Race Consciousness and Class Invisibility in American Comedy

A few months ago, I went with some friends to a sketch comedy show titled “The Taming of the Flu” at Chicago’s beloved Second City Improv Theater.  Second City has long been an incubator for cutting edge comedy. As many of you may know, some of America’s most brilliant and over-exposed comedians (Tina Fey, Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert to name a few) began their careers there.

The power of good comedy rests in its ability to expose human foibles and to reveal the silliness of cultural norms that we seldom question. The show I attended that night mastered both of these objectives. For example, the audience erupted into laughter during a skit that featured a conceited Mayor Daley trying to woo the Olympic Committee into choosing Chicago as the host city for the next summer games. Later, the audience giggled in amusement during a sketch that portrayed a husband too distracted by his Iphone to converse with his wife. From start to finish, the show was peppered with jokes that ridiculed arrogant public figures (such as Daley and Blageovich), and mocked America’s infatuation with technology or other cultural absurdities.

A number of the skits also focused on another pervasive aspect of American culture: unconscious racism. For example, in one skit a teacher and her students talk about the new president Barack Obama—but whisper every time they say the word “black”. The one black child in the classroom is confused, never gets called on, and is finally shouted at for not raising his hand. The skit makes fun of whites for their discomfort with talking about race and their misguided attempts to seem politically correct. This kind of humor, which jibes at the subtler aspects of racism, is popping up all over American comedy. It was perhaps first popularized on “The Office” where main character Michael Scott refers to collard greens as “colored greens” and plans a “Diversity Day” where he forces all of his employees to act out ethnic stereotypes.

After watching the show at Second City, I reflected that discussions of race in popular comedy have evolved quite a bit over the past decade or so. As I remember, mainstream white comedians and sitcoms during the late 90s and early 2000s (such as Seinfeld and Friends) tended to ignore the subject of race altogether. Only irreverent black comedians such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle were brazen enough to talk about racism and to make fun of white America. Both comedians were masters of transforming some of the most serious, controversial and taboo topics into something funny. For example, one sketch on the Chappelle Show included a mock documentary of the first black man to poop in a “white’s only” toilet.

It seems that Rock and Chapelle’s brand of defiant comedy has now faded. The new trend in race comedy is much subtler and gentler. Racial stereotypes are reversed, and racism is portrayed in the form of misplaced comments and Freudian slips. For example, in one classic moment on “The Office”, Michael Scott offends his employee Oscar by suggesting that the term Mexican is an offensive ethnic slur rather than a nationality. Characters with unintentional racial bias (such as The Office’s Michael Scott) are portrayed as ignorant, silly, obnoxious—but also harmless and ultimately forgivable. It strikes me as interesting that modern comedy chooses to portray racism so often as a deeply embarrassing and unintentional social faux pas.

However, this new kind of race-conscious comedy does reflect an evolving awareness that racism is a nuanced, complex, and intractable phenomenon. We find it funny precisely because it exposes reality. We live in a society deeply confused about race. (Should one say Black or African-American? Hispanic or Latino? White or Caucasian?)  As a culture, we fumble to bridge our differences, struggle to disguise our prejudices, and worry secretly that we might “say the wrong thing”. It is no surprise that today’s comedians have begun poking fun at our generation’s discomfort with the topic of race.

It is striking to me that while American comedy and pop culture remain obsessed with the topic of race, the subject of class-based prejudice is largely invisible in both these mediums. Class-based bias (unconscious or deliberate) also permeates many aspects of our culture and everyday lives—and yet this phenomenon is rarely recognized.

The Second City Show I attended clearly conveyed the message that racism is distasteful.  However, the show was much less sensitive to the subject of class. A number of the short sketches unashamedly ridiculed lower class or ethnic whites. One skit captured a conversation between two white, Chicago bike cops with exaggerated blue-collar accents. The theater rippled with laughter when one of the cops describes his recent “commuter vacation” where he and his wife took a week off from work and commuted to the casinos in Hammond, Indiana—because they could not afford to travel to Las Vegas. Later, the audience roared when a hairy-chested, mafia-esque Italian character delivered a monologue that advertised his low-cost health insurance (an obvious scam). In another sketch, the audience snickered at an ambiguously foreign cab driver who, refuses to change the ethnic radio station in his car for passengers.

When I left that show that night, I agreed with my friends that much of what we had seen was funny. Yet, I felt uncomfortable with the degrading depiction of lower-class people in many of the jokes. I also felt uncomfortable with the writers’ implicit assumption that its audience members were all a part of the upper middle class. The show’s depiction of lower-class whites seemed so incongruous with its commentary about race. The show’s insinuation that lower class whites are somehow silly, stupid, trashy, and un-American left me very uneasy.

However, it would be wrong to blame Second City for my uneasiness. Comedy only mirrors the attitudes of larger society. And while making racist jokes is rightfully taboo in today’s society—making fun of poor or ethnic whites is culturally permissible and seems to go largely unnoticed.

Our socioeconomic status can in many ways unfairly shape our educational and career opportunities—but Americans seldom acknowledge this fact. I’m not sure whether America’s absence of class-consciousness is a triumph of capitalism or a consequence of long-standing racial and ethnic rivalries. Perhaps our belief in the concept (or myth) of American meritocracy makes it difficult for Americans to acknowledge that class divisions do exist in our society, and that socioeconomic status is a barrier to equal opportunity for many. At a time where a college education is both prohibitively expensive and essential for entry into a middle-class profession—the “rags to riches” American dream is far less common. As many of you are probably aware, the past twenty years has seen the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class get smaller. The Second City Show I attended suggests that we live in a divided society, where the upper-middle class has little compassion, understanding or interest in the lives of the poor and uneducated. The worst part of all of this is that Americans use our belief in meritocracy and individualism to deny that we make judgments about people based on class.

The fact that class prejudices are not discussed in mainstream American comedy (which is perhaps the medium where controversial issues can be discussed with the most honesty) does not mean that these prejudices do not exist. It only means that Americans are largely oblivious to our prevailing attitudes about class and the damage these attitudes might cause.

We live in a highly materialistic and consumerist society where the cars we drive, the shoes we wear, and the houses we live in are often mistaken for badges of our self-worth. And now we are in the midst of the Great Recession, where more and more middle-class people are slipping into poverty. I hope that more artists, songwriters, writers, comedians and others who help form American culture will take this time to reconsider America’s obsession with wealth, disdain for poverty, and discreet class prejudices. It is time that Americans begin to approach the topic of class with some of the same seriousness, interest and insightfulness with which we have begun to think about race.

    • j.h. tompkins
    • September 5th, 2010

    a friend emailed me this piece, which i really enjoyed. it’s nice to find commentary on art and culture that isn’t lost in a fog of theory. i look forward to more of the same.

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