Laugh Lines

race & the arts one in a series of occasional articles

Is Obama's rise already shifting the bounds of racial comedy?

January 25, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

In his trademark deadpan delivery, comic Larry Lancaster tells the audience at Magooby's Joke House that underachieving African-American men like him are ambivalent about Barack Obama's election to the highest office in the land.

"A lot of black guys have mixed feelings about Obama being president," Lancaster says. "Now, we have no more excuses. Every time someone says, 'Hey, Tyrone, how come you don't have a job?' we can't say, 'Damn, The Man is holding me down.' "

Lancaster switches roles, enacting the part of Tyrone's heckler. He takes a small step forward on the stage and flips one palm out dismissively. His tone becomes suffused with sarcasm:

"Oh, really? Then how come we got a black president? You're The Man now. Are you saying you're holding yourself down?"

When Obama took the oath of office on Tuesday (and Wednesday), he altered not only the political and social landscape of the United States, but the comedic one as well. If humor and satire are predicated on the notion of the oppressed speaking truth to power, it suddenly has become more difficult for comedians to portray black Americans as beaten down. Because the public heavily supports the new president, professional comics are treating Obama with uncommon restraint. They're wrestling with who gets to poke fun at the nation's first black president - and how.

"Obama is reconfiguring the narrative of black people as victims," says Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California. But Jacobs-Huey, who is writing a book about expressions of race in stand-up comedy, warns that discrimination didn't magically disappear with the inauguration.

"We have a temporary reprieve from racial profiling," she says. "But there's no doubt that racism still exists, and that people are still being disenfranchised."

As Lancaster, 39, tells his African-American fans: "Now that Obama is in office, it's not like every day is going to be National Negro Day. Finally, we have a black president. But we all still report to white supervisors."

Comedy has long tested the bounds of racial dialogue and understanding. The mix has erupted several times in recent years. Don Imus lost his job as a radio shock-jock for eight months after making racially insensitive comments that he said were an ill-advised attempt at humor. Michael Richards, best known for playing Kramer on Seinfeld, retired from stand-up comedy after being caught by a video camera hurling slurs at black hecklers.

African-American performers have always had an easier time talking about race than white funnymen. Race-based comedy reached new heights in the 1970s with Richard Pryor; more recently, Chris Rock and Bernie Mac found new limits to test.

Lancaster is hunting for those new boundaries when he asks the audience at Magooby's in Parkville to rearrange their mental picture of the country's new chief of state:

"Can you imagine Barack as a pimp?" Lancaster asks. "He's smo-o-o-th. No lady would be safe. He makes everything he says sound presidential."

Lancaster rattles off a few standard pimp pick-up lines - he heard more than one in his former line of work as a guard in the Maryland prison system. But he intones the come-ons in Obama's modulated vowels and precise enunciation:

"Ladies, you need to make your next move, your best move. Get rid of that zero, and get with a hero."

The crowd laughs hard.

Because Lancaster is black, at Magooby's he got away with depicting the 44th president in an unsavory light. Someone such as The Late Show's David Letterman probably could not.

"I can't think of any of the white comics we monitor who could go there," says Donald Rieck, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Not even Stephen Colbert, and he pushes the envelope on those things."

According to data collected by the center, which is based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Obama was the target of 769 jokes told in 2008 by late-night television hosts. That was about half the jests lobbed at the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, and two-thirds of the comic arrows aimed at President George W. Bush. It's worth noting that the five hosts of the late-night shows monitored by the Media Center - Jon Stewart, Colbert, Jay Leno, Letterman and Conan O'Brien - are all white males.

"Race is such a hot-button issue in our society," Rieck says. "The writers for these shows have to be careful. They don't know how to play it. Black comedians are more comfortable talking about blackness than white comedians."

The content of the jests was just as tilted as the overall numbers.

"The jokes about [Sarah] Palin, Bush and McCain were personal," Rieck says. "They were about McCain's age, and Sarah Palin's past as a beauty pageant contestant and about her aw-shucks, Annie Oakley quality, about her shooting wolves from a helicopter. The jokes about Obama were about things outside his control, like his deification by the media during his trip to the Middle East."

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