The New Wave of Harmless Diversity in Comedy
In law school (what a pretentious way to begin a blog post about comedy) we studied, among hundreds, the case Bakke v. Regents of California. It was a 1970s case where the Supreme Court took on affirmative action for the first time. It ruled that although racial quotas were unconstitutional in college admissions, using race as a “plus factor” was allowed, with the vision, correct in my estimation, that different races can provide different perspectives and value to a college experience that can benefit all students. The sharing of different experiences and the exposure to people who many do not meet regularly in a largely segregated society (America as a whole, so please don’t tell me about how your neighborhood is different Astoria comedians!) is of value, as is addressing some inequities ingrained in our society. Perhaps you do not believe in race based classifications of any kind and if that is the case thank you for reading my blog angry white person or Clarence Thomas. But I think, on the whole, racial diversity is important for various reasons, exposure, familiarity and diversity of life experiences all making up its relevant components.
Last week I had a show in Brooklyn in front of a fairly mixed crowd, racially speaking. Normally when I am doing material with either racially infused commentary or racial insensitivity I preface some of that material with autobiographical details. I discuss my mixed race heritage (Haitian father, Irish mother) which seems to set people more at ease to laugh and/or think about my material. But on Thursday I opted to go right for one of my better bits of the last couple of years on black bouncers. Here it is on YouTube from the DC Improv last October:
For the DC Improv crowd I had already prefaced it with my personal details, but last week I went right into the bit with no details (and because Winter has just ended and I cannot afford a tanning bed session, let alone a sunny vacation, I am at my lightest skin coloring possible). And the response was the most mediocre it has ever been for the joke. The crowd laughed/unclenched their progressive butt holes when I concluded the bit with “Maybe I should have prefaced that with telling you that my father is black. My mother just happens to be Irish which is the hateful bleach of racial mixing so I came out like this. But now maybe you can start laughing because a half black guy is talking about racism instead of the hateful guinea you think I am.”
(Now mind you laughs persisted even though I had dropped a blatant Italian slur, despite having no Italian heritage, unless you consider seeing The Godfather 40 times Italian). Not to mention that the bit is really about the lingering and hidden racism of white people (or the perception of it – you decide), which you think might play better in a hip Brooklyn space.
In a career of frustrating false starts and setbacks this was a weird one. Granted it was one show, but in 12 years of performing I have noticed that my material and opinions, which usually stand on solid comedic and logical premises require some sort of checked box before I can share them with most crowds, especially crowds today. I have a handful of sets I can recall where I have done material (mind you, I never drop N bombs or anything like that) without offering my racial identity ahead of time and they have all been less well received than when I do mention my racial bona fides. Sometimes I refrain from explaining context if I think a joke should stand on its own, regardless of who is telling it, just to spite an audience, rather than pander to their preconceptions of what should be said and who should say it. Sadly, these experiences have made me realize more than ever, pursuant to some discussions I have had on my podcast with comedian Josh Homer, that comedy audiences (and the industry for sure) now crave useless, or at least harmless diversity more than ever. Let me explain.
In the Supreme Court example previously mentioned, diversity was not intended as its own end. Instead, diversity’s importance stemmed from the exchange of ideas, of perspectives, of experiences and opinions that would make diversity useful and desired. And yes, there was, and still is, the idea of addressing certain socially ingrained problems and offering redress through diversity. But now throughout society and inside comedy in particular it seems we want the presence of diversity, without any real substance to it. The visual of diversity has become paramount and feels more important than the meaning within it. President Obama, who avoided race, much to the chagrin of some of his black and liberal supporters, immediately become a race baiter/hustler/divisive when he addressed the Trayvon Martin case in personal tones, years into his administration. Eric Holder, who has been the racial issues pit bull for the Obama administration is reviled by the GOP. We are so post racial that we get very angry when anyone actually gets racial.
In comedy it has been an interesting swing. The new preview for Last Comic Standing seems to have accelerated the push for diversity from last year. Last year featured a lot more color than previous years. There have been articles about a new wave of black male comedians steeped less in racial narratives and more in nerd and alt sensibilities. It seems to be a high water mark for diversity, especially black, in comedy, except it seems there are no new Chris Rocks (he dropped Bring The Pain at the age of 31). It seems the best path to rise from obscurity today in comedy seems to be a black guy who rarely discusses anything about being black unless it is innocuous or if it is used to mock black people (hi Key and Peele). One need only open a newspaper or watch a news program to realize that racial issues are still at the forefront of American culture whether we wish them to be or not. And comics, who are so quick to cite their role as mirrors on society when defending their mocking the death of a celebrity in tweets, seem to be less likely to engage in some of these issues now.
Before I continue, I don’t want what I am saying and about to say to be confused for its simpler and uglier cousin “Hey, why can’t we just pick the funniest people and leave it at that.” That is an easy cop out to defend the status quo in terms of opportunity and voice. Just like the Rooney rule in the NFL, which requires teams to interview at least one coach of color before picking a coach, sometimes it is necessary to introduce new people and groups into the spotlight because the process has largely ignored them. Keeping things fair and color blind will lead to no opportunities because one group has such a definitive, and in many ways unfair head start.
Now I must say that no one comedian can or should be required to deliver any kind of message or comedy. A comedian must be free to explore their own voice and that voice does not need to be, nor should it be required to be, some bullhorn for social issues. But when the industry, in the aggregate, begins supporting a comedy whose mere pigment is supposed to represent a message, while muting or not presenting more defiant voices, that is an easy way out for audiences and industry alike. Obviously W. Kamau Bell (admittedly never watched, but certainly observed the way it was marketed) and Larry Wilmore represented some of what I am thinking about, but Bell is off the air and Wilmore’s show has quickly diverted to a whole range of topics, perhaps because it doesn’t want to alienate people too much, or perhaps it is still too small a sample size to draw any conclusions. But these are not the wave of new black comics people are raving about anyway.
Of course I do not know every single black comedian, but I do know the type the industry seems to be grabbing for with both hands. We want to see diversity, but in comedy what we see is less important than what we hear and it seems that we hear a lot less than we see. When one considers the tradition from Pryor to Rock to Chappelle it is striking to see that the fastest way to success now seems to be as a black comedian who avoids challenging people on race, especially in light of all that is occurring in our society today. There have always been black comedians who did not make their act race based, but there were also comics who did because in America that is still something worth exploring and challenging. I won’t make a field slave/house slave comparison (that would be as hyperbolic as the hundreds of people and things that get compared to Hitler on a weekly basis), but when the emerging landscape seems to be black comics who avoid these topics there is either a wholesale abandoning of a perspective by the industry, or a pandering by artists to be what the industry seeks. And neither is very positive in the aggregate.
This brings me back to my bit (what would my blog be without some self-aggrandizing). A lot of my material over the last few years has been about my perspective as a (to a majority of people) white looking guy who has a black father to dissect some of the things I have seen. But it seems like a lose-lose-lose situation. If I tell the crowd I am half black it gives me the perceived racial standing to criticize from within, but then it can be uncomfortable for people, usually white, who don’t want to be lectured on the persistence of racism from a guy whose face appears to have “white privilege,” even if he claims a different heritage. If I don’t announce my racial background the reaction can be even more stand offish, often from both sides of the pigment aisle, even though my opinions tend to be left of center on all things racial. The only perspective left is to pretend to be a hostile, conservative white comic who is “truth telling” to the masses with “I’m not afraid/I went there” posturing, except then I would not be true to myself or my actual feelings since the few comic voices that lean that way tend to be somewhere between conservative and racist.
I just think between my experiences in life and as a comedian and observing the trends taking hold in comedy (bearded non sequitur spewers have now given way to black/ethnic, “but there’s nothing different about us” comics in the passing of the “what industry is desperate for” torch) diversity doesn’t and shouldn’t mean abandonning or disregarding social commentary. Perhaps the rise of politically correct watchdogs in comedy coupled with the rise of alternative comedy have created less demand for confrontational comedy (or less comfort with it). But whether it’s softer audiences, more selective industry, both or neither it would be nice to have more challenging voices join the rising powers. And if an Italian looking dude with a black dad can’t get away with it then someone with two black parents needs to before we all find out we are all similar and happy and no one is thinking or laughing.
And I am aware that diversity encompasses more than black and white issues, which is why I am predicting a gay winner of Last Comic Standing this Summer, without knowing anything regarding who has advanced, etc. But in entertainment, as well as in America, black and white issues will dominate the narrative for some time the same way they did this blog.