A Stereotype Walks into a Bar

Jokes that play on racial stereotypes is just wholesome satire, right? After performing stand up herself, Alice Stanley isn’t so sure.

This is an excerpt of a sketch I recently wrote and performed with my friend Krichelle, who is black, and my friend Sam, who is Jewish.

(KRICHELLE is listening to her iPod. SAM and ALICE approach with fried chicken.)

ALICE: Hey, Krichelle, can you take out your rap music for a second?

KRICHELLE: I’m listening to Jimmy Buffet.

SAM: (To ALICE) Is Jimmy Buffet black?

ALICE: I mean, black people like buffets, so…?

SAM: We just wanted to say sorry for saying racist things around you the other day.

KRICHELLE: You guys can’t apologize for being racist by giving me racist gifts!

ALICE: Just kidding! (She drops the chicken.)

SAM: You called us honkies! (KRICHELLE puts her iPod in her pocket.) SHE’S GOT A GUN! (ALICE and SAM run away, screaming.)

It’s not funny to assume black people have guns or only listen to rap music, but it is funny to think there are people out there who legit believe that. We all laughed in rehearsal at the expense of that racist dude out there who we were satirizing. Stephen Colbert’s career is this style of comedy. Ditto Sarah Silverman. Instead of making fun of the prejudice person, they momentarily just become prejudice, but we and as audience know it’s a self-aware act.

In one way it’s cool we’ve gotten to this place in our culture — a place where it’s easier to say offensive things because it’s harder for people to be offended. I have this theory that my generation believes we are “post-prejudice.” Like, how many times have you or one of your friends told a female to “make me a sandwich.” That might not have been funny to our mothers, but it’s funny now because no one really believes women should just make sandwiches anymore. But, then, hold on… who are we satirizing if we truly are post-prejudice?

Going back to that sketch, it’s funny to think that there are people in the world who would think Krichelle would honestly have a gun when she was clearly just holding her iPod. But who are those people? Like, in that actual situation, how many white people — even the most racist grand high wizard — would truly believe petite and pre-med Krichelle would have a gun? In essence, my generation wants to make fun of prejudice by promoting it, but that’s okay, because it’s assumed no one is prejudice anymore. Satire is funny because it’s based on truth, but it’s only appropriate because no one believes in racism anymore, but it’s funny because someone out there does, but it’s okay because — WHOA, CATCH-22. Basically, we’re propagating stereotypes not even in the name of uncovering a satire anymore. We’re propagating stereotypes for an easy laugh.

A friend of mine did this thing where sometimes he would take on the personality of a stereotypical sketchy loser. He called this persona “T-Shirt Guy.” He thought of this name because he had a t-shirt with Gary Coleman saying, “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” He wore this shirt not because he thought it was funny but because he thought it was funny people thought it was funny. But, ultimately, the company that made the t-shirt got profits for the thing, and designers were informed, “Make more stupid TV shirts.” (Irony sells—look at the Snuggie.) Ultimately, people that saw him in this shirt made a judgment about our society and thought, “Man, standards for comedy/intelligence/fashion have hit rock bottom.”

There are idiots in the world who would wear that Gary Coleman shirt and there are people who are various shades of racist. That small margin of people is hard enough to see and deal with, without also having to see and deal with another faction of people mimicking those annoying ideas ironically. The last thing we want for an authentic TV-shirt weirdo (or racist) is a sense of solidarity because he doesn’t know the satirist is being ironic!

One issue I have with stand-up is that I am comfortable just sort of ad-libbing in the middle of a set, and then BAM, comedy takes over and I’ve said something I didn’t maybe mean to say. Recently, during a show I was talking about how many Asians smoke at my university and then, offhand I added, “I guess being an engineering major is really hard.” Then I made a joke about there not being so many smoking Asians in on place since Hiroshima. Both jokes hit well, but I felt crummy in hindsight.

I expressed this crumminess to a friend of mine, and he was baffled to hear the joke I wished I could take back was the one about engineering. Hiroshima seemed a lot more offensive. I disagreed. Hiroshima happened — people were on fire, that’s that. But, making a crack about all Asians pursuing science? The whole audience knew I didn’t really believe that stereotype. If I did, I wouldn’t be saying it. But, probably at least one person in the crowd holds on to that grain of belief of seeing Asians and assuming they are mathematical/scientific. And, while he or she might keep that tucked away, I just gave voice to an idea I despise where the idea is usually self-censored by those who believe it.

What to do? Here’s my plan: skip the stuff I don’t really believe, and if it slips, address it. If I had a time machine… well, I’d probably go back to the ‘80s and invest in Apple a la Forrest Gump, but ALSO, I’d go back to that set and not censor my engineering joke but address it immediately after and talk about the Asian drug-dealers I have known or something. (I’m riffing here — it’s unlikely I’ll actually get a time machine.) Most importantly, when I can, I’ll just be authentic. If I want to address a racist idea I’ve heard, I’ll state it that way: “I heard this person say X. Isn’t that funny?” I think some people in the comedy/art world sees that as “less edgy” or depriving oneself of material, but seriously, if you have to be someone stupider than yourself to be funny, don’t you think you can, like, up your game? We could say something to inspire change in a positive direction besides “satirically” promoting what we all already know is wrong. And aren’t there so many more jokes to tell than the ones we know are lies?

Alice Stanley is an MFA candidate in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. Follow her tweets or send her an email. She also has a website.