Comedians and White Privilege

9 Feb
Daniel Tosh

Daniel Tosh

I’ll say this much about the BBC’s Top Gear and its hosts- they don’t back down from a controversy. Two weeks ago, hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Mark Hammond dismissed the idea of driving a Mexican car, since the cars from that country must be like the people- “lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight”.  Excuse me for not howling with laughter. Yeah, and Germans are uptight, Arabs are irrational, and Asians are bad drivers. Har!

As a serious fan of comedy, I am offended more by the unfunniness of jokes based on ethnic stereotypes than anything else. But yes, they are offensive because they draw a line in the sand. You and me, we get this joke. We can tell it because we’re in the majority. Those other guys? They’re not in on the joke.

The controversy over Top Gear’s ugly Mexican stereotypes lies not just in the jokes but in the fact that the hosts issued a totally clueless non-apology. The BBC actually stated that, while apologizing for insulting the Mexican Ambassador to Mexico, “national-stereotyping was part of British humour“. Perhaps this is why British humor has always struck me as pedestrian and juvenile. National stereotyping is hilarious when you’re 12- not so much when you’re an adult. Who likes laugh out loud humor.

I’ve been noticing this a lot lately- a glut of white comedians just swimming in white privilege. I was recently watching a series on Comedy Central of comedians ranked from 20 to 1 (when we count the best in pop culture, we count backwards).  We had a couple of black comedians, two women, and one Asian comedian, Eliot Chang, who gets an A for enthusiasm but an F for unfunny. Bo Burnham, number one? A teenager with a piano? Gack. Yet many of the (white) comedians told jokes about (minority) races that really brought it home to this viewer that, let’s face it, comedy is for white folks. And Arabs smell funny.

There are several offenders when it comes to comedians bathing in the glow of white privilege. To wit:

– Daniel Tosh, he of Tosh 2.0. I love Daniel Tosh- no one has taken down Nebraska quite like he has. His early stand up is intelligent, insightful, and hilarious. Yet in nearly every episode of Tosh.0, we witness a dynamic of white dudes mocking people of color for doing “ghetto stuff”. And yes, there is a segment called “Is it racist?”. Usually, it is!

–  I recently attended an improv show that was part of SF Sketchfest, and while the performance itself was mildly funny, choosing which performance to attend was even harder. Three weeks packed with top comedians from yesterday and today, and each one whiter than the last. SF Sketchfest is perfect for you if your idea of hilarious is Bo Burnham.

Now, am I one of those wimpy, super PC San Franciscans that weeps if something even has the hint of offensiveness? Hardly. I think the best comedy is insightful, as the best comedians are the truthtellers of the day. This doesn’t require a simple, us vs. them, I can tell jokes about you people because I’m in the majority style that many white comedians adopt. But let’s face it, most of the comedy we see out there, whether on Comedy Central or on stage or in the movies, is made for 12 year old boys. So who’s still great? Dave Chappelle, who this very evening performed a secret show in San Francisco (I couldn’t get tickets in time!). His riff on women who dress sexy is classic. He’s edgy, and walks the “white people do this/black people do that” line better than most comics (because he’s actually insightful). You can discuss race in a way that is neither offensive nor milquetoast. According to this lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight Mexican.

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