There’s No Such Thing As “Black” Or “White” Comedy

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Louis CK has been my favorite working comedian since maybe 2008. But, the way he came to my favorite wasn’t organic or accidental. It wasn’t even completely voluntary. I basically discovered him by force.

I was aware he existed. But between the underwhelming bits of Lucky Louie I’d seen and, to be honest, the way he looks, I didn’t think to pay any attention to him.

But, whenever I’d hear an interview or read a story or see a segment featuring a comedian I respected and they were asked to name their favorite working comic, Louis CK’s name always seemed to come up. He was your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian.

So, I gave him another chance. I caught one of his specials on Comedy Central or HBO, and I enjoyed it so much that I actually got mad at myself for almost overlooking him. It was like trying some weird dish at a buffet for the first time and thinking “F*ck! This is great! Why didn’t I try this before?”

Again, Louis CK’s Whiteness alone (And yes, random internet person, I know he’s Mexican) isn’t what caused that initial attention neglect. There were other White comedians (Richard Jeni, Bill Burr, etc) that were among my favorites, and my favorite comedy (Seinfeld) was Whiter than Taylor Swift. And nothing about what I saw up to that point warranted a second look. But, despite the fact that I knew he was at least popular/talented enough to get his own show, it wasn’t until I learned that my favorite Black comedian (Chris Rock) loved his work that I gave him another chance. I needed a trusted Black cosigner. Race didn’t matter. At least I thought it didn’t. But it kind of did.

Anyway, I’m writing this a couple hours after seeing Amy Schumer perform at Carnegie Music Hall. For those not familiar with her, she has a show on Comedy Central, she’s in her early 30s, she’s very blond, and she’s very, almost stereotypically, White. Like, you can totally see her saying “Girls Gone Wild! WOOOOOO!” completely unironically White. Prius and hummus White. Whiter than the White girl in your office you call “White Jen” even though there are two other White women named Jennifer who work there.

And she is the funniest woman I’ve ever seen. Actually, f*ck a qualifier. She’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen.

While watching her perform and scanning the mostly White audience, I thought about all the people who’d be too turned off by her uber-Whitegirlness to give her comedy a chance. And then I thought about how, whenever a profile of Kevin Hart appears on Slate or Salon or some other mainstream publication, a sizable number of the comments are from people so turned off by both his “Blackness” and the idea of Black comedy that they haven’t even bothered to give him a legitimate chance.

Which is their prerogative, of course. But, it’s also wrong. Because there is no such thing as “White” or “Black” comedy. There’s just comedy. You either like it or you don’t. The elements you like and/or dislike aren’t racial. They’re stylistic. But because of our tendency to assign racial labels to certain types of comedy, “I’m not a fan of the type of frantic and physically demonstrative humor Kevin Hart incorporates into his acts” turns into “I’m not a fan of Black humor.”

That said, it is natural to be more drawn to comedians you share commonalities with. And often those commonalities are racial. Chris Rock and Patton Oswalt can tell the exact same joke, but if Rock references Prince in the punchline and Oswalt references Sting, those more familiar with Prince will laugh harder at Rock’s joke. Not because the Prince reference makes the joke better or even any different. But because they’re more familiar with Prince.

And, as I said earlier, it’s your prerogative to like whomever you want for whichever reason you want. Just know that the next time you immediately dismiss something/someone because their humor seems too “White” or too “Black,” you might miss your Louis CK the same way I almost did.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

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and $24.50 for a hoodie.

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The campaign ends Sunday, March 23. So, if you don’t buy one before then, you, um, won’t have one.

Anywho, they’re available now, so go and BUY!!! and be fly.

Everyone’s Mad At Kenan Thompson For Saying Something He Didn’t Actually Say

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I get it, I get it, I get it, I get it.

I get why an article with a title like “Kenan Thompson Blames SNL’s Diversity Issue on Lack of Talented Black Comediennes” would go viral.

As evidenced by their recent hires, Saturday Night Live has a well-documented diversity problem. This is especially true when it comes to Black women. Despite not shying away from jabbing at Black women in their skits, they’ve only had four Black female cast members in 38 years. And usually, when the jabbing takes place, one of the Black male cast members will just throw on a dress.

(And yes, SNL isn’t funny anymore and no one watches it and Black people need to make our own shows and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. While this is all true, the fact remains that Saturday Night Live remains one of the most successful pipelines in the entertainment industry. Its starmaking power is virtually unmatched, and it’s shameful to deny talented Black comediennes access to that.)

We’re also in a time where you literally can not throw a stone without hitting a talented Black comedienne in the leg. And by “literally” I mean “literally.” I just threw a rock out my window 10 minutes ago and it hit Nicole Byer. (My bad!)

Seriously though, from Issa Rae and Angela Nissel to Samantha Irby and the homie Luvvie, there are a fuckton (Yes. An entire fuckton.) of funny-ass Black female writers and comedians. All young, all very prolific, and all very accessible. This isn’t the 80s or 90s when you had to go barnstorming across the country to find talent. Anyone with a YouTube bookmark and Twitter account can find anyone, and this gives a show like SNL even less excuses.

Also—and this is partially his own fault—Kenan Thompson is an easy foil. Of course the Black guy who’s rocked more wigs than Lady Gaga would say some slick shit about Black women, and of course we’d quickly share, save, and retweet anything saying that he did. The outrage practically writes itself. And, full disclosure, after seeing everyone talking about this article, I also went to TVGuide.com, pitchfork in hand, ready to cremate the coon as well.

So, I get it, I get it, I get it, I get it.

But, there’s just one problem with sharing, saving, and retweeting articles about Kenan Thompson blaming SNL’s diversity issue on a lack of talented Black comediennes:

Kenan Thompson didn’t actually blame SNL’s diversity issue on a lack of talented Black comediennes. 

Yes, the title of the TVGuide.com article—and all the subsequent articles about it—clearly states that he did. As does the text of the article. But, if you read the article, Thompson doesn’t actually say anything like that. Sadie Gennis (the author of the piece) does, and attributes it to him.

Don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself.

Instead of blaming showrunner Lorne Michaels or the series, which currently only employs three actors of color out of 16 cast members (Thompson, Pharaoh and the Iranian Nasim Pedrad), Thompson blames the lack of quality black female comedians. “It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson says. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

Now, I will say that Thompson’s quote (“Like in auditions, they (SNL) just never find ones that are ready“) isn’t very clear. Some have interpreted it as him saying “Black comediennes just aren’t smart and funny enough to be on SNL.” I read it as “they (SNL) need to do a better job of finding them”—which would actually be a shot at SNL.

Regardless of how you interpreted it, you likely recognize that it was an ambiguous statement. Which is my point. The easy outrage pitchforks are out for something we’re not even really that sure about. Now, a legitimately important issue—Black women being ignored by SNL—gets an undeserving scapegoat. And while it’s great that people are talking about it, it’s not so great that the discussion was sparked by a “kinda, sorta, untrue” truth.

So, how do you get a ”Kenan Thompson Says Black Comediennes Aren’t Talented!!!” headline from that? Easy. This is what happens when a writer writes a piece with a pre-conceived narrative and gives it a misleading, but click-worthy title. Anyone who has ever blogged or even just aggregated content has done this. (Me included.)

Let’s say someone like Ted Cruz gives a speech where he says something like “President Obama speaks differently when in front of all-Black crowds.” If you’re writing a quick news piece about that story, how do you get people to share, save, and retweet it? Title it “Ted Cruz Calls President Obama A Fugazi Black Man” and edit it so that Cruz’s words are as divisive and insensitive as possible. And, if possible, put words in his mouth by introducing his quotes with leading sentences. Fox News has made billions off of doing stuff like this, and we (sane people) aren’t much better.

You know, it has to be said that he may actually think that Black comediennes aren’t talented enough to make SNL. And, he very likely could have meant that the Black women who tried out just weren’t ready. I honestly have no idea how he feels about either of those points.

But, after reading his interview a few more times, I am certain of one thing: Neither do you.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

On Black Men, And Why We’re Not “Allowed” To Be Human

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I first became a fan of Louie CK four or five years ago. I’d heard of him before—and had even watched an episode or two of Lucky Louie—but I didn’t really pay him much attention until I started to notice that more and more writers and comedians I respected considered Louie to be a comedic genius. This sparked my interest, and after watching a couple of his stand-up routines, I realized they were right.

Perhaps the thing I enjoy most about Louie’s humor is his tendency to speak about taboo subjects and use taboo words. This in itself isn’t noteworthy. There are dozens of popular comics whose acts revolve around them touching on untouchables. But, while most of those comics incorporate this tactic for shock value, when Louie does it it seems to be to prove how absurd it is that anything would be deemed untouchable in the first place.

For instance, in one of his shows, he has a bit where he spends a few minutes talking about fellatio. I forgot exactly how it starts, but by the end of it he jokes that he’d suck an audience member’s d*ck. It was classic Louie—absurd, inappropriate, self-deprecating, and subversive—and the audience loved every minute of it. I did too, but I couldn’t help but to make a somewhat sobering observation: a Black comedian could never tell this joke. 

Actually, let me rephrase that. A Black comedian, a popular straight Black male comedian could in fact tell that joke. But, if he did—if a Chris Rock or a Kevin Hart told a man in the audience that he (paraphrasing) “probably has a beautiful d*ck and would like it in my mouth”—the hundreds of trillions of tweets, articles, posts, studies, and stories it would prompt would likely shut down the entire internet. There’d also be never-ending rumors about his sexuality, his HIV status, and his sanity.

The dynamic allowing Louie CK to go places that a Black comedian wouldn’t be able to go extends past comedy. In fact, that dynamic is a direct result of the (mostly true) idea that straight Black men aren’t expected or even “allowed” to be multi-faceted, to be fully free, to be, well, human without having their sexuality and even their Blackness questioned. If we don’t fit a certain hyper-hetero ideal, we’re not really men and not even really Black.

This is not a new observation. For years people have written, spoke, and even created art about the fact that African-American men are burdened with a suffocatingly rigid definition of who and what a man is supposed be. It’s also common to blame this on a combination of history, socialization, and sexual expectation. Basically, Black men are the way we are because society in general—and Black women specifically—expect us to be that way.

But, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how valid this is today. Yes, it’s true that there have been some very major historical influences on the way we’re supposed to be, and yes it’s still somewhat true that Black men who fall outside of the hyper-hetero ideal might be sexually shunned in a way that other races/cultures of American men may not have to deal with, but I wonder how much of this is self-induced. I think we (Black men) do it to ourselves more than anyone else does it to us. I think we’ve grown comfortable inside the shell. I think many of our problems in regards to being hyper-hetero are completely psychosomatic. I think we have a bit more leeway to be human than we want to believe, and I think there’s a bit of a mental and emotional safety net with not fighting against this expectation, as any crude, sexist, homophobic, racist, and just generally unprogressive act could be blamed on socialization. It may not quite be learned helplessness, but it isn’t far from it.

Also, I think some of us need to truly ask ourselves if we’re ready for that type of freedom. While an increased leeway to be who and what you want to be—as exhibited in Louie CK’s ability to tell a joke that a Black comedian couldn’t say—is one positive aspect of it, with more freedom comes more responsibility, with more responsibility comes more expectation, and with more expectation comes less leeway to make excuses. Basically, “You wanna be free? Fine. Now grow the f*ck up.”

I’d say be careful what you wish for, cause you just might get it, but I think we already got it. I just don’t know if we really want it.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Road Tripping To SXSW: Part Four, The “Why Comedians Don’t Give a F*ck if You’re Offended” Edition

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On the road…again

3:30PM Sunday afternoon: Before I left for Texas, my mom asked me to explain the purpose of SXSW. She’d heard of the festival before, but wasn’t quite sure what exactly it entailed. I explained that it’s basically a collection of both front-end and back-end “creatives” who’ve gathered in one place to share ideas, innovations, and inventions. While the parties and performances are a main draw, as the 2,000 different panels taking place during the festival prove, most go to learn how to be better at whatever it is they’re doing. And, as noted in my recap, it’s the only event I know of where you’re likely to find anyone from the founder of Whole Foods to a natural hair blogger sitting in on or leading a panel.

Personally, I jumped at the opportunity to go for three reasons:

1. As a “creative,” manning a panel there is a pretty big belt notch. I’m not too cool to admit that stuff like that matters to me.

2. I want to be better I what I do.

3. For a writer/blogger/content producer, getting out and meeting people in person is perhaps the best way to find new revenue streams, and there’s no better place to do this than SXSW.

So, while the recaps so far have focused on the “fun” parts of the trip, the business end is why I convinced myself to spend 50 hours in car during a 100 hour span just to be there.

And, after attending multiple panels in both the BiT (Black in Technology) house and the convention center, I noticed a theme. The Black panels dealing with blogging/writing tended to be more focused on revenue end issues—brand building, crowd-funding, content partnerships, etc—while the “mainstream” panels I attended discussed the actual craft and the thinking behind it a bit more. (Note: I’m not saying that each of the “Black” and “White” panels followed this script. But, the ones I personally happened to see did seem to trend a certain way)

You could make the argument that this trend is an example of us (Black people) being more concerned with appearances and/or the bottom line than if what we’re doing is actually meaningful and helpful. But, I don’t see things as pessimistically. Although the people in the Black blogosphere are stars among ourselves, very few of us are able to make a name off of blogging/writing, and even fewer are able to make a decent living off of it. Generally speaking, the people on the “White” panels I attended are there because they’ve “made it” already. Basically, most of us don’t have the luxury to travel 2000 miles and spend $2000 dollars just to discuss our craft. And, in order for some of us to reach the book deal/TV show/paid speaking appearance/Writers Guild membership point, learning about some easily applicable macro ways to better yourself isn’t necessary a bad thing.

Anyway, the most memorable panel I attended that weekend happened to be a “White” panel that (ironically) was dominated by a Black panelist. Moderated by Joe Garden and featuring Eddie Pepitone, Janine Brito, and W. Kamau Bell, “Why Comedians Don’t Give A F*ck If You’re Offended” touched on many of the writing/content-specific issues I’ve gone back and forth with over the past few years. Most notably, are there any subjects that should be “untouchable,” and should writers be held responsible if someone happens to get offended by your work/words?

Being that Garden used to work for the Onion (former Onion editor Baratunde Thurston was also in the house), it was no surprise that the Quvenzhane Wallis tweet controversy was the first subject brought up. In his pre-panel intro, he mentioned that he was more disgusted by the Onion’s apology than the actual tweet. Basically, if the intent to satire is obvious—which, in my opinion, it was—a comedian shouldn’t have to apologize for a joke that just wasn’t constructed properly. Pepitone disagreed, saying that while there are no sacred topics, writers also have a duty to be aware of their limitations.

(Personally, I side with Pepitone here. Full disclosure: There was nothing about the Quvenzhane tweet that I thought was offensive. I saw it, thought “oh, that was a little off-color,” and would have forgotten about it if not for the controversy it caused. But, just because something doesn’t personally offend me doesn’t mean that it’s not offensive. And, a person who attempts to go there with that type of humor needs to be aware of the racial and social implications if he fails. Also, as Bell pointed out, the tweet had a limited upside. Whoever authored the tweet basically attempted to build a grenade from scratch without reading any instructions. If it works, great. You now have a working grenade that you’ll never, ever use. But, you’re much more likely to fail. And, if you fail, you’ll probably blow your entire face off)

Bell—who was easily the star of the panel—brought up another point about comedians and workshopping. He told the story of how Chris Rock became upset once when footage of him appearing at a small comedy club was passed around the internet. When professional comics go to these types of clubs, they’re workshopping—thinking aloud and testing out new material before it goes out to the public. Basically, as Bell put it, releasing that footage allowed people to see Rock’s “half-baked ideas before they’re fully baked.” And, when that happens, you run the risk of having people offended by a newly conceived thought that actually wasn’t “ready” to be heard yet.

Blogging has a unique relationship with this concept, because the thing that makes most blogs popular—the idea that you’re able to read a person’s unfiltered thoughts—is also the thing that occasionally gets bloggers in hot water. Basically, bloggers don’t have a workshop because blogging is the workshop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something at 11:45pm, published it, woke up, read it again and thought “Shit, I can’t believe I said that.” You can always delete things, but if 5,000 people have already read it, doing that is pointless and actually seems kinda weak.

Other points

***The internet has created a dynamic where the permanentness of it can get people pissed at you today for something you did two or three years ago. Bell shared a story where a woman recently approached him, pissed about something he’d written in like 2007. When he told her “Yeah, you’re 100% right. What I said was f*cked up, and I actually apologized for it three years ago” she actually seemed disappointed that she couldn’t be outraged anymore.

***Bell: “Political correctness is always dishonest.”

***Bell (again) “Presidents and Popes apologize, so why should a comedian believe he doesn’t have to do that too?”

***Pepitone (paraphrasing): “The best comedy is when a person makes fun of something with equal or greater power. The Quvenzhane tweet failed because it ignored that rule.”

***Also, a point each panelist touched on was their annoyance with people who “volunteer” to get offended. Basically, there’s enough info out there to learn about someone like Louie CK before you attend one of his shows. And, if you’re the type to get easily offended, why still attend…and why not just buy tickets and see the thousands of other comedians whose style/content is more compatible with your sensibilities? You wouldn’t go to a Taylor Swift show and complain that she’s not Ghostface, so why do that with comedy?

We left Austin right after this panel. I’ve debated whether to recap the trip back home, but aside from me falling asleep at the wheel right outside of Cincinnati and almost killing us both, nothing worth mentioning happened.

In summary, this entire experience was one of the most memorable moments in my life. I loved Austin so much that I’d consider moving there. I loved the atmosphere of controlled creative chaos SXSW cultivated. I mean, where else are you going to walk out of a panel featuring W. Kamau Bell and run right into this…

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I loved the surreal experience of driving past cities like Memphis and Little Rock that played such a huge role in the civil rights movement. I loved finding out that, if coming from the east, you have to cross the Mississippi river to get to Arkansas. Even though I will never, ever, ever, ever do this again, I loved being able to say I successfully completed a cross-country road trip. And, honestly, I loved the audacity of Texas. Facing that type of conspicuous and ubiquitous regional pride was initially off-putting, but it became endearing and even enviable.

I will definitely be back next year, I’ll definitely plan to stay longer, and (hopefully) I’ll definitely remember to actually make a schedule, bring some sneakers (my feet are still killing me), and buy my plane tickets in time next time.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Kevin Hart, Revolutionary?

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(The Champ’s latest The Root argues that Kevin Hart’s style of humor satirizes the idea of how Black men are “supposed” to be.) Admittedly, it’s not difficult to see why Kevin Hart’s particular style of comedy may be off-putting and … Continue reading