How the Politics of Race Affects Comedy

The Department of Sociology’s Colloquium Series presented its inaugural graduate student job talk last Wednesday, Oct. 15.

As a part of the Colloquium Series, the Department holds these presentations both as an opportunity for graduate students to practice their presentations and for the audience and faculty alike to provide support and critique.

The talk that was given, “Learning to Make Racism Funny in the Color-Blind Era,” focused on the politics and nuances behind the usage of racially charged material by stand-up comedians during their performances.

The presenter of the talk was Raul Perez, Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department here at UCI. Perez’s dissertation research intersects race and ethnicity and the sociology of culture.

“I’m interested in the way the comedians talk about race has evolved from the Civil Rights era to the present,” Perez said.

According to Perez, the talk explores three main ideas: the idea that comedy can serve as a tool that allows “backstage” private racial talk to be acceptable in public, the perceived levity of racism when it is delivered in the form of a joke and finally the idea that racist jokes can be a contributing factor to social inequality by supporting both a ‘colorblind’ racial ideology and extreme racist ideology.

“The notion of colorblindness originally was a progressive idea, but the notion of racial equality by being colorblind has been re-articulated in the post-Civil Rights era,” Perez said. “It became a dominant racial ideology that serves to suggest racism is now a thing in the past.”

Perez mentioned that the way racism is approached in the colorblind era is in a private manner, as it is seen as inappropriate or distasteful to bring race discourse into public conversation.

The question of how stand-up comedians get away with explicit race talk in a public setting was brought into question.

Perez showed two separate clips, the first of comedienne Lisa Lampanelli using racial slurs and harping upon racial stereotypes to an audience that appeared to receive the material with approval and laughter.

The second clip was the infamous Michael Richards outburst at the Laugh Factory in 2006, when he directly targeted hecklers in the audience with highly offensive racially charged language and insults.

“Clearly there are limits to what comedians can say on stage. They can’t go out and say whatever they want, especially if it is perceived as racist vitriol,”  Perez said. “Racist jokes need to be presented strategically. [Lampanelli uses] a lot of rhetorical distancing to manage her self-presentation that convinces her audience she is not racist, even though she is saying racist things,”

In particular, it was Perez’s experience while enrolled at a stand-up comedy school in Los Angeles that made him notice the different ways racist jokes were approached by both the students and the instructors, depending on the ethnic background of the person delivering the joke.

“I [noticed] that white comedians are taught to avoid straight racial ridicule, to make fun of [themselves] before others in order to create distance,” Perez said. “Non-white students are taught to embrace racial stereotypes and ridicule [their] own [ethnic] group — you can’t be racist if you say this stuff because you are a minority,”

Perez acknowledged that racist jokes do not exist in a vacuum, and are part of a broader discourse of racism. In addition, he noted that they do vary in purpose and offensiveness according to many variables, including the context and situation in which they are delivered.

However, he concluded in his presentation that racist jokes in stand-up comedy do work in teaching discrimination within their audiences.

“The perceived levity of racist jokes can serve to weaken the critical judgment both of the performer and the audience,” Perez said. “Racist jokes trivialize racial discrimination in a ‘colorblind’ era.”