Between all the tributes to the recently deceased Maurice Sendak and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, you might have seen a “WTF” or an entire enraged essay on Ashton Kutcher’s recent ad campaign for PopChips. In one of the ads, designed after a video for a faux dating service, Kutcher played a Bollywood director, in brown face, which set the Internet ablaze with virtual torches and pitchforks decrying the racism on display. It’s even caused a vlog, The Truth with Hasan Minhaj, to get a bunch of buzz by also slamming the video for its depiction of a stereotype.
The ad wasn’t funny and many found it upsetting. That’s pretty much agreed upon now, leading to PopChips’ profuse apologies.
How about Horatio Sanz’s web series, Espanto, in which Sanz plays a luchador, complete with an ornate mask, while (poorly) fighting crime in the States? There are plenty of stereotypes of race upon which Sanz’s Espanto rests upon, yet it is considered by many who watch it, including myself, to be hilarious.
What’s the precise difference here? It’s easy and biased to say that Horatio Sanz is funnier than Ashton Kutcher, but that isn’t the only thing at work behind what makes a caricature of racial nature funny or not. Obviously, PopChips and Ashton Kutcher thought it was funny enough to be part of their “goofy” campaign, but few concurred with that assessment. Yes, Sanz has a Hispanic background, but does that really make it more permissible for him to engage in such material when the material itself has been widely deemed to be something to laugh at?
According to Paul Provenza, “Comedy is the only performing-art form where the crowd gets to determine its existence.” To apply that principle to the question of Espanto vs. Kutcher, the dividing line is this: one is funny and the other is not. It’s an oversimplified conclusion, but if you look back at the sketches on Chappelle’s Show, one could reasonably argue that they would be just racist and offensive for all the stereotypes it poked fun at if they weren’t funny.
The infamous Groupon ad played during the 2011 Superbowl that joked that you don’t need to help the oppressed peoples of Tibet when you can a get deal on Tibetan food in the States also falls into this argument. A roomful of people thought that was funny (or just edgy) enough to catch the attentions and wallets of potential Groupon users. Yet, Groupon suffered an even harsher backlash, mostly due to it playing during the Super Bowl, when millions of people are watching.
Some of you might be thinking that along the lines that we can make racist jokes as long as they’re funny. Certainly the concept of hipster racism might be lurking in your subconscious at this very moment. But the point of a funny joke dealing with race isn’t to be racist; it’s to be funny. And that’s the difference: Just dressing up in brown face and doing a watered down imitation of Apu isn’t funny, but dressing up as a Mexican wrestler poorly fighting crime that includes hookers, drogas, and Los Nazis is funny.