When it comes to comedy & social context, there’s basically three approaches:
-Try to write it out as irrelevant, which limits your range of content.
-Pretend it’s already irrelevant, which limits the effectiveness of your content.
-Grab it by the horns, which while risky also potentially opens up big rewards.
Many legends of comedy (for example George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Dave Chappelle) are known for having picked that 3rd approach. Chris Rock is one that has done so and also been successful, particularly in skewering racial politics at times in his standup shows. I’ve been a longtime fan of his*. Well, over at Salon, Mychal Denzel Smith points at a well known bit of his — the “black people vs niggas” segment of his 1996 HBO special “Bring the Pain” — and calls it way more than Not Funny in his opinion:
The joke here being that there is a subset of black people that are gleefully uneducated, take pride in their criminal activities, and serve as the clumsy sidekick in black America’s plan for liberation. If it weren’t for them, the n–gers, we’d all be free. […] Of course, the substance of what Rock said wasn’t new. It hewed to the same line of respectability politics that had been a part of black political life since the days of Reconstruction. Even W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most important sociologist in all of American history, posited a theory for black liberation that rested on the idea that 90 percent of black people ain’t shit and could only be saved by the “talented tenth.” He later abandoned that idea, but it got stuck in our collective imagination nonetheless.
He brings this up in the context of former NBA star Charles Barkley saying (with no jest at all) that black people have other black people to blame for lack of success, Mychal claiming that Chris Rock is getting a pass for having in his mind said the same thing.
First of all, I actually remember Chris himself saying that a part of the reaction he got for that routine, apparently from people who thought it justified their racism, made him drop it entirely. It’s not like he has the power to decide how people interpret his material, and some will read whatever they want to into anything simply to reinforce what they already believe. If people were prejudiced against blacks after hearing Chris, it’s because they were prejudiced before.
Speaking of racism, observations of structural racism have as well been mined for material over the years. Take Chris’ observation about the War on Drugs, for example: that it’s largely because of where the good drugs come from & the skin tones of those who would benefit from their open sale. He has punctuated this in another of his stand up shows with the line “could you imagine how ILLEGAL a pack of cigarettes would be if Phillip Morris had been started by a bunch of Jheri curled niggas from Mississippi?”. Does that sound like someone who thinks what Barkley said is spot on?
Exaggeration is often a tool of comedy, particularly to emphasize a point. To me, the point of the bit wasn’t the “talented tenth” from W.E.B. DuBois that is invoked in Mychal Smith’s critique, as that would’ve required Chris to have claimed effectively that most blacks are the “niggas” he spoke of. Rather, it was of a piece with how people within a cultural circle can talk to others within it in ways that outsiders can’t get away with, and a certain frustration with a few habits that do appear at times. To my understanding, much of what was lamented there via comedy and at times discussed more seriously actually stems from learned responses to systemic racism to begin with. Consider the attitude towards education he mentioned: there’s a still fresh legacy of intelligent blacks being seen as a threat, to be stomped on for the safety of the status quo. Combine that with the economic struggles that young blacks in many areas grow up seeing regardless of the efforts of those around them, borne of residential segregation, the fallout from the police state routinely singling out minorities, and the whipsaw effect of capitalism on already disadvantaged populations: some people will inevitably conclude Screw It. Incentives matter.
To be fair, Mychal does acknowledge how those responses can actually work out to benefit others at times:
The real “dirty, dark secret” is this: the n–gers helped us survive. It’s all of those welfare queens, dope-dealing cousins, liquor store-robbing uncles, cable-stealing aunties, drunk granddads, and fast-tailed grannies who have made any of our relative success possible. It was those dope-dealing cousins who were able to buy someone’s kids’ school supplies. It was a good-for-nothing-drunk-of-an-uncle who fixed cars that helped folks get to work. It was an aunt who had five kids out of wedlock who did someone’s hair and made alterations on their suit for a job interview.
To an extent he’s got a point. Nobody is perfect, it’s silly to expect perfection, and sometimes people just make what they can out of a bad hand. Hell, look at the Williams sisters! While they were practicing tennis early on in Compton, who helped keep them safe? Some dudes with blue rags hanging out of their in all likelihood sagging pants.
Observations about ones own group are commonplace in standup comedy these days: Black comedians about black people, Jewish comedians about fellow Jewish folk, Latino comedians about Latinos, etc… I even recall seeing a tour film of comedians from the Middle East that made such self culture referential jokes. The idea that there’s something inherently bad about doing so… I don’t get it.
* – That said, there is a bit I’d pick a bone with: the one where he said a father’s duty to his daughter was to keep her “off the pole”…