Not Just Funny: On Diversity in Comedy

Earlier this month Jerry Seinfeld made some troubling comments about diversity in comedy. Sitting down with Peter Lauria of Buzzfeed on CBS in the Morning, Seinfeld asserted that viewers who have highlighted the lack of diversity in his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” are practicing “anti-comedy.” Responding to these viewers’ demands for more diversity, Seinfeld said, “People think [comedy] is the census or something, it’s gotta represent the actual pie chart of America. Who cares? It’s just funny. Funny is the world I live in. You’re funny? I’m interested. You’re not funny? I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender of race or anything like that, but everyone else is calculating: ‘Is this the exact right mix?”

As a rich, straight, white male, Seinfeld truly opened a can of worms. Comedian Nicole Byer angrily threw these worms back in his face. Ruben Navarette Jr. went back to the factory where these canned worms originated – Seinfeld – and highlighted the few Latino characters he recalled. Maya Roy called Seinfeld racist and heralded his imminent irrelevance in comedy. Dave Schilling argued that Seinfeld and Seinfeld should be left to their own devices, with diversity being supported elsewhere instead of being injected into shows that aren’t concerned with it. I want to do some other things with these worms. By thinking about what it means for something to be “just funny,” I will explore what this troubling idea means for comedians who aren’t straight white males as well as comedians at large.

The Politics of Comedy

First off, I want to talk politics. To start, it must be clear that the politics of comedy is not the politics of comedians. Following Jacques Ranciere, I conceive of politics as a partition of the sensible, an active intervention in what can be perceived. In other words, a particular politics is the set of actions that makes certain things in the world intelligible in a certain way. Comedy essentially works by taking a description of a real or imagined world and making it intelligible as funny. This is the politics of comedy. Comedy makes things funny. Other modes of perception like sarcasm and parody and mimicry and even horror can perform the same politics, so funniness is not unique to comedy, but funniness is the primary goal of comedy, whether it is successful (causing laughter) or not (causing non-laughter).

In practice, this politics gets mixed in with other politics, other ways of rendering certain things intelligible. For instance, at a typical stand-up comedy show, the space and technical layout of the venue are to make the performer visible and audible: chairs face a centralized location, microphones and speakers are directed toward the audience and lighting is concentrated on the performer’s location. These are political acts. Through this concert of spatial and technical arrangements, comedians are able to rise above their lowly statuses as anonymous members of the crowd and temporarily be an individuated person saying hopefully funny things.

The entanglement of political acts extends further into where a venue is located, whether or not it serves alcohol, who is on the bill, who got to choose who appears on the bill and so forth. Most importantly, it gets mixed in with the political beliefs of the performer. I’m not trying to schematize the entire political landscape of a comedy show, so I will stop here, but my basic point is that comedy itself, as well as the social scene in which it unfolds, is not some neutral space that people walk into, then leave. At every level, politics occurs. Both the act of making something funny and the act of choosing who can attempt to say something funny are political choices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes a certain knowledge to make things funny and to know who is funny, and I think that people attending or watching a comedy show reasonably expect these things to have been organized by someone who knows these things. That is a given. I just think that it’s utterly naive to think that the political acts of declaring who is funny and what is funny are somehow immune or detached from the political acts that exclude certain genders, races, creeds, ages, colors, sexualities and so forth. In short, how can anything be “just funny” when funniness itself is the result of numerous political acts laboring to make things funny? Even if Seinfeld himself has not made these acts, the world he lives in, “funny,” is founded upon them. Each act has privileged certain kinds of people, collectively creating a world that doesn’t accurately reflect the incredible range of people making jokes.

Nothing Is Funny?

Seinfeld the show is often described as the show about nothing. Even the show itself once slyly asserted this in the episode, “The Pitch,” cited above. Though I don’t think this description is true, I think we should momentarily take it at face value. What does it mean to be a show about nothing? Stated differently, what does it mean for a comedy show to aspire toward nothingness? For Seinfeld, I think that this meant that no subject was particularly significant. From that perspective, each joke and the corresponding observation that led to that joke could be viewed as just another joke, just funny. The goal of each joke, each bit, is just laughter. Enlightenment, critique, anger, displeasure, empathy and other possible outcomes of jokes, are undesirable at best and unwarranted at worst. Seinfeld is about laughs, plain and simple.

I don’t buy that. In 1998 Greg Braxton wrote an interesting article about how Seinfeld’s season finale was largely a “nonevent” for black audiences. Focusing on the lack of diversity within the cast and within the show’s stories, Braxton writes, “Observers said that the lack of ‘Seinfeld’ fever among blacks is mainly attributable to the almost total absence of minority characters on the New York-based sitcom. Some supporting characters–including an attorney modeled after defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.–have been featured in the last few seasons, but many said the show is still seen as a program that excludes minorities.” The claim here appears to be that audiences want to identify with the characters they see. Braxton later qualifies this claim by quoting a tv executive who cites the popularity of Walker, Texas Ranger among black viewers. As the executive emphasizes, black people, and presumably any demographic, don’t need to see themselves in order to like a show. Yet that does seem to play a crucial role in how the show is received. To put it slyly, I think there’s a reason that Ruben Navarette Jr. can remember every single Latino character he ever saw on Seinfeld.

Keeping that executive’s comment in mind and relating it back to Seinfeld’s comments, I don’t think that people are making a purely demographic request when they highlight the lack of diversity in his show. Even if they frame this request in “census” terms, for me, the black response to Seinfeld hints at the privileges embedded in aspiring to nothingness. In other words, though Seinfeld is posited as neutral, just another vehicle for laughs, just funny, black viewers saw it as a vehicle for a particular group’s experiences of the world. For them, Seinfeld was not just funny; it was funny in a certain way, a way that came from a particular way of experiencing the world. Thus, they laughed, but they saw more than just the joke. They saw the world that the jokes come from, a world in which tensions about gender, race, class, occupation etc., could be sidelined instead of being one’s main focus. Stated bluntly, they saw a world of privilege, a world in which wealthy white folks got into hilarious and crazy antics because they had the luxury to not constantly think about paying their rent or eating or their cars breaking down or their grandmother dying. These wealthy white folks could make jokes and live those particularly strange lives because they had “nothing” else to worry about, even though the show clearly had something happening in it.

How Comedy is Made: Seriously, Nothing is “Just Funny”

I’ve touched on how comedy politically works and how Seinfeld’s/Seinfeld’s comedy has a certain infrastructure of privilege, but to underscore the latter point, I’d like to talk about my own experience of making and performing jokes, particularly observational jokes (my favorite kind). From my understanding, moreso than other forms of comedy, observational comedy is especially tied to the person observing. Even if this observer is effaced in the delivery of the joke – as in the joke itself doesn’t include “I” – observational jokes always have an implied source. For instance, when watching Mitch Hedberg perform, even when he’s telling jokes about stuff he’s seen, it’s clear that he was the person who saw these things and turned them into jokes. More than “just observations,” these are his observations and through his skill he has made them into funny, quirky jokes. The act of turning the observation into a joke is an abstraction and performing the joke live actually takes the abstraction further, but these abstractions always have a source. There is always an originary point of reference being abstracted from one thing and toward something else.

In my own experience, I was once told by a friend that some of my jokes are too focused on race. For him, the “from” was always too apparent, subsequently limiting how far the joke could travel, how funny it could be. In his mind, jokes seemed to be like kites: the best ones fly away (“Hahaha”) and the bad ones either stayed confusingly wrapped in my hands (“I don’t get it?”) or lamely sank back down to the earth, settling on my black face (“That was not funny”). Looking back, I think that some of these jokes were actually pretty bad, but not because they talked about race. I think that they were bad because I attempted to talk about race without making them intelligible as jokes. They just sounded like declarative statements from a black guy rather than jokes. I think that that admitting this and changing it was an important development for me as a comedian, but not on my friend’s terms. For him, the problem was that my jokes were too personal; for me, the problem was that my jokes weren’t jokes.

I think that the difference between these two positions is what’s at stake in Seinfeld’s comments. In the world that my friend and Seinfeld allegedly occupy, jokes are jokes. Their origins don’t matter. All that matters is whether or not the joke is funny. In the world that I live in – which is actually the same world they live in – jokes don’t exist just to make people laugh, to be just funny. Jokes and the people who tell them make me laugh as well as cry, frown, pout, yell, grimace and gasp. In this world, performers don’t deceive themselves into thinking that they aren’t part of the act, that their jokes and how they deliver them are unrelated to how they experience the world or are forced to experience the world via gender, class, race, religion or sexuality.

If this world is the world of anti-comedy, I think that the definition of comedy needs to change. Because if it doesn’t change and Seinfeld and my friend continue to define comedy by dismissing the origins of jokes, it’s doing a disservice to all comedians as well as Seinfeld’s own legacy. After all, Seinfeld’s jokes aren’t “just jokes.” They’re the product of a mind that observes the world with a keen eye and turns these observations into hilarious, insightful statements that often change how we view little dimensions of life. These jokes can be called “just funny” or “nothing,” but they’re so much more than that. To not give other people the opportunities to make their observations from their experiences of the world – be it through actively granting these opportunities à la SNL or just plain listening when they say that these opportunities are rare – is to make comedy into something that it is not and never should be.


On The FP

The FP is an upcoming film that heavily derides DDR and the enthusiasts that love it. As a former DDR fanatic player, a film mocking DDR immediately feels like a good idea. As much as I enjoyed the game, I would be the last to argue that the game and the players aren’t alarmingly strange. In fact, I wouldn’t argue it all. DDR players are fucking weird.

The FP explodes this weirdness in a very intentional way, occasionally succeeding and frequently failing. I know this because I just finished watching the first 10 minutes of the film. Go ahead and watch it. Yes, that is a legal link. The filmmakers chose to advertise it that way.

As I hope you noticed, in that clip “nigga” gets tossed around quite frequently. Now, I’m not the nigga police (Is that an oxymoron?). I say it hesitantly and self-consciously, but I say it nonetheless. I also know that other people say it, sometimes non-black people. I’m not going to even attempt to lay out instances in which “nigga” and its relatives are “acceptable.” Not only do I not even know what “acceptable” really means, but I lack the authority, if such authority even exists (it probably doesn’t) and the time. What I want to talk about is how “nigga” works within the movie.

To start off, yes, I know that the movie is camp. This is very clear to me. The dialogue, the music, the characters, the clothing and the basic conceit of the film are all heavily campy. I get it. But camp doesn’t excuse racism. Again, I’ll say this explicitly: I know that in the absence of black people (and sometimes the presence), some non-black people say “nigga.” I’m neither disputing that or calling them racists.I would need a context for that.

All that being said, when I watched this film, every time someone said “nigga,” it didn’t feel subversive or transgressive. It felt racist. It’s supposed to be a joke, I’m sure, but it’s just plain distracting (read: racist). Literally every time it was uttered, I had a frisson. This didn’t happen because I’m uptight. I’ve seen the My Way Entertainment videos, I actually like Malibu’s Most Wanted and I like Tarantino films. In other words, I don’t cringe at the mere idea of “nigga” being used by non-black people for the sake of art. Some people (i.e. Spike Lee), do cringe and maybe I should too, but I don’t. In The FP, “nigga” isn’t being used to mock casual racism or achieve some artistic goal. It’s being used because “it’s funny,” which is ironic, because it isn’t. It’s just racist.

Addendum: I focused on race in this post, but everything I’ve said also applies to all the movie’s attempts to mock “bros” (click here for a distinction between bros and douches) and “bro humor.” In essence, the mocking ends up becoming the thing being mocked. There are multiple terms for this phenomenon. Baudrillard calls it simulation. The internet calls it Poe’s Law. I call it bad comedy.

On The Language of Offense and Non-Apologies

Katt Williams has offered an apology for some “offensive statements” he made at a recent show.

For most of the video, I honestly don’t know what’s going on. Williams appears to be out of his goddamn mind. The crowd appears to be crazy too, but it’s Arizona, so it’s really not that surprising. Because I couldn’t really focus on his words, I mostly just watched him aggressively prowl the stage and sing the national anthem. I was also distracted by the women on stage. I assume they are apart of his act, which is potentially troubling when you consider what his act is, but I don’t know. That’s a discussion for another day. What I am focusing on is his “apology.”

“My remarks were not meant to be offensive.” What the fuck? His apology is genuinely the most nonsensical thing I’ve ever read. If  he wasn’t trying to be offensive, what the hell was he trying to do? Be consoling? He was dealing with a heckler for chrissakes. There are multiple strategies for dealing with hecklers, but the main one – and the one he’s clearly using – is to offend the shit out of them. From a comedic standpoint, it certainly worked. The[racist] audience was clearly on his side.

I know that I’m singling Williams out here, but I’m not inviting you to boycott Katt Williams or Arizona (I might be lying about the latter). I just have a deeper concern.

That concern is that “apologies” like this are frighteningly common. Earlier today I was walking around campus and I crossed paths with some frat dudes who were dressed up like “Indians” and whooping. My gut reaction was to go inform someone, but I didn’t because I felt that not only would no one care (If people really cared about Native Americans, there would be no such thing as the Washington Redskins or “The Blue Indian“), but if they did care, I’d get an apology similar to Williams’. Example: “We did not mean to offend anyone.” And then life would continue with me looking like an asshole and my real concern being ignored.

See, the truth is that I wasn’t offended. After all, their stupidity was neither directed toward me nor toward anyone, really. Thus, an apology like that would not only ignore my real qualms, but also make the perpetrators feel unjustly accused. This is my issue with this language of offense. When we speak of things being “offensive,” we both focus all of our energy on the reaction of the “offended party” and assume that that reaction is the only thing that makes us accountable. Apologies like Williams’ and the hypothetical (yet probable) one by my peers/administration, rather than focusing on what caused my negative reaction, focus on the reaction itself, ultimately eliding any serious discussion.

To be fair, we must also admit that “offended parties” frame themselves as such. Often, when we’re in the moment it is hard to articulate our grievances because our gut reaction is all we have; we know something is deeply wrong, but we just can’t explain it beyond our reaction to it. For instance, at a Halloween party last year, I was asked by stranger if I was dressed as Obama (for the record, I wasn’t – unless Obama shops at American Eagle and Old Navy) and rather than giving a passionate extemporaneous speech all I said was, “That’s offensive,” and walked away. In retrospect I probably should have at least tried to explain why I reacted that way. Because I didn’t, those dudes are forever going to think I’m just some over-sensitive Black dude, if they even remember that scenario in the first place. I could dismiss that as a just a bad experience with some racist assholes (which it was, fundamentally), but it was more than that. It was also a missed opportunity to combat racism. When we fail to admit our own shortcomings, we help to perpetuate racism. Sounds kind of racist to me.

The problem with the current way in which we speak of offense can be found in the old story [that I made up] about the two neighbors who have never met, yet always complain about each other. Mike and Susan live next door to each other, but have never met. Nevertheless, they hate each other. Mike hates Susan because she always plays her music loudly, despite the fact that he always calls the cops. Susan hates Mike because he’s Black (kidding) never come over  to talk to her about her music levels, yet continues to call the police on her. It’s easy to blame Susan for playing her music loudly, but I think we should criticize Mike too. In his defense, Susan is Greek a huge Asher Roth fan. Regardless, his failure to speak to Susan, to acknowledge her as his neighbor, his peer, a person just like himself, undoubtedly contributes to her recidivism.

Before summing everything up, I’d like to say that I know that apologies are often just formalities (meaning they aren’t intended to be genuine) and that my hypothetical case is hypothetical. Nevertheless, for those people who want to make sincere apologies and those people want their offenders to understand their offenses, I believe this is an important thing to discuss. As long as we fail to talk to each other about why things are offensive, we’re going to continue to offend each other. That’s just stupid.

Update: The Katt Williams fiasco wasn’t my ultimate concern, but I feel obligated to post this update. It turns out that his apology was not his apology. But paradoxically he offers an apology under the circumstance that someone think he’s Anti-Mexican. What? Williams later offers a wider context for the joke. The entire joke itself is problematic (racist) and his newer “apology” is dubious as hell, so my points still remain. What a bizarre situation.