Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Three)

 

There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the role of comedy news programs such as the Colbert Report and The Daily Show, with skeptics expressing outrage that young people may learn more about world events through such comic sources than from traditional journalism. Yet, you argue that Will Rogers performed similar functions for Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. How might these contemporary programs fit into a longer tradition of using comedy to work through change in American society?

Jon Stewart’s show uses a series of “senior correspondents” representative of women (Samantha Bee, Olivia Munn), Indians/Muslims (Assif Mandvi), black women, (Jessica Williams), black men (Larry Wilmore; Wyatt Cenac), that satirize the notion of any one person(s) as representative of any of these ethnic/racial/religious groups.

If you look at Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire for example, satire as political critique has been with us. The sociopolitical has a long history in comedy since commedia, Roman Comedy, and Old Comedy of Aristophanes. The significant difference is that with global media platforms, this form of satire in the early twenty-first century, is accessible and readily available to anyone who can understand the English language, and has access to a computer or i-phone. It cuts across class, race, and gender lines in a universal way. And this “danger” that holding the “news” media’s feet to the fire has become a critique of American society and culture and its intervention around the globe, makes the mainstream news media afraid that they are irrelevant and only representing the interests of the corporations that own them and the advertisers who pay the bills. Therefore this satirical critical humor, as with Will Rogers and Fred Allen before them, keeps the media in check in the way that journalism was meant to at the turn of the twentieth century.

Personally, I am not a twenty-something or even a thirty-something, and I still get my news from Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They are more scandalized and critical of the corruption of government, corporations, bigots, racists, and homophobes, than any legitimate “news” outlet. They also cover topics that the news media simply won’t. If news is tied to corporate profits then that will dictate what is considered newsworthy, and there goes freedom of the press and the public’s right to know out the window. Comedy only works when it expresses the freedom to satirize and comment on world affairs. It gets at the truth as Larry David and Ricky Gervais have noted.

 

You write in The Comic Offensive about the ways that Dave Chappelle was almost crippled by the fear that many whites were laughing at his comedy for the “wrong reasons” and that he was helping to keep alive a tradition of the black minstrel which many associate with earlier moments of racism. Is this necessarily a trap which contemporary black comics have to confront? Are there elements of the Minstrel tradition that can be reclaimed to allow other kinds of voices to be heard?

When I ran the New Theatre in Boston (we produced the work of playwrights and performers of color) in the mid-1990s, I went to The Strand Theatre in Roxbury to see a “chitlin” circuit show starring Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, who played the character of “Freddie Boom Boom Washington” on the 1970s sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter. I was amazed at how the audience embraced the minstrel aspects of the show from racial and gender stereotypes, horny old men, lazy and indigent black men who could not take care of their children etc., and how the audience did not reject these stereotypes as offensive but the predominantly black audience of 2,000 or so brought the house down with laughter and call and response that a director/playwright colleague and friend, Lois Roach, said would happen.

I think blackface/whiteface comedy is quite powerful and anything that incendiary should still be used in comedy since it crosses the line of what is “acceptable” and that is what comedians claim they want to do if they are effective. So, if it offends, so much the better. Context is everything. As Spike Lee observed in Bamboozled corporate interests and the pursuit of fame and fortune has reduced black performers and sports figures to enact minstrel-like behavior are very clear representations of how minstrelsy is embraced in order to make money even today. So comedians have more control over the use and misuse of minstrelsy by enacting it. Dave Chappelle’s brilliant commentary on racism in which he portrays a black man who is a white supremacist – because he is literally blind to his own skin color – is still one of the strongest commentaries on how absurd and superficial racism really is in the end. If you “look” white you will be treated differently than if you “look” black. Again context is everything.

Since 9/11, we have seen more and more comics coming from the American Muslim community, seeking to use laughter as a means of challenging existing stereotypes and gain mainstream acceptance. What do you think these performers might learn by looking more broadly at the relationship between immigration and comedy in the American tradition?

Intolerance of immigrants is shockingly similar to the early twentieth century with the influx of over 13 million southern and eastern European immigrants. The rhetoric toward middle eastern (particularly Muslim) and Mexican and Central American refugees and immigrants, has replaced the southern and eastern European xenophobia of the early twentieth century but otherwise the condemnation of “amnesty” and “they will take away our jobs, our women, and our American dream” and that “real Americans” will be somehow denigrated and degraded by the influx of this new generation of immigrants is still very much with us. Identifying ethnic and racial groups as “all the same” is debunked when we see comedians take on race and ethnicity and religious identity as fluid and not fixed. The global world and mixing of race and ethnicity is creating a new world in which the younger generation is witnessing these borders and definitions as being fluid and more integrated. I think 9/11 put the US back into the rest of the world as not being separate from, but as part of, what makes human beings part of a global village. Tragically it takes an act of terrorism to bring Americans into the global community but it also was necessary in order to confront the notion that the “enemy” is subjective depending on where you stand.

Assif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart relates stories of always being cast in the role of Muslim terrorists in Hollywood (he was born in India and is a US citizen for the record), but in comedy he can confront this stereotype by satirizing the racial types that the willfully ignorant and bigoted take seriously. Mandvi in the New York Times has said “I’ve always said I’m the worst representative of Muslim Americans that’s ever existed, because I’ve been inside more bars than mosques. But I recognize this has nothing to do with me. There are very few people representing the moderate American Muslim voice on television, and I happened to fall into this thing. The fact that I get to do it is an unbelievable blessing for me.” (New York Times, April 20, 2012)

Comedians through their humor connect all of us when they “put it over.” We are all in on the joke, and those who don’t “get it” will always be offended, because their xenophobia, bigotry, and racism has been exposed. To finish with a comic callback, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen