Over the last decade, I’ve studied the changing nature of race-talk among comedians, from the civil rights era to the present. Specifically, I’ve been interested in examining the use of racial insults, stereotypes, and slurs by white comics. Take the following jokes by comedian Lisa Lampanelli from her 2007 comedy special Dirty Girl:
“What do you call a black woman who’s had seven abortions? A crime fighter! … Now I’ve gotta do a Hispanic [sic] joke to even things out … How many Hispanics [sic] does it take to clean a bathroom? None! That’s a nigger’s job!” [Audience members groan, laugh, cheer, applaud.]
The jokes baffled me—how does Lampanelli, who is white, get away with performing these in front of a national audience without being booed off stage and being forced to enter the witness protection program? Lampanelli claims she’s not really a racist and has “good intentions.” But was that all there was to it?
Lampanelli’s routine aired only a few months after Michael Richards’ infamous Laugh Factory disaster, in which the former Seinfeld star unleashed a torrent of racial slurs and insults at a black audience member that lightly heckled his performance. His comments were recorded and soon broadcast around the world. Following his viral blunder, Richards swiftly apologized, noted he was “not a racist,” and also emphasized his “good intentions.”
At the time I watched these performances, I had recently decided to apply to graduate school to research the relationship between race and comedy. As a young man, I had heard the racist jokes told by fellow undergrads and was fascinated by the way they forged and broke social relations. Major public spectacles like these only confirmed my suspicion that this humor was part of a wider public problem. I took the Richards’ incident as a godsend. Well, not really. But examining these types of controversies, and comparing them to performances that didn’t draw as much ire, provided a revealing look into the changing nature of race-talk in American comedy.
Overall, there has been a significant shift in the acceptability of racist speech in public, including under the guise of humor, since the civil rights movement. Take, for instance, the roast of Whoopi Goldberg at the Friars Club in 1993 in which Ted Danson appeared in blackface, performed a series of black stereotypes, and made liberal use of the “n-word.” The performance horrified many in attendance, and the private club famous for its no-holds-barred celebrity roasts issued its first-ever public apology in response. It’s worth remembering that only a few decades earlier, blackface was one of the most popular forms of comedy in the country. The shift from “funny” to “racist” didn’t occur on its own. It took years of opposition and protest from the targets of such racial ridicule.
But in studying the evolution of race in humor, I’m seeing an increasing number of white comics “successfully” making use of racial stereotypes and slurs, despite complaints by some comics and critics who suggest that we’ve all become censoriously hypersensitive and have gone “too far” with all the “PC nonsense.” Think Lisa Lampanelli, Louis C. K., Neal Brennan, Nick Kroll, Amy Schumer, and Jeff Dunham. Sure, there are certain jokes that don’t fly and apologies sometimes follow, but there’s something that’s happening that is allowing these comics to get away with telling these jokes.
To better explore these new bounds in modern comedy, I decided to get my answers from the ground: I enrolled in comedy school. What I learned was incredibly revealing. Over the period of several months in 2008 and 2009, instructors at a reputable L.A.-based comedy school taught my classmates and I not only about the mechanics of comedy writing, but also the social rules that govern its practice.
The shift from “funny” to “racist” didn’t occur on its own. It took years of opposition and protest from the targets of such racial ridicule.
One of the first things I noticed were the differences between how teachers coached white versus non-white comedy students on the subject of race. Unlike students of color, who were encouraged to use racial stereotypes frequently, uncritically, and unapologetically (at least as applied to their own groups), white students were taught to tread racial matters carefully and strategically. Since the Richards incident was fresh in our collective memory, our instructor—a white male—reminded white students not to make racial slurs and stereotypes central to their acts. But he also noted that the biggest payoffs in the industry often come from provoking the taboo without crossing the line, and didn’t steer students away from approaching controversial topics.
To do that, the teacher taught students to employ tricks like creating characters—a friend, a family member, a stranger—who would “tell” the joke with racial stereotypes or slurs for them. The character would serve as a buffer between the performer and the ownership of the statement. He also advised students to ridicule themselves and expose some of their own vulnerabilities before pivoting to material about those outside their own identity groups. For white students, this self-deprecation allowed them to become “equal opportunity offenders,” a common ploy used in comedy that relies on the defense that if you’re ridiculing everyone, you’re not really bigoted.
Pay close attention to any “successful” race-based comedy routine over the last five decades and you’ll see these strategies in action. From Don Rickles to Louis C.K., approaches like those taught in my comedy school act as a magician’s sleight of hand that go unseen by the untrained eye.
But does it really matter that comics can still get a laugh from some racist jokes? Sure, delivery and intent are mitigating factors, but the inescapable question is whether the jokes are pointing out the absurdity of their racist content, or in fact perpetuating it.
Take, for example, that Lampanelli quip where she “jokingly” equates black abortions with crime fighting. The joke told on stage isn’t one that simply remained in the comedy club. This laugh line, and variations of it, have turned up on multiple white supremacist websites, where it reinforces their racist ideas that African-Americans are naturally more prone to criminality. It also turned up in a 2015 Department of Justice probe, where it was one of several racist jokes found in emails circulating among police officers and court officials in Ferguson, Missouri.
The DOJ reported that this and other forms of racist humor served as evidence of “impermissible bias” among members of the city’s municipal courts and police force—an atmosphere that contributed to a pattern of unconstitutional policing in the community. Similar investigations of police departments across the country reveal a pattern of racist (as well as sexist and homophobic) humor circulating among officers. Though the jokes themselves don’t cause the bigotry, they certainly help justify and perpetuate these prejudiced belief systems. It is rather revealing that those who suggest we grow “thicker skins” and learn to “take a joke” tend to ignore such occurrences.
Not all comics are clamoring for a pushback to political correctness; some comedians are leading the charge against racist jokes. Reflecting on her own past reliance on racial humor, Sarah Silverman recently noted that some “racial jokes that were just trying to be absurd” have “less charm” given the current environment where our nation is confronting issues of police brutality against minorities.
The times continue to change, and comedy will continue to adapt. Those who challenge racist jokes aren’t waging a war against comedy. They are just recognizing that in a society still struggling to achieve basic justice and equality for racial and ethnic minorities, such jokes only add insult to injury.
On a cold February night in Manhattan, an invite-only, mostly white crowd gathered to listen to writers talk. The event was curated by the literary magazine BookForum. First up was Paul Beatty, reading from his new book, The Sellout.
A lanky 52-year-old with a relaxed, slightly surfer air that betrays his Los Angeles roots, Beatty approached the platform and launched into the end of the first chapter, where the narrator – a black man nicknamed Bonbon and Sellout – observes his psychologist father acting as a “nigger whisperer”, talking down a young black man waving his gun in front of a Swat team.
At that moment, the narrator realizes just the life he’s going to lead. “Introspective questions like ‘Who am I? and ‘How can I be that person?’ didn’t pertain to me then, because I already knew the answer,” Beatty writes. “Dickens [his hometown] was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life ... and suddenly I had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.”
The Sellout by Paul Beatty review – a galvanizing satire of post-racial America
Both a comic set piece and a slow-motion tragedy, this section embodies the contradictions built into The Sellout, a masterful work that establishes Beatty as the funniest writer in America. Impossible to describe in a succinct fashion, the absurdist comedy concerns a gentleman farmer narrator with the last name Me, who is brought in front of the supreme court for reinstating slavery and segregation in his hometown, the “agrarian ghetto” of the town of Dickens, around Los Angeles.
The resulting case is called Me v the United States. The narrator is high at his own hearing and convinced he’s on trial because he has “whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world”. His assistant in all this lunacy is his octogenarian friend, Hominy Jenkins, the last living Little Rascal, who made his name mugging his way through the real-life silent-film era of short comic films featuring a gang of local kids acting wacky.
The result is the most lacerating American satire in years, fearless in the way that it takes apart our sacred cows and shared delusions. It responds to America’s tortured relationship with race in the past and the present with the mockery it deserves, sprinkling jokes steeped in tragedy throughout.
The crowd murmured as Beatty read, with the sound of one man chuckling puncturing the room. Others giggled quietly. It felt as if the audience was afraid to laugh, unsure of if whether or not they could laugh, or that it was OK to.
Jess Row, the author of last year’s disquieting thriller about racial plastic surgery, Your Face in Mine, can understand. “If you’re dealing with racial material,” he said on the phone, “there’s definitely this sense of a kind of tension. People going into a crouch position – white audiences especially. The normally white American literary scene thrives on a kind of racial exclusion, a white interiority. When you step outside that space, things can become sensitive.”
He’s right: The Sellout has a joke-per-line ratio that a comedy writer would kill for, but the humor is nowhere near safe, rooted in difficult and uncomfortable truths about race in America – despite our lip service to progress, it’s still a rigged game, riddled with the trauma of our shared history.
Beatty finished. The writer following him shared a short story about finding out that your husband has two penises. The room filled with hearty laughter.
On a snowy winter evening weeks later, over a hot cider at the Café Mogador in Manhattan’s East Village, Beatty had more to say about his book, which has received acclaim from the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Book Review since its publication. On the back cover, comedian Sarah Silverman raved about the book – “like demented angels wrote it”. In an email, Silverman elaborates:
Paul uses humor like a surgeon uses anesthesia, a magician uses sleight of hand, or a pickpocket charms you. Then two minutes later you realize your pancreas has been removed, you’ve been sawed in half, and your wallet’s gone. But in this case, before you know it, the masks are off the people you most believe in and they’re just like everyone else.
Beatty, who has advanced degrees in psychology and creative writing, has been publishing since he won Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. That success led to his first, and last, two books of poetry. He’s not nostalgic for those days: “I just read. That’s kind of why I stopped doing poetry a little bit. I would show up and people would say, ‘Wait, you’re not moving around and yelling at me.’”
After poetry, Beatty wrote three novels, including the coming-of-age 1998 cult classic The White Boy Shuffle, which remains in print over a decade after its publication as an enduring choice for college literary classes. He also edited Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, which he is quick to correct as not the book on black humor, but “a book on black humor”, where he had the chance to find out who was funnier, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr (he says it’s Malcolm X).
In person Beatty is sweet and sharp, and admittedly shy. It’s hard not to notice he’s a minimalist talker for such a maximalist writer. Yet there’s a lot of truth hidden in his koans. The Sellout’s humor – full and tragic, working on levels beyond levels, laden with history – stands in sharp contrast to what Beatty sees as humor today, “where the joke is the joke”, he noted. “Not a joke about something, not a joke about the subject of the joke, but a joke about the joke itself. It’s really solipsistic in a weird way.”
To Beatty, funny has a strange role in the literary canon. “There are very few books that are funny,” he said. “But a lot of times the funny books have a really long shelf life. For me, something like Catch-22, that’s a perennial. Something that’s a good parody or a good satire, even though they’re really tied to things that are topical or current events, can feel perennial and not go anywhere.”
For Kiese Laymon, a professor at Vassar and the author of the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and the novel Long Division, there’s a strangeness to people wanting to position Beatty as a solely comic writer. “I’ve never laughed out loud at any passage in his work,” he said over the phone. “It’s weird to never laugh out loud and to be under the spell of a comic genius.”
In Laymon’s review of The Sellout for the Los Angeles Times, he writes: “It’s fairly obvious that the United States is a Kara Walker exhibit and a Paul Beatty novel unknowingly masquerading as a crinkled Gettysburg Address.” He thinks that Beatty’s work “uses humor to explore the most violent, terrible, and ultimately absurd parts of our country”.
The Sellout took Beatty seven years to write, but some of its targets – including the strain of black conservatism embodied by Bill Cosby – felt particularly relevant this year. While Cosby himself may have a cameo where he’s doing a Crip Walk in the local donut shop, Beatty said: “He’s in there a little bit in some of the characters, part of his ideology, that real paternalistic frame of mind.”
It can also be seen in the character of Foy Cheshire, the leader of a local Dickens community group, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, who tries to rewrite the literary curriculum with work like The Point Guard in the Rye and The Great Blacksby, which starts: “Real Talk. When I was young, dumb, and full of cum, my omnipresent, good to my mother, non-stereotypical African-American daddy dropped some knowledge on me that I been trippin’ off of ever since.”
When Beatty was working on The Sellout, a friend mentioned the rumor that Cosby bought the “really racist Little Rascals”. The Little Rascals shorts were an American curio – short comic films that would often play before feature films, from the silent era until the second world war – that may have been notable for having a cast that featured boys and girls, white actors and black actors, but that could also be offensive and racist.
Hearing that Cosby may have used his power to keep the worst of it out of view, it sparked a powerful plot point that shows the brutality of keeping history quiet, insisting that we turn the page and move on. The book, keeping with the character of Hominy, insists that we look at the whole picture of the Little Rascals, what was dumb and racist about it. Beatty said that he was obsessed with the show growing up, and that he could talk about it for hours, theorizing about it with his sister.
“Nothing happens in the Little Rascals. They’re almost like stills. Nothing fucking happens,” he said. He used to watch it, even as a college student in Boston, keeping his eyes open for transgression. “In the latter days there’s one where Buckwheat’s speaking proper English and wearing a suit,” he noted. “Sometimes you look for something that’s supposed to symbolize who you are.”
Beatty’s jobs have ranged from working with people with mental illness to teaching in creative writing programs, but with each job he’s required to listen. His background in psychology has, in some ways, shaped him as a teacher. “When I teach, I always tell the students that something I got out of psychology is to listen to yourself listen.” The process, he clarified, will “add some layers between what you’re thinking and what you think you’re thinking”.
In the acknowledgements of The Sellout, Beatty mentions the 1970s work of psychologist William J Cross as an inspiration, especially his groundbreaking paper The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience, which first appeared in a 1971 issue of Black World magazine. The paper illustrated how people of color are socialized, and how their worldview changes as they realized what it means to be black, going through several stages of racial and cultural identity.
When Beatty found the piece in college, he photocopied the chart that illustrated it to make a decent-sized poster for his wall. “I thought it was funny and ingenious,” he said. “If I remember it correctly, it’s more like ‘the actualized black person has a certain absorbed set of qualities’, and ‘this is what makes a real black person’. It’s hilarious to me.”
In The Sellout, the narrator’s psychologist father uses him as his “own Anna Freud”, conducting experiments on him in order to make him a real black person. But what it means to be black – laughing to keep from crying in an America insisting that it’s moved on from your trauma – is the tension at the heart of Beatty’s writing.
By taking America’s history of racial and economic oppression and putting it right in front of our eyes, Beatty is writing a new history of the country, one that has a lasting sting, in a difficult, daring comic masterpiece. As Bonbon riffs at one point: “That’s the problem with history; we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”