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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What November 4 Means: Comedy and the New President

I read several commentaries on the way that comedians and comedy shows have dealt with Barack Obama during this campaign. The general consensus is that they have not done a good job. On one hand, there has been a good deal of talk among white comedians and comic writers about how Obama does not give them much to make jokes about--he's too serious, too sincere, too upright, etc. But this probably says more about white comedians than about Obama. They are too unfamiliar with black life that does not fit the ways that white people stereotype blacks. They do not know the black middle class. Therefore, they do not know how to make jokes that pertain to a real black person, not just a product of white imagination.

Developing this argument, the comments of Salamishah Tillet, University of Pennsylvania, seem to me to be on target, and I have quoted from her essay below.

It's not just that SNL does not give a back story to the Obamas or that a non-African-American actor plays Barack Obama; it is that these skits miss the complexities, contradictions and the interior features of African-Americans lives. On SNL and other mainstream political comedy shows like "Real Time" and to a lesser extent "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," the cast and writing staffs lack diversity, and it shows in the racial parochialism of the humor itself.

Perhaps Bill Maher was right when he said that Barack Obama leads to bad comedy because he is "too perfect" as a presidential candidate and that "liberals" and "comedians" (both of whom in Maher's calculations all appear to be white) are "afraid of laughing at anything with a black person in it." But, I think it goes deeper than that.

For such comics to consider Barack or Michelle funny, one of two things now has to happen: Either the Obamas must begin to feed into prevailing racial stereotypes (and therefore be seen as unfit for the presidency), or mainstream satirists will have to learn the cultural nuances of black America.

. . .

SNL focuses on Obama's intellect and verbal pauses but does not satirize his performance of the "cool" black man. Understanding both his swagger and cool requires an understanding of black bourgeois respectability, not just in opposition to caricatures of working-class blacks but as a source of potential contradictions and comedy.

She describes something like what Willie Jennings has said about interracial understanding in the churches. Black people in the U. S. have long understood that an intimate knowledge of the ways of white people is valuable, if for no other reason than to help them survive in a system that works against them. Thus, blacks have gained a kind of cultural intimacy that is not reciprocated. One of the key features of white privilege is the ability to think and behave as if black people are largely irrelevant to white lives. Jennings says that until white church people begin to pursue cultural intimacy with blacks, they will remained puzzled by the lack of progress in racial reconciliation in the churches. The kind of understanding that would allow sharing the commitments of church life with one another may have some similarity to the kind of understanding it takes to be able to laugh together.

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