettling. For a moment, Silverman looks taken aback and frowns sheepishly, until one of the African-American men starts laughing and she, relieved, playfully pushes one of them and starts laughing again. Both men immediately stop laughing and stare unbelievably at her in silence. She nervously tries to laugh at the joke again, but this time they do not join in and continue to stare at her, showing that it isn’t funny to them for her to make a joke out of racism against their racial group, even though she also inhabits the identity of another historically oppressed group (she is Jewish). Silverman cuts off the video mid-laugh by turning her head to the camera while smiling and singing "Chachacha!"
While many people love Silverman's humor, it is not for everyone. But stay with me here; let’s unpack this to the degree that people do find it funny (and based on the YouTube comments, at least some people do). How should we interpret Silverman’s comedy and the role of her race and ethnicity in her performance? More broadly, how does the race or ethnicity of the comedian telling the joke affect our reception of the joke? Is it okay for black people to do racially prejudiced jokes about African-Americans, or wouldn’t that also be discriminatory of them to do so? Are there times when it is acceptable for dominant racial or ethnic groups to make jokes about racial minorities? To help us understand how humor functions and how audiences receive humor, we can draw upon a number of theories of humor.
First, according to relief theory, we find humor in taboo topics and “naughty” thoughts (Mulder and Nijolt 2002). This theory of humor is based in Freudian theory which sees such taboo subjects as creating a nervousness or “psychic energy,” which is released through laughter. This is especially the case when an individual has suppressed particular feelings, which are addressed in a comedic performance, and relieved through laughter. In our examples here, audiences are likely to recognize that the stereotypes presented in Silverman’s video are taboo or politically incorrect, and to the degree that they feel uncomfortable (which may be compounded if they partially accept the stereotypes but suppress their beliefs), this nervousness may be released through laughter. But this only suggests why we laugh, but not necessarily why we interpret the joke as humorous.
Second, incongruity theory posits that people laugh to release physical, mental, or emotional tension when there are incongruities (i.e. things that are perceived to be out of place or inconsistent in relation to the established social norms). From this perspective, humor may be seen as releasing anxiety and tension over incompatibility between the object that is being targeted and how the audience anticipates a different meaning. But given a range of possible audience perceptions, different audiences may identify different incongruities and thus experience humor for distinct reasons. In this case, the analysis hinges on identifying various incongruities, which I will pursue further below.
Third, Charles Gruner’s superiority theory helps further explain why and how people find certain jokes about race funny and others offensive. Superiority theory rests on the assumptions that “we laugh about the misfortunes of others [and] it reflects our own superiority” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3). It argues that “every humorous situation has a winner and a loser; incongruity is always present in a humorous situation; [and] humor requires an element of surprise” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3). From this perspective, humor is a means to “compete” with others and “the ‘winner’ is the one that successfully makes fun of the ‘loser’” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3). (Picture the bully making jokes about someone else to put them down.)
When we integrate incongruity theory with superiority theory, we might see some troubling consequences of jokes that play on stereotypes. In short, “the phenomenon of humor requires the participation of at least two parties: an object (probably incongruous) and an appreciator (probably feeling superior)” (Lyttle 2003). This joke becomes funny (for some audiences) because the objects made fun of by Silverman during the performance are black, Puerto-Ricans, gays and lesbians, and Jewish people. From this perspective the incongruity might lie in the unexpected juxtapositions of different stereotypes, their simultaneous juxtaposition to crude statements (e.g. “I love you more than dogs love balls”), her usage of a derogatory racial slur while members of that racial group are present and appear physically threatening, and the audience’s overall struggle to interpret her political incorrectness. In particular, the narrative gets progressively more incongruent as the tension escalates from her sense of entitlement to criticize other oppressed minority groups. While some audiences might feel offended, this humor may empower others to feel superior because they seemingly lack the negative traits of the stereotypes groups.
In extending superiority theory sociologically, we can further draw upon maintenance theory. Maintenance theory argues that comedians'
jokes maintain the established social roles and divisions within a society. They can strengthen roles within the family, within a working environment and everywhere there exists an in-group and out-group. When [ethnic] jokes are concerned, jokers choose groups very similar to theirs as the target of the joke only to focus on the mutual differences and in that way strengthen the established divisions between the two groups. (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 7)
Silverman’s humor supports this theory when she begins playing into an ethnic stereotype about Jewish people. She sings “I love you more than Jews love money” and then branches off into increasingly more offensive stereotypes about marginalized races and ethnicities, and gays and lesbians. The audience could perceive her as acknowledging some of the preconceived notions about her own ethnic groups only to establish that they are very different and separate from the preconceived cultural meanings attached other oppressed groups. This is accomplished by suggesting that her ethnic group has a sense of class-based superiority over these other groups.
If we interpret Silverman’s video through the lenses of superiority theory or maintenance theory, we should be highly critical of it. As the YouTube comments for the video illustrate, many viewers do indeed take her stereotypes at face-value and find humor in them. If this were the only interpretation, we should critique Silverman, as a white middle-class comedian, to tell jokes that draw so blatantly on stereotypes about other oppressed racial and ethnic groups. From these perspectives, her humor reproduces stereotypes and the power relationship that is built upon them. Many comedians and jokes rely on these very dynamics. However, these are not the only interpretations of Silverman’s humor in this context.
Rather, there is also a deeper, more critical incongruity in Silverman’s humor in this video. This incongruity is situated in how the objects (various racial and ethnic stereotypes) are positioned relative to one another in a way that actually challenges both the stereotypes and their usage by a white, middle-class comedian. The audience perceives a supposed ignorance in her usage of these stereotypes only to recognize that she is juxtaposing them in a critical manner. She produces dramatic irony that makes the audience sensitive to racial dilemmas raised in the performance. In short, one racial stereotype is like any other; they are gross oversimplifications that can be hurtful, but they do not affect all audiences in the same way (as exhibited by the reaction of African-Americans in the video). Or like Louis CK once said, “white people don’t get offended by being called crackers.” Here, Silverman is bringing attention both to the inappropriate usage of the stereotype as well as her usage of it as a white person.
For those viewers that acknowledge these subtleties, we can interpret her song as raising awareness about why it is not okay for those who benefit from white or class privilege to use racial slurs or make racist comments. By introducing the African-American men in the skit, she holds the mirror up to herself and uses the tense, but humorous, moment to critique her own use of stereotypes. When the skit ends with a harsh realization that the comedian did not have the right to criticize the misfortune of these groups in the first place, the joke serves as a useful tool to unpack the sense of entitlement that white privilege bestows upon certain comedians, including Silverman. From this perspective, the tension is resolved only when the audience realizes through Silverman’s interaction with the two African-American men that it is her and her white privilege that should be made fun of. If we accept this interpretation, we might see her witty humor as exposing her own white privilege.
I leave it up to the reader to determine which of these theories of humor is appropriate for interpreting the video of Sarah Silverman, a white upper-middle class, female, Jewish comedian. Again, when we look at the YouTube comments for the video, I believe we find evidence that viewers draw upon all these interpretations (and more). But the broader questions about the role of race in humor, and the quality of that humor, still do not end there. Even if we accept her humor as an attempt to expose white privilege, is it acceptable that she uses such blatant and derogatory racial slurs to so? As noted on Jezebel, perhaps comedians must actually come from the marginalized position to claim to speak on behalf of them, or perhaps “if you need to rely on jarring, abominable and offensive words, you're probably not that funny” anyway.
Elizabeth Dickson is a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she is double-majoring in Psychology and Sociology.