The problem with post-race comedy

Comics have power, especially over the young, and perhaps more than we care to acknowledge.

Image credit Marta Tveit.

I am a melanin-rich lady, and the other day my (very) young friend turned to me and went: “I cut myself, I need some cotton. Could you go pick some for me?” I thought: Did a Norwegian child just call me a field slave? I just stared at him. At that age all they want is a reaction, any reaction, rage, sadness, whatever. My poker-face, therefore, made him nervous, and he began defending himself. It was an argument I have heard many times before: “That’s what black rappers and comedians call each other and stuff! Like, ‘cotton-picking ass n*gga’. it’s just for fun! We’ve got to be able to joke about everything. You can’t get mad, I’m brown too!”

Post-race giggles

My young friend is half-Palestinian, half north-Norwegian. He goes around calling himself Sami the Sand N*gga. When I was young, I would also crack jokes about the color of my skin all the time, encouraging those around me to do it as well, making it “safe.”

Here in Norway, one of the most progressive, well-adjusted countries in the world, race-jokes are becoming quite meta, or post-… something. Cracking a race joke is like saying “our millennial generation is so post-everything, we know about history, we are so down with human rights and what not that we can allow ourselves to go around calling each other dirty Jew and potato (a Norwegian slur for white people) and sand n*gga.” A new wave of post-modernism, just look at how crazy memes have become, increasingly detaching signifiers from their old meanings and laying them out side by side to dry in the sun.

But even while on this meta-wave, joking about my color never felt quite right. As I got older, I began to ask myself who I was doing it for; it wasn’t necessary, and I didn’t really need it to fit in, so why was I still doing it? For my closest friends, I think it was quite obvious that my slightly manic “black humor” came from my own insecurity about being dark-skinned in predominantly white spaces. Not as funny when you see it like that.

Like my young friend, I’ll hear people say: “I love comedian so-and-so, he talks about everything man, just says it like it is! NO LIMITS!”

These types of statements are strikingly similar to people describing why they voted for Donald Trump. I wondered if having no filter really is such a good thing.

Of course, an entertainer has to be able to speak the language of the audience. But there are smarter ways of doing it without basing your show solely on stereotypes for instance. Comics have power, especially over the young, and perhaps more than we care to acknowledge.

Dancing monkey comedy

There is a certain type of comedy I like to call “Dancing Monkey Comedy.” Old school, based solely on racial fault lines and stereotypes, which is just a tiny step up from the minstrel show. The subtext to the minstrel show was “Look! Fake black people! Hilarious!” In modern Dancing Monkey Comedy, the underlying subtext is: “Look at me! I’m a black man! Black people are known for doing certain things! Isn’t that hilarious?”

It must be extra challenging being an entertainer of color in a predominantly white space. It is difficult to strike the balance between laughing at everything and maintaining self-respect. When I was cracking jokes based on my color, the laughs would switch at some point; at first my white friends would join in because I initiated it, and suddenly it was just a bunch of white kids pointing and laughing at the black girl for being black. What happened, we were supposed to be so “meta?”

I felt like I had to keep it going, keep making black jokes, I’d painted myself into a sad-clown corner.

I recently heard a successful young comedian, Jonis Josef, talk about being a black comic in Norway. He described how he came to fame by basing his sets solely on Somali stereotypes and black jokes. Things were good, until he toured the provinces up in the very north of Norway. There people laughed just a little too hard. He experienced what it meant to walk the fine line between being laughed with and laughed at. Being part of the woke post-everything millennial generation, he had made some assumptions that clearly did not apply here. He felt like he had dragged his family and entire culture through the mud. And for what? For kicks? To entertain white people? The experience sent him spiraling. For a whole year after that, he refused to mention his background or color, talking about anything else on stage, traffic lights, audience members, whatever. But that felt wrong as well, after all creators draw material from what they know. Now he does get personal, but in a very different way.

Being a black comic in a predominantly white space is a difficult role to play also because of the responsibility inherent in being one of few role models for minority youngsters. The kids are hanging on your every word, Jonis, watch your step. They are learning from you how to talk about minority culture, race and their own space in this society. Entertainers, rappers and comics and the like, are telling young people of color how to feel about themselves in between those lines they spit.

“I can say that, I’m black!”

What really makes my blood boil is when people of color, especially comics, legitimize whatever they are saying by referring to their skin color. That act in itself sets us all back, by making skin color more than skin color, by strengthening and re-entrenching racial essentialism. And young people, children, like my friend, are watching very carefully. They will crack jokes about slavery, Africa, whatever, and end by saying “it’s okay I’m black.” The color of your skin does not qualify you for anything other than buying special skincare products my friend. Imagine how absurd it would be if a white comedian held a set completely denying the holocaust or something and ended by saying “It’s okay, I’m white!” It’s cowardly and it’s a cop-out.

We’ve got to joke about everything.

Like when girls go around calling each other sluts, bitches and whores, “but like, in a fun way.” In the same way that frequent use of the n-word does its part to keep racial essentialism alive, those type of words do their part to promote a reductionist view on women, even if the intention behind using such words is good and can feel empowering in the moment.

The problem is we are keeping historically-charged words alive when we don’t need to. Why? We don’t need to do that. Let it die. Just let it die already. Like when I was making jokes about the color of my skin; it came from a place of insecurity. That has never been a good starting point for well-crafted humor. Let it die. The world is full of funny things, leave horrible words from the past in the past.

We are keeping dead words, with all their connotations, artificially alive. I call them zombie-words because language is not set in stone. Language is dynamic and everyday conversation is among other things instructional. We are continually teaching each other how to talk to one another, what is acceptable and not, what is funny.

It is nearly impossible to separate a word that has such strong historical meanings from its history and connotations. A zombie-word, kept alive with good intentions, yet reeking of a horrible past, still creepy, never quite as good as a real solid new word.

Power to everyday people

I am not saying we shouldn’t talk about difficult subjects or ever mention race. But everything is context. I would like to read an academic article, but would not perhaps like to go to a full night’s stand-up show about female genital mutilation. I’m not saying this type of show should be illegal, we have free speech. Some people might get mad, but that’s the whole point, right?.. To get any reaction, no matter what it is? If it is really true that the more shocking the funnier, if shock-factor is the only criterion for good entertainment, then FGM-Extravaganza Night would be a hit.

It appears to me that female comics competing in a male dominated world, seem to often rely on “the shock effect,” saying vulgar or outrageous things in order to have impact and not be forgettable. Women are taking on the shock factor, trying to compete in a male dominated world. Chafing jokes all damn day (that’s you Amy Schumer), but it’s so painfully crude. Get into the craftwomanship of it, step it up. 2 Dope Queens are lifting up black female voices, in a way that you start to forget that they are black and female and you just hear stories, voices. Isn’t that the whole idea? To move beyond?

And don’t give me that “Shucks, you can’t joke about anything nowadays,” and go hide in your Reddit stream. My favorite comedian, Gareth Reynolds, A writer on Comedy Central and co-host of history podcast The Dollop, has never in his life cracked a joke based on the premise: “Black people are fundamentally different and that is hilarious.” And he is certified funny.

You see creatives like Donald Glover, challenging the old ways of approaching race in entertainment. Atlanta is funny as hell, but I don’t feel devalued as human being by watching it.

Comics, you can do better, I know you can.   

On the whole, I don’t think “joking about everything” is the answer, even if you are part of the group you are putting down. If we are honest with ourselves, we are keeping zombie words, like n*gger and slut alive, essentially out of insecurity. While it is a way of processing pain, it is not fighting racism; calling one another sluts and whores is not weakening the patriarchy. So, we can just stop. Leave it in the past. Let it die already.

The real struggle against outdated mindsets happens in everyday life, everyday conversations. Blazing leaders and brilliant thinkers might lead the way but most of us will not dedicate our lives to the struggle. We will become nurses and office workers; we want to see Spiderman on the weekend and get that fancy new washing machine, and that’s it. We are too busy picking up the kids at daycare and planning spring break to be PC-warriors. No time for marching or thinking about words like essentialism, decolonization or pseudo-feminism. And that’s okay! Don’t feel bad! On the other hand; there are more of us, millions, invisibly fighting the good fight in everyday life. Everyday people still alter minds, drip by drip, through our strongest weapon: everyday conversation. In fact, with small talk and humor.

As audiences, we also have power. El festival de Female Gential Mutilation would fail, not because it is prohibited, but because most people wouldn’t find that funny. That is audience power.

We can reflect on what is funny and why is it funny. We have the power to alter the premises of our everyday conversations. We can change the significance we attach to the tiny differences in our appearance.

Language and conversation are acts of creation, so what we laugh at matters. Jokes of the dancing-monkey-comedy type rip open old wounds, re-digs the fault lines that the old-school race narrative imagines between black and white, again and again and again.

Let’s all step up the game, together.

Thankfully things are changing. It is not enough to just be black as a TV presenter here in Norway anymore. You’ve got to deliver. Similarly, a black comedian with an entire hour about being black… It’s not that people would get mad or anything, it would just be dull. And that’s the key, that’s where I want to get. Let’s “make racism dull again.”

Make stereotypes dull again, for that matter. Use your audience-power, you don’t need to commit much, just don’t laugh if you don’t find it funny. You don’t have to laugh just cause he’s black, in fact, doing so is slightly racist. Laughing out of politeness at a black comedian who just repeats the n-word 65 times a minute is not only untrue to yourself; it is holding us all back. Say loud and clear “that guy was terrible!”

Things are changing, but content does not come from the God of Netflix or whatever, it is created in response to what you and I like and find funny. Even in small things, in everyday life, content is created in response to demand. When your drunk-ass buddy cracks his 19th pussy-pâté joke that evening, have the courage to say: “Dude that is fucking lame. Let’s do something else.” He’s only doing it because he thinks it’s what you want, what will make you accept him. Grab him by the teaching-moment. Pussy-pâté is lame.

So, I didn’t laugh at my young friend’s slavery-joke in the end. It’s gonna be a NO from me dawg. Not because it was racist, ignorant of history or offensive. Just because… that’s just lame.

Imagine a comedian who only talks about the size of his ears. All day, all his shows, hour after hour about those giant kettledrums. He won’t quit, he goes on and on about big-ear culture, how big-eared people are known for liking pineapple or some shit, talks irreverently in passing about the bloody big-ear massacre of 1882, how small-eared people can’t dance.

That’s how bad, dull and obscure I want race-based comedy to get in the end. I want the audience to go: “Common man, talk about something else. Talk about something that matters.”

Further Reading