"Racial comedy: Who should be laughing?"
That's the title of an opinion piece by Houston Chronicle movie reviewer Eyda Peralta on the Chron's blog section. It's a summary of Peralta's thoughts upon seeing "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" In this and other pieces in major American dailies, several red flags are raised. At least it is hoped.
I'll try and raise a few myself.
First off, that title should send chills up and down the spine of anyone who makes his living at comedy-- writing it or performing it.
But let's get to the heart of it.(Peralta's words are in bold.)
So I finally got to watch Borat late last week. And I'll throw this out there: Racial comedy that panders to Anglos is not cool.
It's not cool. Got that? Peralta seeks to camouflage his message with the lingo of the young, the hip. It's not cool, he says.
But the message is far more sinister.
First off, Peralta has labeled something as "racial comedy." Racial, as we have all been conditioned, is an important word, as are the people who use it. And he seeks to simultaneously convey that his intentions are noble. So we had better listen up.
To recap: "racial comedy" is "not cool."
Racial comedy-- any comedy that touches on the subject of race, is not cool.
Are we clear? Where would we be without rules, after all?
I say this because every time I watch Mind of Mencia on Comedy Central I cringe. Like in this clip, where he's talking about adopting Asian babies. He says, "You're not gonna think Kong Pao's so cute when he's totaled five of your cars..."
This clip ends with him screaming, "It's for wetbacks; run mojados, run mojados." And you look atthe laughing audience and it's a bunch of white frat boys. And it makes me, an immigrant from Nicaragua, uncomfortable.
We didn't bother going to the clip. We don't have to. Peralta cringes; that's good enough for us.
Peralta, an immigrant from Nicaragua, is uncomfortable, because Carlos Mencia, an immigrant from Honduras, makes jokes about things that make him cringe.
That, and the fact that the folks who are laughing at Mencia are "a bunch of white frat boys."
Peralta watches Carlos Mencia perform jokes that he (Peralta) doesn't like. Folks in the audience laugh. This makes him uncomfortable because, we must assume, Mr. Peralta can see into the hearts of the audience members (the aforementioned "white frat boys") and he has determined that their laughter is based on deep-seated hatred or rooted in long-held prejudices.
This is quite a talent that Peralta has. With it, he could put Frank Luntz out of a job tomorrow-- he need only solicit video of the audiences at Democratic or Republican rallies or town hall meetings and he could determine the voting preferences of those on the screen. Think of the millions of dollars he could demand from one (or both) parties. And, with a little imagination and a refining of his eerie skills, he could rule the world, actually.
Borat is a foreigner who's never used a toilet and thinks keeping women in cages is perfectly acceptable. In the crudest terms, he's presented as a savage, uncivilized caricature from the Third World. And who's laughing at him? The same frat boys who are watching Comedy Central.
No... Borat is a character... in a movie that is clearly labelled a comedy. (Didn't Dan Quayle once get into a lot of hot water for "confusing" a fictional character with a real one?)
But, to Peralta's point, who is laughing at Borat? Well, since it's rated R, it is mostly adults who are laughing. Adults who realize that the rumpled Kazakh is a caricature, and a rather broad one at that. Also laughing are the imaginary "frat boys" whom Peralta clearly despises despite having never met them. (This, by the way is the very definition of prejudice-- "Irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, or religion.") And, as we have learned, these frat boys who so threaten Peralta are hate-filled. And, as Peralta has helpfully pointed out, white, and therefore, not entitled to laugh at such caricatures, because, as was implied, they are racist, because they're, you know, white. And the whole affair makes Mr. Peralta... uncomfortable.
In the end, what Chappelle, Borat and Mencia are doing is giving white people permission to laugh at stereotypes. And that would be all good, if race and gender were no longer issues in the United States.
We'll translate: Gee, we'd really like to allow you to make jokes and all, but, well, you know, there's all these important things going on that I care about more than you do. And, well, we've all conferred and well, we've decided that humor isn't an acceptable way of dealing with this.
And, we were wholly unaware that white people-- any people-- needed "permission" to laugh at anything. We were wholly unaware that Chappelle, Borat or Mencia were capable of granting such permission. (The fact that Mr. Peralta proclaims the antics of Chappelle, et al, as "stereotypes," is fascinating.)
Peralta regards comedy in much the same way as the uptight fundamentalists in "Footloose" view dancing and the dancers who dance. He approaches the proceedings with preconcieved notions as to who should laugh-- Indeed, the title of the piece is "Who should be laughing?"-- and he doubts the sincerity and the good will of the people who are slinging the humor. (With the possible exception of Chappelle.)
Peralta seems to be of the opinion that such humor would be okay if "race and gender were no longer issues in the United States." (As if race and gender were never issues in this nation. Is he not aware that each new set of immigrants to this nation was the butt of jokes at one time or another? Perhaps.
Is he also unaware that each new group has gone to great lengths to make light of its own members? Does he see absolutely no merit to such a process, or how it might contribute greatly to assimilation? Is he so myopic as to not realize that such a process might actually go a long way toward eliminating (or at the very least minimizing) race and gender as an issue?
Apparently he is.
Further, Peralta betrays a way of thinking that holds that humor (particularly humor that dares address such issues as gender, ethnicity or country of origin) might actually be responsible for perpetuating racism and hatred.
Maybe because we're a generation who hasn't experienced the most violent history of racism we want to move on. We want to laugh at it and let it go. But to do that would be, as Chappelle said himself, socially irresponsible.
Maybe?! Gee, ya think so?
Believe me, there are many who would love to "laugh at it and let it go," and Mencia and Cohen, through their humor, seek to foster that very thing. Indeed, this country has a history of doing exactly that. That history seems to have come to a screeching halt in the last 20 years or so. Busybodies like Peralta are seeking to continue the polarization, the market segmentation, the ideological isolation that more and more encourages the segregation and compartmentalization of comic and audience and the proscription of certain material for certain comics keyed to color or ethnicity or religion.
The trend now seems to be toward determining who can joke about what... and who can laugh at it... and who can't! And, so the logic goes, only when we sort out the humor equation-- when we figure out who has permission to joke and who has permission to laugh-- will we truly live in harmony. This is exactly backwards. Society is poorer for it. Comedy becomes a less free place for it.
Not only do stuffed shirts like Peralta fail to see the benefit of such humor, they deem it "dangerous."
Enlightened journalists such as Peralta would never dream of tinkering with other forms of expression (it is hoped!), but they think nothing of ham-handedly engineering the dynamic surrounding the interaction between the humorist, the object of the humor and the recipients of same. People who wouldn't dream of suppressing the expression of Nazis in Skokie or Klansmen in Manhattan (beyond requiring a permit to march) are all too eager to brand Mencia as a hate monger and to condemn his audience as smug, entitled cretins. Folks who emerge positively glowing from a showing of Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" see Cohen's film and say "beware of potential damage."
Why would someone be so blind?
Peralta cynically seeks to bolster his cred by brandishing his country of origin (Nicaragua). He does so while simultaneously seeking to destroy Mencia, who came from Nicaragua's next door neighbor Honduras. In The Battle of the Central American Immigrants, this round goes to Mencia.