Racism, Laughter and Unity

by Peter Gray | 1/17/07 6:00am

Is race funny? If you said no, then you have a lot of thinking to do. Many of comedy's greatest moments owe their humor to the social divides of our past. Where would the current Saturday Night Live skit of note, "Dick in a Box," be if it weren't funny to see two white kids act like womanizing R&B artists? What if the kids from "Animal House" had walked into the black bar, Otis Day giving the evil eye, and not felt a potent alienation? What if Dave Chappelle stopped making fun of white people with such deadly accuracy?

Comedy's use of race as a subject has been primarily positive. The representation of this divide has provided a necessary catharsis by first uniting us, in an acknowledgement that the divide exists and, second, through its parody of stereotypes, allowing us to challenge their cultural dominance and accept their inner validity. Dave Chappelle is this genre's champion. In his parody of the MTV hit "The Real World," he presents a periodic table of black and white stereotypes: the hapless white kid whose dad makes brownies for the house, the ex-con thug, the in-yo-face I've-got-my-name-written-on-my-earrings buxom black queen. We laugh, we acknowledge how ridiculous and overdone the caricatures are, yet we're able to safely identify a kernel of truth.

But this model has come under scrutiny recently, most specifically by Chappelle himself. His legendary exit from a two-season, $50 million contract was caused, it seems, by Chappelle's fears about the "social responsibility" of his own comedy. How were white viewers laughing when he put on black face, or when Tron, his scrawny-thug guise, uses his reparations check to make it to the top of the Fortune 400 in a back-alley dice game in Brooklyn? Were the stereotypes being broken down or reinforced? Was Tron leading white viewers, subconsciously, to acknowledge the ridiculousness of such a character, or was it only entrenching their expectations of black social backwardness?

Chappelle is too good at what he does. His stereotypes and caricatures are so perfect (and so hilarious) that it's hard not to get comfortable with the "N-word" bouncing around like a pinball, with all white guys as squares, and all blacks as socially dysfunctional "wankstas." We forget the stereotypes are presented not to entrench them but to call them into question. We internalized this catharsis on television as if it were our own, as if we really had bridged the divide, that the "N-word" was now bereft of its painful power.

Michael Richards' recent return to the public gaze highlights the limitations of this optimistic comedic model. I shy away from the comparison between his speech and Mel Gibson's freeway rant. Call him a racist if you need to, but give him the credit his intelligence deserves. Would he really let himself get carried away like that on stage?

The act was a near reversal of the very same comic model Dave Chappelle championed and then questioned. The difference was that instead of some reticent misgivings, he split wide the optimism about racial relations and exposed the embarrassing limitations within. A white man cannot, we were reminded, reverse the model. I don't make the case that he should be allowed to either.

It was the reality check that any optimism about the cathartic effects of comedy needed. In the skit that actually led him to his conclusions, Chappelle works through a handful of ethnicities, impersonating their internal consciousness as they interact with other races. The black guy is worried about ordering fried chicken even though he wants it. The Japanese guy worries about his accent in front of a beautiful girl. The white guy can't decide whether to try to act black or white in front of his black friends. The reality is that every one of us still has those same inner monologues, and our real world interactions are often just as stunted. We've still got that little man on our shoulders, trying to bridge the divide.