What is it that makes Americans want to laugh about race rather than talk about it?
Comedians have been using race jokes as their modus operandi for years – Dave Chappelle wouldn’t be Dave Chappelle without his constant racial references.
But sometimes they might take it too far. Adam Sandler’s new movie “The Ridiculous Six,” set to release later this year, made national news last month when a number of Native American actors walked off the set.
Several of the actors claimed the film’s content was offensive, after they learned names of the characters included names such as Beaver’s Breath and No Bra. In one of the scenes, a female Native American character was to urinate while smoking a peace pipe.
Usually comedians find common ground with their audiences, conveying universal truths about daily life that everyone can relate to. And the delivery of those universal truths usually makes or breaks the stand-up comedian.
Nonetheless, race and other sensitive issues often come up. And it’s not just the big name comedians who do it. But how exactly to do they get away with saying things that otherwise might be offensive or downright rude in any other setting? And what are the rules when it comes to who can say what?
Las Vegas comedian Mark Patrick Collins told KNPR’s State of Nevada that popular comedians can get away with pushing the limits more than regular comics on the road.
“I know that if Chris Rock, or very notable comic, were to say something it would be more accepted than if us three came up and said it,” Collins said referring to the other guests in the studio.
Collins said he often uses a barometer joke when he first starts a set to test if any racial jokes will go over with the audience. If that joke doesn’t do well, he’ll go in a different direction.
Comedian Garlyn Norris agrees. He said it can help to flip stereotypes on their head, but it is important to enroll the audience into any conversation.
“Some groups are just not going to be responsive to racist humor or sexist humor or age-related humor and you got to go into a different direction if the audience is just not resonating. It just may not be what they want to hear,” Norris said.
Norris said audiences will accept jokes if they’re balanced and if everyone, including the comedian, is included in the joke. He pointed to Mel Brooks’ movie “Blazing Saddles” as a comedy that made racially charged jokes but skewered every one.
Comedian Angie Krum says white comedians have to be especially careful of what they say about people of color, but ultimately it has to be funny.
“If you are going to talk about race, if you’re white, you need to make sure the way you’re going about it and your delivery you have to make it hilarious or else you’re going to make people angry,” Krum said.
She said that often it is a joke that opens the door to discussion about difficult or sensitive issues.
“Once people laugh about it, it’s not so bad now,” Krum said.
Garlyn Norris, comedian; Marc Patrick Collins, comedian, Angie Krum, comedian
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