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.

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On All About the Beat , Kanye West and Aesthetics

All About the Beat - John McWhorter

Kanye West’s recent album Yeezus has all the elements of hip-hop that John McWhorter rails against in his polemic book All About the Beat: it’s loud, it’s infectious (not in the good way, in my opinion) and despite Kanye West’s claims to the contrary, it is very media friendly. Furthermore, it explicitly claims to be radical and revolutionary in terms of content, in terms of form and in terms of production (how it was produced as well as who is was produced by). For John McWhorter these characteristics of hip-hop are precisely what make it politically inert, hence the book’s subtitle and thesis: “Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America.”

Quite honestly, I agree with this thesis: if Black America is to be saved – economically, socially, politically, existentially – hip-hop seems ill-equipped to be our sole savior. I could certainly see it playing a role, but given who it appeals to (not all Black people like hip-hop and the ones who do aren’t necessarily politically coherent) and how it appeals to us (through highly mediated networks of capital, cultural legibility, availability and taste), it would seem rather naive to attribute to hip-hop as a genre/practice/way-of-life too much revolutionary potential.

But the point of this post isn’t to agree with McWhorter’s thesis. In fact, I want to do exactly the opposite. Of interest to me is how McWhorter goes about building his argument, specifically his use of conservative ideas about the “truth” of the Civil Rights Movement and the “superficiality” of aestheticizing politics. By unveiling his sly conservatism I not only want to show how he misrepresents what hip-hop and its defenders claim to be doing, but I more crucially want to demonstrate that the politics of depth – a common conservative technique – is really just a way of depoliticizing and subsequently dismissing the political nature of surfaces.

Staying on the Surface

The central claim of All About the Beat is clear in the following statement: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake” (18). McWhorter frames this claim as an unveiling of hip-hop’s actual mission, a revealing of its true politics. It’s a clever move because McWhorter knows exactly how most defenders of hip-hop will respond to this statement: “No, hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority!” This outcry would then be followed by proof that hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority in the form of an argument for depth, for meaning. This would entail citing “conscious” artists then dissecting their lyrics to demonstrate a political consciousness. Expecting this move, McWhorter would then either dispute their lyrics if the lyrics are ambiguous/vague or ask “What have they done for the community?” If the artist has undeniably politicized lyrics and a clear history of helping the community, McWhorter resorts to his trump card: “Well, most people don’t listen to that anyway” (75). Finally, if the song is popular, he resorts to his ultimate ace in the hole: “It is just a sequence of words that sounds good, especially when seasoned with rhythm” (67). Translation: music is just music, nothing else, nothing more.

This is the actual structure of the book: Chapter 1 asserts that hip-hop artists don’t practice politics; Chapter 2 then says the ones who think they do (conscious artists) actually don’t; Chapters 3 and 4 then claim that even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because no one listens to them and these politics are incongruous with accepted or successful political practice; finally Chapter 5 says that hip-hop is “just music” and music can’t be political anyway. ”

I’ve outlined this argument because all of its possible moves are solely enabled by its original proposition: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake.” While this statement appears to be just a claim, a provocation to be proved or disproved, it is actually a judgment, a valuation of how politics should be practiced. Depicted with its politics on its face, that judgment would would look like this: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake and that is not an acceptable form of politics because it is aesthetic and aesthetics aren’t political.” McWhorter is not not just dismissing hip-hop’s alleged politics; he’s upholding his own. This technique and the politics it preserves are notoriously conservative, but we can avoid getting duped by remaining on the surface, by not assessing hip-hop in terms of depth.

A Reluctant Defense of Yeezus

Yeezus is an awful album. If my luck persists, I will never have to listen to it again. But beyond how it sounds, I think it’s more interesting to think about what Yeezus was trying to do. As I understand it, Yeezus is Kanye’s polemic against the various forces that have kept him provincialized within hip-hop and “black culture.” According to Kanye, throughout his career and even before it, he has attempted to push into other worlds – visual art, fashion, design, film, rapping, singing – and been met with opposition, disdain, ridicule and the like. We’ll call it “hate” for short.

This has some merit. Since College Dropout, Kanye’s attempts to open new doors have frequently been resisted by bizarrely zealous doormen, despite his artistic versatility and his earnestness. Of course, Kanye isn’t one to make a quiet entrance: he has always been loud and obnoxious. And no doorman likes an unpleasant visitor. But the force of the resistance to Kanye has often not been equivalent to the force he came with: while he’s knocked with only a brash smile and a loud voice, he’s been met with armed guards and German shepherds. Just look at the infamous Taylor Swift incident. What should have been just another silly moment at an already silly award show – the VMAs are such a joke – genuinely became his stigma. It’s strange: people actually despise the guy for possibly his most innocuous statement.

Meta yeezus SummaryAfter a career filled with these obstacles, Kanye finally confronted them headfirst. Forgoing the wit and cynical distance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, on Yeezus he simply yelps, summoning a vast collective of producers and writers from within hip-hop and beyond to transform that yelp into a breathless, 40 minute-long scream. Throughout Yeezus we hear Kanye rearticulate why he’s so upset, literally shouting out (at) hate in the form of corporations, racists, classists, sidechicks, clothing companies, critics and so on. No stone is left is unturned: he addresses Haters as a collective.

Kanye tries to connect his screams to historical and ongoing screams for respect, self-dignity and opportunities, but if you listen closely – and I did – the screams don’t overlap too much. In a joke I wrote earlier this summer, I talked about how his song “Blood on the Leaves” uses apartheid as a metaphor for relationship conflicts. This kind of poor interlocking of disparate narratives occurs all across the album. Kanye actually thinks that his inability to push into new markets and new women and new houses in the Hamptons is akin to a Civil Rights struggle. It isn’t. It absolutely isn’t. Kanye West is a multi-millionaire with profitable stakes in various industries and he enjoys a level of privilege, comfort and luxury that is unmatched by most black people and most people in general. Quite simply, his haters are his haters; his struggle is literally mostly his struggle..

But it is a struggle nonetheless. In his dismissal of hip-hop, John McWhorter doesn’t offer the opportunity to recognize such struggles or even interrogate why people connect them to larger struggles. At the end of Chapter 4, his treatise on “real struggles” (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement), he writes, “Of course racism is still around. But in deciding what is possible today, black people must do their grandparents the courtesy of remembering what America was like in the old days. In this, black people will also do themselves a courtesy, in working from what is constructive and positive about our times. Smoking out one more indication that racism is still alive in subliminal ways must be less interesting to us than coping, dealing, building ” (139).

McWhorter’s reference to grandparents is telling. In this quote and the previously mentioned quote in which he states the thesis of his book, authority is essential. Because the atrocities that energized the Civil Rights Movement are “over,” black people must quietly “respect” the ones who experienced those atrocities and never make connections. Since nothing can be more unfathomable than the experiences of Black Americans before the 60s, no correlations should ever even be posited. This has a scary logic. Sure, being profiled at Barneys is certainly not akin to being beaten for simply existing and that’s just fact, honestly. But the way McWhorter articulates his point is insidiously programmed to preclude all grievances, even bad ones. To solely focus on the positive, as he asks us to, is to suppress the possibility of rage or a politics of rage that can emerge from it. Stated otherwise: McWhorter is saying, “Stop complaining!” This sounds very familiar to me.

Jacques Ranciere gives us further insight: “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of politicity, by not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse.” (Dissenus 38). The call to “stop complaining” is precisely such a denial of recognition. Kanye’s politics is a bad politics because it is self-centered and unreflexive. But it is a politics nonetheless. As bad a song as “New Slaves” is (politically) it is still a political utterance.  McWhorter denies a politics for an entire discourse, an entire field of thought and action. My concern is not just this act of denial and the masses who are affected by it, but how it works. In order to depoliticize hip-hop and subordinate it to a dubious historical narrative (authority), McWhorter must tacitly ignore the politics that hip-hop wears on its surface, the politics that are built into its aesthetics. And it’s bizarre that he constantly brings up the Civil Rights Movement, but he never thinks about its own aesthetics. It is not a coincidence that marchers and demonstrators often wore their “Sunday Best” and chanted church hymns rather than singing Elvis songs and wearing their pajamas.

Resurfacing: Fucking the Police

The phrase “fuck the police” has a cherished position in hip-hop, from N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” to Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer” to MellowHype’s “Fuck Tha Police” to B. Dolan’s “Film the Police.” Though the specifics of each song matter, I’m not going to go into them. What I want to point out is how ill-equipped McWhorter’s ideas are for interrogating why “fuck the police” has circulated within hip-hop for so long. Although believers in the Illuminati,  backpackers and label executives probably think otherwise, hip-hop is aggressively decentralized. There is no apparatus keeping “fuck the police” alive. People are saying it for a reason. And I don’t mean that in a deep way; I mentioned “Mrs. Officer” for a reason – It is literally a song about fucking a female police officer.

But there is a reason why “fuck the police” is so bolted to hip-hop in particular. Even if it has become something that hip-hop fans just say willy nilly, without provocation, performing it as police officers dutifully stand by the stage at a mega-concert, there is a reason why hip-hop fans say it, but Taylor Swift fans don’t. Stated differently, there’s a reason why there’s rap songs against stop and frisk and not country songs or indie rock songs or even R&B songs.

And my grand point is that McWhorter could never account for that reason. For him, aesthetics never matter because they can’t matter because he doesn’t want them to matter because if they do matter he’ll actually have to listen to a Kanye album and think beyond his constricted, constricting, conservative definition of politics. For McWhorter music must remain “just” music because if it turns out to be anything else, the world might become a lot less simpler than he pretends it to be.