Thoughts on Comedy and Race

24 Oct

Stand-up comedy, in my experience as both producer and consumer, tends to be one of the more often racialized performance arts. On TV or in comedy clubs in bars, you’ll very frequently find “Black comedy showcases” or “Latino comedy showcases,” etc. The most obvious meaning is that all the performers on the show are going to belong to the aforementioned race. However, the title of the show often takes on another connotation in that the comedy to be performed will itself belong to a specific style suited to that group; i.e., at a “Black comedy showcase,” you will expect to see Black comedians performing “Black” comedy. I doubt anybody is going to strongly disagree with me about the commonality of this assumption.

I think most people who regularly watch stand-up comedy do carry around in their minds an idea of the kind of comedy that is uniquely “Black” or “Latino,” etc. Like many racial constructs, what makes comedy belong to a certain race is something that is very nebulously and vaguely defined, and often isn’t given a concrete description in any academic or popular discourse, but we can see a comic and judge pretty well whether or not his material can be racially classified or not.

First question I’d like to consider is this: Do we also have an internal concept of “White” comedy? Speaking for myself, I immediately think, “Hell no.” White comics, like White people in most circumstances, are considered the default, and thus don’t carry the burden of having to address their externally marked otherness, which leaves them more room to be defined by their style over their race. This is in no way saying that a white comic intentionally or maliciously exploits that. It’s just what happens. If you see a black comic, you think immediately of the sorts of pressures that person must have grown up with, and you want them to talk about it, so they do. In fact, the ability to express solidarity and identity with a group of people is seen as a privilege and source of power, which is why it would seem uncomfortable to some if even a comedian who couched his comedy in a character that was unique to White culture, e.g., Larry the Cable Guy, started identifying himself or his style as “White comedy.”

So what does racialize comedy? When you think of “Black comics,” a few names instantly pop up: Richard Pryor, Dave Chapelle, Paul Mooney. “Latino comics” gives us George Lopez, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin. More recently, we have comics filling in the “Asian” niche: Bobby Lee, Russel Simmons, Steve Byrne. The first common thread among these comedians is that, as I said before, their racial identity is the focus of a lot of their material. However, it’s not just that. Often there’s many jokes about growing up poor (especially as an immigrant), growing up in America, and clashing with the more conservative tastes of their parents.

The similarity seems to be the various ways that it’s tough growing up as they are. That is why a lot of comics who “belong” to a certain race often have crossover appeal to lots of other non-White groups. You might find an equal number of Hispanics enjoying Chapelle’s routines where he talks about getting framed for drug possession as you would Blacks. On the other hand, I went to see Steven Wright live one time and the audience was ENTIRELY white. (Editor/GF’s note: The only reason the audience was ENTIRELY white was because I wasn’t able to make it that evening.) Maybe it didn’t help that we were in West Lebanon, NH, but I doubt his surrealist style of humor holds a lot of appeal to mainstream “minority” fans.

This leads me to think that, perhaps, the more “real” stratification in comedy isn’t along racial lines, but rather along socioeconomic lines. Plenty of White comics have a narrow appeal because the kind of humor they use requires access to things like education and high-brow culture that a mainstream audience, even a mainstream audience of White people, wouldn’t have access to. It would be an unfair value judgement to oversimplify and label it as “smart” comedy vs. “dumb” comedy or “rich people” comedy” vs. “poor people” comedy. The truth is that in order to be an effective comic, you need to establish an effective connection with the audience. Your jokes need to be accessible. The racial experience in the US is oftentimes defined by what limits to your mobility are placed on you because of your race, so a mutual understanding and shared experience of those limits is a strong basis for comedy.

This has proved a bit of a challenge for me, being someone of mixed ethnic identity, as I’ve developed as a comic. I don’t have a distinct skin coloring or style, but I have a very strongly Latino-sounding name. The easiest way to make myself appealing would be to make jokes about being Hispanic, and I have been encouraged, on multiple occasions, to do so. However, while the ethnic tie is there, I really lack the kind of socioeconomic experiences that would help me create perceptibly “Latino” comedy. I don’t have wacky immigrant parents. My mom is white, and my Dad has lived in the US since he was 13, went to Yale Law School, and spoke perfect English by the time I was born. I wasn’t completely fluent in Spanish until high school. I grew up with a pretty decent amount of privilege, and I went to an Ivy League school and graduated with no student debt.

Now, as a regular person, I feel perfectly fine reconciling all that with my “Cuban” identity. Growing up in Miami, I was still very much immersed in Cuban culture and have always been close to my Dad’s side of the family. If anything, my native food language is Cuban food. I have developed a very positive psychological association with Spanish. Anytime I so much as hear people speaking Spanish, I feel more comfortable with them. One of the few saving graces of my recent shitty tutoring job was that I had ONE Hispanic student whose mom I talked to in Spanish, and it made me feel slightly less stressed.

However, as a comedian, for me to try and put a “Cuban” identity at the core of my comedy would be nothing less than a fraud. I’ve recently started getting playful jabs from comedians about my vocabulary on stage, because I’ve been doing bits with words like “retrovirus” and “synesthesia” in them. The host of one open mike suggested, “Angel is trying to write the joke with the most syllables in it ever.” Now, for me to do that kind of stuff on stage and then try to claim some kind of “Latino” identity to an audience would likely generate, to continue my trend of big words, cognitive dissonance. However, the unavoidable marker that is my name will create a pressure to address my background, so I try to do it in a way that expresses my unwillingness to embrace it or a sort of self-mocking of any attempt to embrace it. For example, I have a joke where I say, “I am so Hispanic that when I was born, there was no afterbirth, there was only chunky salsa.” I tend to deliver it with a sarcastic tone, and the absurdity of the punchline makes it clear that I’m not desperate to really convince you all that I’m “Hispanic,” so I’ll take the laugh from something else.

Thinking about it more, there are some attitudes and habits that can racialize a comedian more than just the jokes he/she tells. I was once told that if I was ever going to play an “urban” (read: Black) room, I NEEDED to do crowd work. I could not get away with just doing the jokes I had planned and written beforehand, I would need to engage the audience. I have, as of yet, not played such a room. I am curious as to why this is a specific need for “urban” rooms. Perhaps as an extension of the need for a common identity or common experience to make the jokes accessible to the audience, the performer him/herself is expected to be accessible to the audience for responses and comments. Hopefully future experience can enlighten me.

There wasn’t any particular reason for this post other than to meditate on the role race plays in my life right now. It hasn’t really had any specific or noticeable impact, but if there’s anything my liberal arts education has made me more aware of, it’s that you can’t escape it. My duty is to decide how I’m going to navigate finding the humor in it and delivering it in an accessible way on stage.

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