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Tales of an Undercover Half Black Guy

Race seems to be the issue that can never go away.  I have a few jokes in my act about how we will know when racism has been eradicated (when the interracial porn genre no longer exists).  President Obama’s election was hailed as some sort of landmark event and yet the two most successful tactics against him are 1) painting him as some sort of exotic outsider without American values 2) or yelling that he is a socialist, with fervor usually only reserved for outright slurs, not proxies for them.  With the election of Barack Obama and the aftermath of that election it has cause me to more deeply examine my own racial experience.  I still can remember Glenn Beck saying President Obama had a “deep seated hatred for white people,”and was “racist.”  That of course struck me as strange (and offensive) because Obama’s mother was white.  The grandparents that helped raise him were white.  But we live in an interesting time racially – we are busy congratulating our society for electing a mixed race president as some sort of baptism to wash away the sins of racism, while simultaneously trying to use that event as a shield from legitimate criticism of a society where discrimination is still rampant. It is still present,  just in more subtle ways.  As the late, great comedian Patrice O’Neal said, the reason there is still anger is because white people have that racism that can’t be proven.

I need to say that this is not meant as some anti-white screed by any means, but my experience between black people and white people who do not know I am half black has been very different. Although there are exceptions in each group, black people tend to be immediately welcoming, whereas white people become immediately skeptical.

Like President Obama I am the son of a black immigrant father and a Caucasian American mother.  I also have a law degree from a prestigious law school.  Needless to say the similarities abruptly end there.  Not only is his major accomplishment of POTUS slightly more impressive than my one performance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, but he is “black” and I appear “white.”  I have jokes about my race changing from season to season depending on tan and hair length, but my range goes from Italian to Algerian at best.  For most people I am judged as white by their first impression.  Fortunately and unfortunately that has exposed me to a lot of things I sometimes wish I had not been.  Because for every indignity that people of obvious color may still suffer, I get to experience the indignity of being present for all the things people of color do not hear because of the self censorship that occurs nowadays.

He exposed as many hearts as he may have changed.

The closest parallels that I have come up with are Jewish people and gay people.  These are the groups that, if not bearing obvious hallmarks of their identity, can be privy to the uncensored opinions that they otherwise would not have been if they had sent out signals.  I spent my life in private schools and despite real efforts at diversity at all levels they were still overwhelmingly white places.  So most of my circles of friends have been heavily white.  And they all know my Dad and know that I am half black.  But it is when I meet people I do not know or when I meet friends of friends who nothing more about me than my height that things can often get uncomfortable.  Here are some greatest hits:

  • In a bar a few weeks ago (which sort of got me thinking of writing this), a white friend of a friend was chatting with me and told me that some guy’s car was really tricked out, or as he put it “niggerfied.”
  • Same night a stranger approached me in a bar and asked if I played basketball. I said just in small level college a while back. His reply was “Well, what do you expect, you’re white.”‘
  • In Ohio, the emcee was called up by the headliner to participate in a dance routine for his closer.  I commented to a woman, “Man, he’s really getting into it with his dance moves.” Her response was “Well, he’s black.”
  • At a Pittsburgh Steelers game, – just read my write up – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=1212
  • A little while back at a bar with a good friend of mine and several female friends of his that did not know me, the song I Will Survive came on. I rolled my eyes because I don’t like the song.  One woman said, “I hate this song. Maybe I would like it if I was a black chick.”
  • In college after I had had a slam dunk on guy after my last game, a teammate’s uncle congratulated me with a “Great throw down! You dunked it like a black guy!”
  • On Spring Break many years ago I was hanging out with a young woman from Texas most of the night.  I was very drunk, but then a very sobering moment came up and I don’t know what brought it about, but I cannot forget what she said:  “I’m not racist; I just don’t like black people.”
  • As a kid, the first memory I have of feeling awkward and conflicted racially was a good friend of mine when we were 10 or 11 years old would always cross the street when young black men were approaching us (even at 4 in the afternoon on a crowded Manhattan cross street).  And this is someone who knew my father, which always made me wonder – is he that oblivious to how that would make me feel, or does he not count me among their numbers?

These are just some of the more salient examples of my life of the last few decades.  Whenever I do tell people that I am half black there is a shock as if I either harbored a secret or pulled of a magic trick. Of course when I say that I am half Irish there is a “Huh, I did not see that,”response, but when I say “half-Haitian” the response is usually more like “Get the fu*k out of here!!!”  And then there is a verification check of “Are you serious?” I have grown accustomed to that.  The one that bothers me is the subsequent question a minute later, “Seriously, your Dad is black?” because then I have no real choice but to be insulted and annoyed.  To me, the nervous incredulity rings off a bell to me that says “modern day racist,” (even if only a product of my own insecurity from past dealings that were more blatant) the same way I cringe a little at excessive usage of the word “ghetto” to mean anything besides an actual slum.  This was what Patrice meant by “hard to prove.”  Granted I have some very blatant examples I have been privy to, and believe me these are not the only ones.  But if I were to get in the face of someone asking me four times if my Dad was black, he could say, “Why are you so mad?  You have to admit you don’t look black.” Then why not the same shock at half Irish?  You don’t think I look Irish, either!  My theory, based solely on personal experience is that black has a certain cache to it, at least in terms of of our pop culture.  It also comes with pitfalls as well; pitfalls I am not enduring (as if I am not paying the tax for the advantages of being part black?).  But most importantly, most black men come with a warning sign – their skin and features.  That skin and those features may lead to forms of discrimination today as obvious as stop and frisk programs or the never-going-away, DWB (Driving While Black), but it also allows so-called good and enlightened non-racists to censor themselves.  How many of those things above do you think would have occurred had I looked obviously black?  None.  And then to put the onus on me as if I am hiding in plain sight with some sort of deceitful purpose is all I need to understand the insecurities that are present in the questioner.

Haitian + Irish = Italian?

Now, having grown up with one half of my family a blue collar Irish family, I have heard slurs and derogatory comments in and around my house.  And just like the comment of my teammate’s uncle, the comments annoy me.  I do not generally subscribe to the “set in your ways” philosophy about old racists. If there were people around that knew better then you should have known better.  But in older generations and even today I have become pretty good at detecting malicious racism and benign comments worded awkwardly. Unlike most of my white teammates who found the comment embarrassing, I shrugged it off because it felt more like a poorly worded compliment from someone who thought those words weren’t hurtful.  I did not interpret anything he said as ill will behind them towards black people.  I am not saying I enjoyed it, but it did not really bother me.  What bothers me is that most of the experiences I listed above have taken place in liberal places with young white people.  A generation supposedly so much more enlightened, believing that race is completely irrelevant.  Perhaps that is true of teens and young twenties, but it does not feel nearly as rosy in my age demographic (33 years old).

A little while back I defended the show Girls, for its monochromatic presentation of NYC because it felt authentic – white women do a lot of self segregating in this city.  I felt like that was enough to validate it for me.  The only thing missing for me was not the presence of minorities in their inner circle.  Rather, what was missing is them discussing race at all.  I have been in too many bars in conversations and overhearing conversations when today’s modern liberal, enlightened white people are sharing their real thoughts and quips about race (even Carrie Bradshaw dropped a “ghetto gold” reference on Sex and the City).  Of course this is not to say things like this do not go on in other groups, but this is my experience.  Undoubtedly someone will comment or share their own experience of being called a “white bitch” or being jumped by a group of black guys, but that would miss my point.  My point is that the “new racism” as Patrice O’Neal put it is real, or it i snot that new.  Unlike Patrice, I am in more of a position to verify its existence.  This is not some “white people are bad” diatribe (calm down Glenn Beck).  This is merely a response to people (including people I am a fan of like Adam Carolla) who proclaim highly paid black entertainers and a president of color means that our society is so different than it was before 2008 or 1998 or earlier (yes there is a point in our history where we are obviously radically different and better than, but a coach once said to me that the difference between bad and good is easier to bridge than good to great.  I believe we are in the good-to-great struggle now and there is a lot of push back).

I have never identified myself as black or white, except once – law school applications.  My college allowed me to check “all that apply” so I proudly applied as white and black.  However, most law schools wanted only one box checked.  And I checked black. And I felt like a fraud. Not because I did not qualify to check it, but because I do not identify myself as black. I identify myself as mixed race, white and black.  Perhaps this is the convenience of not looking black that I can craft my own racial identity in a country so obsessed with it.  The same way Barack Obama probably never had a choice to not identify as black.  Instead of hailing him as a multi-racial president, which in many ways is even more impressive to the country’s legacy as a melting pot, he has become our first black president.  I completely understand why.  There are times I wish I looked blacker, simply to avoid the annoyance and shame that comes with being privy to racist or racist-leaning comments every couple of months.  It reminds me of The Matrix where one character prefers to stay in the matrix, rather than face the harshness of reality.  If I looked blacker I would face other, more well-documented problems, but would benefit from the self-censorship that many people employ when dealing with “ethnics.”

I suppose the reason for me writing this is not to say I wish I was someone different or looked different.  But it is to say that for all the progress that society has made, do not fool yourself into believing all is well.  I am constantly presented with opportunities where an angry response may  be warranted (or at least I would look crazy if I did), but rather incidents that are  just enough to make me feel shame for not saying something.  In other words if a friend of a friend starts saying provocative things I can ruin everyone’s night by announcing that I am half black and I find the person backwards and wrong or I can do what I normally do which is make a mental note, let it slide and let everyone go on feeling good about themselves.  Which is sort of what we have all been doing.

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The Elephant In The Room at the Comedy Awards

This weekend, the 2nd Annual Comedy Awards took place. These are the awards where comedians do what every other industry does for itself, while maintaining enough of a distance so as to still plausibly mock the idea of awards shows.

As I followed some of the results via Twitter the name Louis CK kept coming up.  No big surprise there.  He has established himself as the man of the moment in comedy.  A sort of infallible figure of fallibility for comedy fans.  His show “Louie” won best show, in the alternative show category, helping it avoid a showdown with comedy series winner “Parks and Recreation.”

But as a stand up comic I was most interested in seeing who won best stand up special. The nominees were Louis CK, Daniel Tosh, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Norm MacDonald.  First I will offer my opinion that of the nominees (for their specials, not their bodies of work) I would have CK no higher than third. MacDonald’s special was better and Colin Quinn’s Broadway show was absolutely terrific.

But CK’s special represented a game changer, or so I was repeatedly told.  He bucked the industry by self-producing his own special.  Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari copied his model.  Now, thanks to Louis’ example, at least a dozen comedians can do this. Maybe even two dozen. And after that, I don’t think it will have any effect on the careers of individual comedians. The widespread distribution and opportunities offered by television are still needed by almost all comedians to get to the next level.  Did CK change the game? Or did he just demonstrate that after decades of climbing within the ranks of the business he now has the clout to reject it?  And before continuing I must say, because, as I have learned, when people read my posts with their own pre-dispositions, they read what they want out of my words, that this is still a compliment to CK.  He made a brilliant decision for HIS career.  My only qualm is the extrapolation that fans have made from his career to the rest of the industry. If he has changed the game then he is bigger than just a comedian and therefore worthy of cultural icon status, which may have already occurred.  But if, as I would contend, he has not changed the game, but merely his own game, then some of the praise heaped on him is overblown and is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of greatness around all that he produces, regardless of whether it is actually always great or not.

Louis CK

The last time I remember a comedian becoming as big (and CK is now bigger) as this was Dane Cook.  Dane Cook had a methodical, social media-driven, hard work climb over 10+ years to become the biggest name in comedy.  But the backlash against Cook was swift and furious.  Probably because the comedy community and the public at large had no real qualms about bashing a young, fit, charismatic performer, regardless of how well he did for stand up comedy as a business. Louis seems to be bulletproof.  Some of his invincibility comes from his soft underbelly, literally:   his words are harsh and honest, but his delivery device is humble and not intimidating.  Almost all friends of mine who are CK devotees acknowledge to me that they did not think that the Beacon Theater special was his best work and that there were more worthy specials this year.  But because of the “game changing” aspect of the special it was worthy.  But as I already indicated, I don’t really think it changed the game.  The same way George Carlin claimed voting was just the illusion of power, at this point, only those entertainers who already have power, can wield enough power to buck the system.  So if it was not the best special of the year (or at least not definitively) and not truly game changing, what is the justification?

Dane Cook

My biggest disappointment in seeing the nominees and the eventual winner though, was the absence of the late, great Patrice O’Neal.  In a twist of sad irony to this post, Louis actually dedicated the Beacon Theater special to the memory of O’Neal.  O’Neal passed away late last year, but not before leaving the comedy community with Elephant In The Room, which is really just a notch below Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain for me on my all time favorite comedy specials, and Mr. P, his hilarious album, released posthumously.  I remember watching Elephant In The Room and thinking “this is going to get Patrice the next-level recognition he deserves.”  I thought it was hands down the best special of the year. No distribution gimmicks, no hype, just great stand up.  The silver lining to his tragic death should have been an increased visibility and respect for his work.  But then, late last year I noticed a poll on a comedy website that had eleven or so comedians up for “Favorite Comedian of the Year” and he was not even on the list.  And then the Comedy Awards did not even NOMINATE Elephant in The Room

Patrice O'Neal

Now people reading this who are already pre-disposed to embrace all that is Louis CK will probably just call me a hater.  I’ll admit there are a ton of comedians whose comedy I like more than Louis CK (if you want to know, Bill Burr and Chris Rock are my favorite living comedians).  But I also greatly respect CK’s dedication, his work ethic and and the prominence that he has brought to stand up.  If you are not quite at the “fu*k you J-L you hater” level, then maybe you would like to say “Hey J-L, I respect your opinion, but why is it so wrong for Louis to have won this? He is a great comic and it is all subjective anyway, right? How is your opinion ‘better’ than mine?”  Go watch Elephant in The Room and the Beacon Theater special and tell me there is not a difference.  And it is also just the notion that CK was crowned the way Adele was at the Grammies.  I don’t like a comedy world where we sort of have a coronation.  Even Carlin’s second to last special sucked and it was reviewed as such. But he came back and did a great one for what would be his last special.  That is how comedy should work.  You are only as good as your last show. Sure fans will give you a break because they are your fans, but should an entire industry be giving the same blind loyalty to a performer? That is largely what makes it difficult, especially when you reach that upper echelon.  You have to produce new material regularly and it has to meet the high standards you have established for yourself.  Dane Cook tapered off after his hard-earned climb to the top and he was crucified for it.  For Louis CK, however,  it seems that there is no objectivity even allowed because the comedy community is so enamored with him (“Did you think his last special was an A+ or an A++? A B+? Well fu*k you you jealous hater!”).  There is a lot to appreciate and respect about CK and I have laughed at plenty of his material.  But every so often, the avalanche of adoration impedes a deserved and justified opportunity for someone else.  I think the Comedy Awards, for whatever they are worth, did Patrice O’Neal and stand up comedy a great disservice by not awarding, let alone failing to nominate, Elephant In The Room.

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The 2011 J-L Cauvin Reader

With 2011 coming to a close I thought I would give fans, friends and new readers a Best of  2011 of my blogs.  I have divided them into 5 categories and the following blogs represent both my favorites and the ones that got by far the most web traffic.  The five categories are:

  1. The Comedy Business
  2. Road Gig Stories
  3. Politics
  4. Movies
  5. Sports

If you are a fan of the blog I’d appreciate you passing this along (or you can always pass along your favorite individual posts from within this blog) through Twitter and Facebook.  This is really a collection of mys best stuff so sending it to people could turn them into fans. Thanks again for reading.  2012 will be a big and new year for my on-line content and I hope you will:

  • become a fan of “Righteous Prick” on Facebook and
  • follow @RPrickPodcast on Twitter
  • Every Monday starting in January I will post my movie reviews to www.YouTube.com/JLMovieLife (subscribe today even though the page is not finished), and
  • look for my new podcast every Tuesday starting January 3rd on iTunes (Righteous Prick) and
  • and please continue to come to this blog on Wednesday and Fridays for new posts.

 

A picture of me reading makes sense since this post is caled the J-L Reader.

THE COMEDY BUSINESS

  1. How To Fail In Comedy While Really Trying – A Breakdown of the Breakdown of the Traditional Path to Comedy Success (with an epic battle with “Bob Hellener” – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2304
  2. In Re Bob Hellener – Comedy hack and all around douche Dan Nainan is revealed to be the coward behind Bob Hellener – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2596
  3. Charlie Sheen – The Comedy America Deserves – A Breakdown of Charlie Sheen’s 2011 “Comedy Tour” – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2254
  4. Comedy One Hit Wonder – A self-depricating take on my career after 8 years – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2771
  5. A Tribute To Patrice O’Neal – A Eulogy For One of My Favorite Comedians – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=3099

ROAD GIGS

  1. The Best & Worst Fan Mail From Des Moines, Iowa – A Series of Fan/Love Letters From A Homophobic Self-Proclaimed Blow Job Queen (watch the video)- https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2210
  2. The Hills Have Eyes Wide Shut – A Swinger Party Overshadows My Show in Allentown, PA – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2165
  3. Cleveland Extremities – The Loss of Lebron James Apparently Caused An Unusually Large Number of Men in Cleveland to Masturbate in Public – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2665
  4. 30 Hour Train Ride From New Orleans to NYC – Of All The Train Rides I’ve Taken For Comedy, This Was The Most Epic – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2867

POLITICS & ECONOMICS

  1. Economics For Dummies – 9 months Before Occupy Wall Street I wrote this – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2178
  2. 3 Non Partisan Things America Should Dohttps://jlcauvin.com/?p=2742
  3. Occupy Wall Street – A Follow Up to #1 in light of the Occupy Wall Street Movement – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2987

MOVIES

  1. Review of Super 8 – I Expose JJ Abrams As Hollywood’s Bernie Madoff – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2537
  2. Someone Must Stop Adam Sandler – Title Speaks For Itself – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2710
  3. Return of the Planet of The Apes – My Favorite Movie of the Year (and a funny write up) – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2752

SPORTS

  1. The End Of The Diet Jordan Era – My Summary of Kobe Bryant’s Era as Diet Michael Jordan – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2412
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Patrice, Glenn & Walter White: Big Weekend in D.C.

It was a quite eventful weekend for me in Washington, D.C.  I had the honor of emceeing shows for Patrice O’Neal.  Normally I would not be jazzed to be emcceeing, but a comedian of Patrice’s stature generally draws a good and big crowd and all five shows were sold out.  Now I have opened for many headliners of different levels, but Patrice was the like playing in the major leagues after a career in the minors, with all due respect to the people I have opened for.  It was an incredible experience.  The man is so funny, raw and honest with the crowd that it is both intimidating and inspiring.  He does things that I try to do at open mics, but he has the skill, experience and courage to do it in front of 300 paying customers every show.  It is cool when as a comic you can watch the headliner and be turned into a comedy fan instantly, laughing like you’ve never been exposed to comedy before.

We were also fortunate this weekend not to draw too many Glenn Beck fans to the club.  He was holding his white power rallies at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend and I know at least on the Friday late show there was a group of women (white, obviously) who were in town for the “Enhanced Rights For Dumb, White People” event on Saturday.  But I did not see them walk so perhaps they were not as offended as I thought they’d be (perhaps a black headliner is given a little more leeway from the Beck crowd because entertainment is an acceptable job for black men, as opposed to President). 

Restoring Honor To America, brought to you by Glenn Beck

Overall the weekend was a great success.  All shows were great, all my sets went well and I never had direct contact with any of the legion of Beck-and-Palin-loving old white men and white families on the red line (the only train line deemed safe enough for the out-of-towners by the Beck-ers) in.  And then I received a Tweet at 11 pm announcing that Mad Men had won its third straight Best Drama Emmy, beating Breaking Bad for the second consecutive year.

I think the only problem with America greater than its collective stupidity is when they heap awards on shows like Mad Men because it makes them feel smart and cultured.   The show is fu*king boring!  Does no one else recognize this?  I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!  Breaking Bad manages to do what Mad Men has generally failed to do – it creates realistic characters while building tension and interesting plots.  Mad Men’s cache as a glimpse into a bygone time is over – we get it – people were white, women were subservient and they smoked and dressed well.  But into its fourth season now all Mad Men is has pretentious people still boosting it because they are afraid to appear uncultured or stupid for not liking it.  It is The Emperor’s New Show. 

It really is not as good as you think. I give you my word - pretend like you've heard nothing about it, read no reviews and seen no awards shows and you will realize it is a well done bore.

Breaking Bad is the best show on television.  End of discussion.  The best shows on television have never won though.  Six Feet Under lost to The Sopranos and The West Wing, worthy opponents for sure, but the brilliance of SFU will outlast those other two shows.  The Wire was never even nominated, but lots of black people obviously scare Emmy voters.  Arrested Development did win best comedy once, but it should still be winning just for repeats it was so good.  But Modern Family has already taken home the award for Best Comedy Series.  It is a funny show, for sure, but it is also as if some television executive pitched it like this:

“Alright, remember that show Arrested Development?  What if we took away 60% of the subtlety, added some cop out heart felt moments and put it before Cougar Town?”

Despite that Modern Family is one of the best comedies on television right now so I cannot hate the player.  But Breaking Bad has been royally fu*ked over.  If you have not watched it you should. And if you watch Mad Men and think it is the best show on television stop fooling yourself.   People, including my mother have asked me if I own stock in Breaking Bad. No, but in the last 15 years, partly because of reality television forcing more talented writers onto fewer original shows (my theory), we have lived in a golden age of television.  But we still seem to settle for second best.  It is as if every year the Emmys give the Oscar to Dances With Wolves instead of Goodfellas or to Forrest Gump instead of The Shawshank Redemption.   You may think I have overreacted, but do yourself a favor and watch Breaking Bad – you’ll see that I am at least right.

Simply the best.