Sunday, September 20, 2009

Using Comedy to Discuss Social Categories

I enjoy using certain YouTube video clips of comedian, Russell Peters, to provoke discussions on the social construction of race and other social categories. I recently came across this first video, below. In my opinion, it is a bit over done with the music played during the written narrative and what not. However, it does effectively illustrate how conceptions of race rely on language that shift with the political climate.

At the very basic level, stand up comedy requires (1) the comedian; (2) the material and its delivery; and (3) the audience. From there, it is important to ask the following questions:

  • What cultural groups does the comedian represent (i.e., with what groups does s/he identify)?
  • What cultural groups is the comedian portraying?
  • How does his/her portrayal of those groups socially construct and/or dispel conceptions of race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, etc.?
  • How does the material and its delivery mesh with societal values (e.g., is it considered funny/serious, acceptable/unacceptable), and who gets to decide the threshold for those values?
  • If the audience responds positively (i.e., laughs) to humor based on race, gender, sexuality, etc., what does that mean about the jokes, the groups who are the butt of jokes, and the everyday societal situations (i.e., our cultural framework) that give power to the jokes?
  • When audience members laugh, but are not from members of the social group being roasted, at what point does this convey prejudice and discrimination?
With ethnic/racial humor, accents are frequently used to provoke laughter. In this example, comedian Anjelah Johnson imitates Vietnamese immigrant women who work in nail salons. Notice how the audience doesn't laugh terribly hard until out of nowhere she busts out the Vietnamese accent, which alone provokes stronger laughter. When intertwined with so-called cultural values of manipulating others for money and young women needing boyfriends, the ethnic humor resonates even more with the audience.

The same type of reaction occurs when Russell Peters imitates a Chinese small business owner.

Here, Russell Peters takes a different approach, making fun of an Indian accent, but subsequently pointing out that all groups (even majority groups) have accents (see 3:55 of the video).

If "all" groups are roasted in global fashion, how does that change the dynamic?

What does it say about society when notions of hyper-sexuality are connected so easily to certain social groups and this connection resonates so strongly with the audience?

This is not to suggest this genre of humor is necessarily bad. I generally find Peters's humor innovative, interesting, and funny. The purpose, however, of analyzing popular culture is to identify and understand what cultural forces give the popular culture power. What cultural forces make it work?

If the audience did not think in advance that gay men were especially lascivious, Peters's jokes speaking to that stereotype would not have worked. The same argument holds true for those who find immigrants' accents humorous, odd, abnormal, etc.

And then along society's continuum of prejudice and discrimination, how might those exact same stereotypes be used by others with greater force? How have similar stereotypes been used in the past to demonize certain groups (e.g., African Americans being cast as hyper-sexual during and after slavery)?

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