Last week, I sent an email to my colleagues and sisters in the media literacy project FAAN Mail about what I could only describe as feeble attempts by some white writers and comedians to make racism funny. It took me a while to articulate this because I get this kind of humor. After all, my mother raised me on “All in the Family,” a show about an overtly racist/sexist/homophobic lead character named Archie Bunker. What made Archie Bunker funny and even endearing was the fact that his bigotry was the joke. The show firmly placed his discriminatory beliefs in the context of a white, working-class man from Queens who was uneducated, and at his core, genuinely frightened by how fast the world was changing around him. Above all, even as a white man, Archie had little power himself.
Another factor that made Archie Bunker funny is one trait that is being taken too far in comedy these days: Being an EOO (Equal Opportunity Offender). If you are a white person who hates black people, that’s not funny… UNLESS, you also hate Latino/as, Asians, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Inuits, etc. If someone is equally hateful/satirical of all groups, even their own, it’s okay. Edgy. Profound even. It’s the premise that has kept South Park on the air for half of my life and it’s the same premise that has allowed me to laugh as much as I cringe at all of Seth Macfarlane’s animated programs (Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad).
It’s no mistake that South Park and Macfarlane’s shows are animated and feature characters who are children, working class, animals or just generally lacking in intelligence. This is also why having Peter Griffin, a character who once registered an IQ that deemed him mentally retarded, sing a song about boobs is different from turning on the Academy Awards and having Peter’s creator and voice Seth Macfarlane do the same, as the highest-paid comedy writer in the industry and as a straight white male.
Am I implying that someone’s identity determines whether they can use oppression to be funny, and how? I’m not implying it, I’m saying it directly. I promise to write a more thorough post about how power and privilege work but for now, this is an excellent primer. The more social power someone has, the more careful they need to be. This is why, for example, the word “nigger” has way more weight than the word “honky,” or why a man can’t playfully call a woman friend a “bitch,’ while it may be perfectly fine for his female counterpart to do so.
So, how do you know if using identity-based humor is okay? I’ve created some guidelines, based on very unscientific research:
Okay: Making Fun of -cisms (e.g. racism)- Also known as the “Archie Bunker” archetype. The person who holds the oppressive beliefs is mocked for it, or has some other characteristic that makes them the subject of ridicule, such as being overweight (Cartman from South Park), unintelligent (Peter Griffin), or a talking stuffed animal (Ted from the movie “TED”).
Not Okay: Trying to make -cisms funny- What I call the “Lampanelli Law.” Lisa Lampanelli is not the first comedian who has tried to pass off racism as comedy, but she is the most recent, and in my opinion, the least effective example. One example is Lampanelli’s comment that her Venezuelan co-star on The Apprentice would be “knocked up by the end of the week” because she’s a “spic.” Comedians have made jokes about ethnic groups and birth rates before, but is using the term “spic” necessary? This is more than a joke. It’s an assertion of power.
Okay: Talking Critically About Stereotypes – Even though this infamous Chris Rock routine may in fact be the origin of many misguided claims that Black people are as racist as white people, or that the term “nigga” is more permissible than “nigger,” what Rock is doing is acknowledging that many of the stereotypes that are associated with all black people (stealing, not being responsible, violence) are actually true of some black people, and for specific reasons, such as lack of education and access.
Not Okay: Promoting Stereotypes – “What do you call a black women who gets an abortion? A crime fighter!”-Lisa Lampanelli. I’ll leave it at that.
Okay: Acknowledging Your Privilege- Example: Louis C.K., or the Tim Wise of Comedy, as I like to call him. He makes discussions about white privilege accessible and hilarious.
Not Okay-Exercising Your Privilege Without Examining It Critically – Basically, all of Seth Macfarlane’s Oscar antics from last night. Buzzfeed did a great job of summarizing them here. Some choice ones include calling Jennifer Aniston a stripper and saying that it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand Selma Hayek’s accent because she’s hot.
Never Okay: Identity-based humor about children. I’m looking at you The Onion. Lowest of the low. Note: As of 11:40am EST, The Onion issued an apology for that disgusting tweet.
This list isn’t an attempt to police anyone’s speech. You have to know what the lines are if you’re going to cross them. So, don’t let anyone tell you that there are no lines. Any decent comedy writer knows where they are.