Friday, February 6, 2009

Will Obama Change The Rules Of Black Comedy?

While much has been made about how white comedians are going to have to treat the Obama presidency with PC-kid gloves, little has been said about Black comedians. Namely, how played out are those "black folks do this/white folks do that" jokes gonna look now? And will these same comedians be hesitant to pick fun at Obama "just cause' he Black"?

A recent Baltimore Sun (something insightful from B-More? Whoda' thunk it!?!) article goes in on this very complex issue.
When Obama took the oath of office, he altered not only the political and social landscape of the United States, but the comedic one as well. If humor and satire are predicated on the notion of the oppressed speaking truth to power, it suddenly has become more difficult for comedians to portray black Americans as beaten down. Because the public heavily supports the new president, professional comics are treating Obama with uncommon restraint. They're wrestling with who gets to poke fun at the nation's first black president - and how.

"Obama is reconfiguring the narrative of black people as victims," says Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California. But Jacobs-Huey, who is writing a book about expressions of race in stand-up comedy, warns that discrimination didn't magically disappear with the inauguration.

"We have a temporary reprieve from racial profiling," she says. "But there's no doubt that racism still exists, and that people are still being disenfranchised."

Comedy has long tested the bounds of racial dialogue and understanding. The mix has erupted several times in recent years. Don Imus lost his job as a radio shock-jock for eight months after making racially insensitive comments that he said were an ill-advised attempt at humor. Michael Richards, best known for playing Kramer on Seinfeld, retired from stand-up comedy after being caught by a video camera hurling slurs at black hecklers.

African-American performers have always had an easier time talking about race than white funnymen. Race-based comedy reached new heights in the 1970s with Richard Pryor; more recently, Chris Rock and Bernie Mac found new limits to test.
Before someone states the obvious: yes, there's a double standard at play here. Black comedians can say stuff about black folks and white folks that white comedians simply can't. It doesn't make logical sense, and yeah, it's a double standard. But if you wanna make an issue of this, there's plenty of other double standards black folks will gladly trade you in return.

I'm just sayin'.

I consider myself a connoisseur of black comedy. When I'm not blowing money (which I don't do anymore) on that awful local NBA team, a lot of my disposable income goes towards gettin' my laugh on. DC used to be a hotbed for Black comedy just a few years back. There were two locations for Chris Thomas'[1] Jokes On Us. Teddy Carpenter had a club in Chinatown. Takoma Station got it poppin' every Monday night. U Street's Republic Gardens mixed in comedy with Happy Hour. Christian comedians did shown in churches and coffee houses around the Metro Urreah.

Now, whether it's the economy or something else, it seems like the only place to find Black comedy in DC is when there's some major act on tour, or the DC Improv's occasional guest.[2] The other spots have long since closed. And that's a shame, condsidering the massive number of comedians from the Urreah (Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Tommy Davidson, etc) and the number of comedy specials shot in Chocolate City (Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Katt Williams, etc.) in recent years. Now. Nothing.

And Jesus wept. Maybe Obama can throw these folks a stimulus package.[3]

Anyways, it will be interesting watching how Black comedians, who for better or for worse are cultural trendsetters, will handle Barry's next 4 years. So far, it's been a lovefest, from Chris Rock introducing him at the Apollo, to Jamie Foxx and Co. urging folks to get registered everyday on The FoxxHole. Will these comedians just pick at his big ears and halting speech patterns, or will they take him to task when he inevitably screws something up? Because the guy's human after all, and he is gonna screw something up.

Whether or not it's a laughing matter remains to be seen.

Question: How do you think black comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle should treat the Obama Presidency? Does your city have a black comedy club?

Is Obama's rise already shifting the bounds of racial comedy? [BMoreSun]

[1] Remember him? The Mayor from Rap City? Remember that dance?

[2] Just saw Sheryl Underwood there a few weeks ago. Hilarious.

[3] If anyone in the DC Urreah knows a regular spot to peep Black comedians, let me know. I don't get out much, so I'm prolly missin' something obvious.

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