Tomas Rincon
CMC 200
Literature Review
Dr. Ted Gournelos
"Examining Racial and Ethnic Humor in Comedy Central Roasts:
Flavor Flav as Black as They Want Him to Be"
Abstract:
What does the presence of racial humor tell us about our state of race relations in our society?
One viewing of Comedy Central's Roast of Flavor Flav will tell you that we have plunged back
into a time were racism and racial insults are acceptable, or that we have reached a post-racial
epoch where race can now be dissected as treated with humor as racism is now over. But
watching it many times and comparing with other roasts a critical view develops where nonwhiteness is treated and viewed as a deviation from the hegemonic norm and is therefore
'roastable' just as 'fatness', 'sexual promiscuity', and 'ugliness' are used as fodder in roasts.
Literature Review:
The United State of America's history has in its legacy: prejudice, racism, and hypocrisy
with respect to power relations and social institutional development. Even now, decades after
the Civil Rights Era, racism is still an issue with continued racism, discrimination, and
inequalities carried out through through the institutions of the United States and reflected in
racial inequalities and racial disparities. The current mainstream discourse, however, shuns
mention the of racism, unless the mention implies the dismissal of racism as a factor.
Mentioning of racial oppression, or discrimination often draws criticism as 'playing the race
card' and implies a post-racial epoch is in effect. Largely racism is believed to be a thing of the
past with no practical effects that have carried over leading to a constructed post-racial
discourse of color-blindness. Nonetheless, race has continued to be a discursive construct that
continues to appear in contemporary comedic situations appearing on cable television. Comedy
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Central's The Roast of Flavor Flav presented an opportunity to conduct a comparative
contextual analysis to investigate how race and ethnicity become an increased topic of comedic
discourse in one of Comedy Central's Roast when the star 'roastee' is a black American.
What is racial and ethnic humor? Where does it come from? What does it mean? Race
itself is a construct of ideology that identifies differences and distinctions of physical
appearance to categorize people; ethnicity is about region of origin, religion, and culture as a
way to categorize. Racism is the using of race or ethnicity as a sign to repress groups of people
in social, political, and economic arenas. Race serves a signifier of order and class in these
stratified societies. Racial discourse in media and society serves to promote the ideology of
stereotypes and social order to the masses. Racism is often attributed to individual actions or
individual people as being the agents of racism, but racism is truly a structural mechanism
engrained in the institutions and business of America. Racial inequalities and racial disparity
are the lasting legacy of racial oppression in America. It seems that the only people that are
willing to bring light to race in contemporary culture are comedians. Often comedians are
labeled as 'raunchy', 'sexist', and 'racist' when they engage in such controversial topics.
However, humor and comedy seem to be one of the few methods that has functioned over the
years as a way to discuss the gritty truths of life.
History
The history of race and humor goes back deep in American History. Banjo argues that
"ethnic humor in America is about power differentials" (2011, 140). For blacks living in the
time of slavery humor was in hidden form of dances and impersonations,mocking the dances of
the whites and as a way to ridicule the authority of their White masters (Banjo, 140; Cooper
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2007, 225). But researchers argue that ethnic minorities as a whole were later engaged in
theatre and acts that used stereotypes of their oppressed groups as a form of entertainment for
mainstream white audiences (Banjo; Thorson et al. 2001). Blacks have endured a litany of
stereotypic depictions and portrayals as minstrels, song and dance men, and as comic relief
usually in a denigrating fashion throughout the time since their emancipation from slavery
(Banjo, 140; Cooper, 225; Haggins 2007, 2). These self-deprecatory performances and stylings
were acceptable to the White mainstream audiences because it affirmed their racist beliefs and
did not challenge the hierarchy of the society (Banjo, 139; Cooper, 226; Mastro & Tropp 2009,
126; Smuts 2010, 337), although cleverly inserted was "veiled satire of White culture" (Banjo,
139).
During the Civil Rights Era a comic named Dick Gregory would use his celebrity to help
bring attention to the fight for civil rights in America. Dick Gregory is "a black comic that used
the microphone as a weapon" (Haggins 2007, 15). His brand of comedy used sophisticated
racial and social humor to challenge and critique the racial injustices and racial inequalities of
our society (Haggins, 18). Such as his joke about going into a restaurant and the white waitress
telling him, "We don't serve colored people here" and he replied, "That's all right, I don't eat
colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken" (Gregory as cited in Haggins, 18-19). This
revolutionary brand of humor did not exist before, especially in the presence of audiences that
included the dominant group of society in this case whites. Gregory followed a method though,
"I've got to make jokes about myself before I can make jokes about them and their society--that
way they can't hate me" (Gregory as cited in Haggins, 18). Researchers suggest that humor has
long been a tool in helping blacks to deal racial oppression and other society-induced woes they
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have had to endure (Apte 1987; Banjo 2011; Cooper; Haggins; Thorson et al.).
Richard Pryor
The 1960's would yield another black comic phenomenon named Richard Pryor. Pryor
would begin his career in the tradition of another comic, Bill Cosby, who had a more
mainstream color-blind brand of comedy that would not challenge the status quo, except by
challenging stereotypes with the his physical state by being clean-cut, suited and well-spoken
(Haggins, 26). Pryor would eventually grow tired of his clean routine and begin a a brand of
comedy that satirized white society and its institutions and elucidated his experiences in
working-class black life (Cooper, 228). For black comedians, like Richard Pryor, comedy
became a way of exploring the tribulations, trials, and triumphs of the black community
(Haggins, 2). But his brand of cultural humor, which is now so well known, would not have
been accepted by non-black audiences if not for the increased visibility of blacks (Cooper, 229)
in the post-Civil Rights Era.
Richard Pryor's humor has been said to be "culturally intimate" (Cooper, 224), and even
quite racially charged at other times with his use of the derogatory term 'nigger'. His use of the
term was constructive and deconstructive; examining blacks as an underclass in society and
politics; also, delving into relationships between authority, mainly police, and their role in
oppressing and in enforcing the racial order of the status quo that assigned blacks with the
position as 'niggers' (Cooper, 232-33; Haggins, 54). Researchers identify self-disparaging, or
self-deprecating humor to be a technique used by oppressed groups to 'cope' with their social
issues and also just a way to examine their construction in society (Apte; Banjo; Cooper;
Haggins; Thorson et al.). Pryor would use the word 'nigger' and racial humor to stress the
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socially stratified state of our country: "They (the police) got magnums too. And they don't kill
cars, they kill nee-gars", and to poke fun and confront the ignorance, stupidity, and unfounded
irrational fears of 'niggers' (Cooper, 234) a white-constructed boogyman that was violent,
sexually charged, and an irrational hyper-human.
Racial Humor Theory
So, is it the same when a person of another race engages in humor about a different race?
Some researchers argue that the dynamic is changed and the jokes become more controversial
and less acceptable when a racial joke is "initiated by anyone but themselves" (Apte, 33;
Thorson et al., 3). It can be argued that this is the reason why Pryor, Gregory and others
methodically engaged in self-disparaging humor to then open up others to critique and
examination without ridicule (Apte, 38; Haggins, 18; Thorson et al., 2). This method of
approaching the subject balanced and examining both sides of the strata is important in seeming
credible and objective to racially critical audiences.
What good would be criticism if it was one-sided? Black comedians took note and often
referred to stereotypes of blacks and criticisms of black culture as a way to reflect and gain a
greater understanding of American society. Take for example Chris Rock and his riff on the
'Million Man March' which included a showing by disgraced D.C. mayor Marion Barry who
had won re-election in D.C. in spite on a drug scandal involving crack, "even in our finest hour
we had a crack-head on stage,[A mixture of laughter and boos] Boo if you want--you know I'm
right" (Haggins, 81). In another he expresses a critique on the O.J. Simpson trial and the
excitement of blacks buying into the idea that it was a victory for blacks as a people, which
Chris Rock shoots down by saying, "That shit wasn't about race--it was about fame. If O.J.
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wasn't famous he'd be sitting in jail right now. If O.J. drove a bus, he wouldn't even be O.J.,
he'd be Orenthal, the bus driving murderer" (Rock as cited in Haggins, 81). Haggins contends
that Rock's use of these self-critiques of black culture is to examine "the kind of unconditional
solidarity that seemingly defies the logic of self-preservation" (81). Rock understanding that
without a dialectical approach to examination and problem solving, hypocrisy is likely to
pervade his act; just as it has the status quo.
Race on Television
So far I have discussed racial discourse by way of comedians but there are other medias
that negotiate representations of blackness with reality, for the purpose of this study I will focus
on television, with some reference to the mediums of film and radio. Television depictions of
blacks have drawn criticism for portraying blacks in stereotypic fashion (Cooper, 225-26;
Mastro & Tropp, 119). The power structure is much more complex in production for television;
the comic usually just serves as the actor while writers, producers, and directors head up the
creation and production. So, the creative control is usually out of the comics hands leaving the
content to be decided by other forces. So, often the pursuit of appealing to broad audiences
leads network executives to choose content that is inoffensive and non-controversial, that
exhibits color-blindness which excludes racial dialogue, or criticism of the status quo (Haggins,
103). Adherence to the status quo means that stereotypes are abundant in representing
characters, especially those that are 'other' than the dominant group, in the case of the United
States--whites.
Since the time of radio the use of stereotypes of constructing blacks as being "deceitful,
lazy, and happy-go-lucky" put them on the butt end of much ethnic humor in shows like Amos
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'n' Andy, which was a top radio show of its time (Cooper, 225). Amos 'n' Andy started as a radio
show with white actors voicing the black lead characters Amos and Andy, but then was
transferred into television were black actors were given the white constructed roles. In a
bulletin from the NAACP titled "Why The Amos 'n' Andy Show Should Be Taken Off The Air"
they cite:
It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that
Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb, and dishonest. Every character in this one and only
TV show with an all Negro cast is either a clown or a crook. Negro doctors are shown
as quacks and thieves. Negro lawyers are shown as slippery cowards, ignorant of their
profession and without ethics. Negro Women are shown as cackling, screaming shrews,
in big mouthed close-ups, using street slang, just short of vulgarity. All Negroes are
shown as dodging work of any kind. Millions of white Americans see this Amos 'n'
Andy picture of Negroes and think the entire race is the same. ("Why The Amos 'n'
Andy TV Show Should Be Taken Off The Air")
Problematic depictions using stereotypes continue to this day on television, albeit in more
discreet ways. What does the longevity of this formula signify about American audiences?
Humor Theory
According to attitudinal endorsement theory what makes a joke funny to a person is
accepting the "propositions it relies on" and that the receiver has some positive attitude towards
the proposition required to 'get it' (Smuts, 336). So when humor is derogatory towards a racial
group and it achieves laughter in an audience this implies that the derogatory view of such
group is accepted by the audience. David Chappelle famously gave up his Chappelle's Show
due to his a conflict where he felt that his show was being enjoyed the wrong way by whites,
that rather than being laughed with, he was being laughed at (Banjo, 138).
Classically, Plato argued "that laughter at comedies is a form of malice, which he defines
along the lines of sadism" (Smuts, 334). There is a pressure to accept such humor in spite of
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the malicious nature. Taking offense to racial humor is looked upon as 'not being able to take a
joke,' or not having a sense of humor, which, in American society is a dominant cultural value
(Apte, 29). Apte also argues that a sense of humor signifies being "more sociable, easier to get
along and to work with, innovative, and capable of facing adversities and overcoming them,
and is therefore more desirable than one without "(29). This puts blacks in a precarious position
of either accepting racial humor, or being viewed as unsociable and undesirable, which further
alienates them from the norm and, in the mind of the layman, supports stereotypical
characteristics of blacks being overtly sensitive and easily angered by racial discourse.
Hugo Dobson researched racial and ethnic stereotypes presented in The Simpsons and
offers insights into some ways to view racial humor. Dobson argues that "use of racial
stereotypes is like a carnival: an opportunity to ridicule and let off some steam against the piety
of current political correctness but without going too far" (Dobson 2006, 58). Racial or ethnic
humor can also have a hyper-ironic quality that allows it to be read "as more than simplistic
mockery or vulgar racism" (Dobson, 60). Most importantly Dobson divides stereotypes into
two distinct categories: typical/ignorant and witty/knowledgeable.
Racial Humor as a Tool of Social Commentary and Racial Oppression
The Roast of Flavor Flav is chock full of stereotyping and racism, presumably for the sake
of humor. "The palatability of culturally intimate humor to a mass audience depends on a broad
awareness of cultural stereotypes and greater conspicuousness of the group in question in the
larger culture" (Cooper, 229). This implies that the success and lack of controversy about the
Roast of Flavor Flav signifies an atmosphere in American culture that is understanding and/or
supportive of racial stereotypes. In fact, the outspoken criticism and the inspiration for this
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study came from Katt Williams, the host of Flavor Flav's Roast (Katt Williams: It's Pimpin'
Pimpin' 2008). During Katt William's: It's Pimpin' Pimpin' he expressed that he noticed that the
script had a particularly high presence of racial content, much different than the other Comedy
Central Roasts that featured white guest stars.
In America malice in humor goes back in history as a way of marginalizing and degrading
black people and culture, enforcing lines of control and power over their subordinate role in the
white dominated society. Historically it has been argued that blacks laughing at black racial
humor "was, more often than not, the weapon used to fight the pain", or used as 'coping humor',
for black experience as an underclass in America (Haggins, 2; Thorson et al., 1). Immigrant
groups and other ethnic groups that are not part of the hegemonic race in America have
historically been fodder and perpetrators of their own humor that teases at stereotypes for
example Jewish comedians and Polish jokes (Apte, 35). The presence or use of racial humor is
tied to the 'otherness' of groups, as opposed to the 'normalness' of the hegemonic group, or
whites, in America. Apte argues that racial jokes from a non-member of the race necessitates a
disclaimer from the comic as to the humor not being used to endorse racism, or prejudice (35),
there are no such disclaimers in The Roast of Flavor Flav. What does this mean in the discourse
of post-Civil Rights America?
Although racism is a thing of the past in legally sanctioned sense; racial segregation and
racial identity is still present in the sub-conscious of America. 'Difference' and 'otherness' are
marked in representations of racial and ethnic minorities, signifying a norm of the white Anglo
in America (Hall 1997, 230). The cultural identity of minorities is skewed into a position of not
belonging, or not fitting the status quo of the society--the hegemony (Hall, 230). This is
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represented in The Roast of Flavor Flav not just in regard to the black participants, but any
social minority be they Jewish, women, etc. The roasting of white participants rarely involves
their whiteness, except when the roaster is black, establishing that white male is the norm and
any deviation to the norm is targeted; just as fatness is targeted because it does not fit the
hegemonic standard of thinness.
The use of racial stereotypes in the discourse of humor in The Roast of Flavor Flav
furthers normal representations in media of blacks being pimps, drug-involved, criminal, and
different than whites. These representations carry over from Gangsta Rap depictions, which
puts some context to these stereotypes being fair-game in the roast, being that gangsta rappers
Ice-T and Snoop Dogg were participants. Flavor Flav also garners the image of a 'pimp' due to
his hit show The Flavor of Love, where he woos the hearts and minds of dozens of women,
simultaneously. So, context will be a prominent notion in establishing what racial jokes are
properly constructed, as opposed to gratuitous racial insults that show no foundation in political
or social inquiry. However, the quantity of racial references will also be important in
establishing a trend and comparison with the other Comedy Central Roasts: Bob Saget, William
Shatner, Charlie Sheen, and David Hasselhoff; to see how race is constructed and manifests in
the Comedy Central Roasts.
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References
Apte, Mahadev L. "Ethnic Humor Versus 'Sense of Humor' An American Sociocultural
Dilemma." The American Behavioral Scientist Vol. 30, no. 3 (1987), p27-41, 15p.
doi:10.1177/000276487030003004
Banjo, Omotayo. "What are You Laughing at? Examining White Identity and Enjoyment of
Black Entertainment." Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol.55, no. 2 (April
2011): p137-159, 23p. doi:10.1080/08838151.2011.570822
Comedy Central Roasts: Flavor Flav; Bob Saget; David Hasselhoff; William Shatner, and
Charlie Sheen. Directed by Various. Tenth Planet Productions. Netflix
Cooper, Evan. "Is It Something He Said: The Mass Consumption of Richard Pryor's Culturally
Intimate Humor." Communication Review 10, no. 3 (September 2007): p223-247, 24p.
doi:10.1080/10714420701528065
Dobson, Hugo. "Mister Sparkle Meets the Yakuza: Depictions of Japan in The Simpsons." The
Journal of Popular Culture, Vol.39, No. 1 (2006): p44-68, 25p. doi:10.1111/j.15405931.2006.00203.x
Haggins, Bambi. Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post Soul America. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Hall, Stuart. "The Spectacle of the 'Other'." Representation: Cultural Representations and
Signifying Practices. Sage, 1997.
Katt Williams: It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’, directed by Troy Miller. 2008. Salient Media. 2012.
Mastro, Dana E and Linda R Tropp. "The Effects of Interracial Contact, Attitudes, and
Stereotypical Portrayals on Evaluations of Black Television Sitcom Characters."
Communication Research Reports, Vol. 21, Issue 2 (2009), p119-129, 11p. doi:
10.1080/08824090409359974
Smuts, Aaron. "The Ethics of Humor: Can Your Sense of Humor be Wrong?" Ethical Theory
and Moral Practice, Vol. 13, Issue 3 (2010), p333-347, 14p. doi: 10.1007/s10677-0099203-5
Thorson, James A, F.C. Powell, and V.T. Samuel. "Sense of Humor in Black and White." North
American Journal of Psychology Vol. 3, Issue 1 (2001), p.1-11, 11p.
http://search.proquest.com/docview/89152867/fulltextPDF?accountid=13584
"Why The Amos 'n' Andy TV Show Should Be Taken Off The Air." www.amosandy.com. from
NAACP Bulletin 15 August, 1951. accessed 13 October 2012.
http://www.amosandy.com/Review%20Articles/naacp.htm
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Tomas Rincon CMC 200 Literature Review Dr. Ted Gournelos