When is a Joke Racist?

When is a Joke Racist?

Standup comedians are continually on the prowl for more jokes to enhance our punchline arsenal. Occasionally we stray away from gags about airline food or poop jokes and investigate edgy subjects, like race or sexuality. Most comics want to avoid incorporating bigotry into their sets (or to at least make themselves strategically bigoted so they can later cry and apologize on camera, thereby acquiring a potential book deal). If you’re on the audience side of things, and prefer live standup comedy to sitcom rictus, you may have asked, “Was that joke I just laughed at racist? Am I racist?”

Audiences do this subconsciously all the time. I’ve spoken to other comics before who observe that when a white person discusses race in front of an ethnically diverse crowd, white audience members will glance at nearby black people for permission to laugh. Michael Richards’s emotional breakdown is clearly a racist rant. But what if someone is making fun of racism by telling very stupid racist jokes, in order to highlight the absurdity of stereotypes? If a WASP discusses Chinese people or Jews in their joke, is he necessarily disparaging minorities?

These are good questions that both audiences and comics must wrestle with. While comedy  is primarily about making people laugh, and not about grandiose societal pronouncements, we as comics ultimately have to be able to justify our jokes if we’re called out on them. (You can get away with more if you’re hilarious, but even very funny comics have to justify their material, or back down and apologize. See Tracy Morgan in 2011.)

When determining whether or not a joke is offensive, I’ve found the following equation to be surprisingly helpful:


For example, if a comics says, “I grew up with a lot of kids. I had four brothers, and eight or nine thousand cousins,” she’s communicated the truth (that her childhood had many blood relatives) but added humor through hyperbolic statement (few families above the Mason-Dixon line have more than two thousand cousins, tops).

Conversely, there are jokes and anecdotes I’ve heard, pregnant with racism, which still somehow manage to fly below the radar. I’ll give an example of a sleeper anecdote which is in my opinion flat-out racist, but somehow limps on. I’ve heard variations of this joke at least three times in my life, from widely differing sources. This is the standard format:

“My friend is a nurse at a hospital, and hears the craziest names! One time she helped deliver a black couple’s baby. When the hospital administrator asked for the baby’s name, the mother said, ‘Placenta.’ She had heard the term used during the delivery and thought it sounded pretty and regal!”

There are lots of variations on this joke. “Shithead” pronounced “shuh-thead” comes up periodically.

The surface-level humor is that a couple has picked a horrendously bad name for their baby, but are so oblivious to the vocabulary that they saddle their child with it. If we apply Comedy = Truth + Exaggeration, we come up with a different idea. The deeper “truth” communicated by this anecdote is that when black people try and get uppity and fancy, their inferiority catches up with them. It’s an insidious way of indicating that black people are stupid or lower class. It’s racist.

There are of course a lot of jokes which alarm audiences because they directly involve minority groups, but are not vehicles for prejudice. Colin Quinn did an interview with NPR in 2003 wherein he said that for the last thirty years we’ve been told how wonderful diversity is, yet people are frightened to hear about actual differences. Often times our society “celebrates diversity” by discussing varying styles of ethnic hatwear, like a classroom show-and-tell, but is scared to explore anything more than the superficial. I’ve heard several comics who deftly incorporated racial tension into their act without ever saying anything racist.

I’ll leave you with a clip to investigate. It’s from Harry & Paul, a British sketch comedy duo who I think are very funny. The below clip is an ongoing gag in their series, wherein two moldering wealthy Brits intricately discuss whether or not certain celebrities are gay.

I think it’s funny because the codgers are so absurdly preoccupied with knowing who exactly is gay, and how gay, and in what capacity, when it doesn’t matter at all. In Britain, Harry & Paul are often dismissed as misogynist homophobes. It makes me laugh, and I think the humor is directed at homophobes. But perhaps if I were gay I would not want my orientation dragged out for public amusement, even at the expense of crusty bigots.

What do you think?