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Stereotypes and Comedy: Finding Where The Line Is

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.

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  1. Noah says:

    If the punchline of the joke is: “look how crazy this person is”, the joke is funny. If the punchline of the joke is “Look how crazy these people are”, the joke is not funny.

    Vacation Jason from The Chris Gethard show makes an appearance in that Horatio Sans sketch.

  2. Ruben says:

    Jake – This is a very interesting article and I was in agreement with you, until I thought about this for a little bit and watched the videos.

    I don’t think the line is whether the jokes are funny or not. This is a very complicated subject that involves political correctness, freedom of speech, civil rights, and obviously the skill of the person doing the joking and the sensibility of the person hearing it.

    I am hispanic and a huge comedy nerd. And I love shocking humor.

    As a hispanic person, I’ve been exposed to humor about hispanic stereotypes that ranges from offensive, lame, unfunny, to decent and brilliant. I loved the Horatio Sanz video and I used to love a skit on Mad TV about a Spanish-language variety show featuring a clumsy clown and a busty blonde for eye candy.

    I think the definition of what’s “offensive” is subjective and personal. As a society, we need to be vigilant and ensure we make progress toward equality and respect. I agree with Hasan Minhaj that Ashton’s video is plain stupid and not funny. As a non-Indian, I can’t comment on whether or not it’s offensive. All I can say is that I’m certain for some people it is and for others, it isn’t.

    The only pattern I can discern from racial-based humor is that when the humorist is skilled, you get comedy that is funny, smart, and doesn’t solely rely on the low-hanging fruit; it can use stereotypes, but it usually demonstrates understanding of a culture beyond that stereotype, and it usually highlights the absurdity of things humans do, regardless of race, which makes it relatable and enjoyable. And still, some people will find it offensive, which is unavoidable.

    Boy, hispanics are really verbose.


  3. Chris Cray says:

    reading the link to hipster racism reminded me of an encounter I had at a grocery store in the american state of Georgia. This, obviously upper crusty white lady in front of me was being a complete pain in the ass. Started to write a check (please, god kill me now) then changed her mind to using a credit card and couldn’t figure out how to use the swipe machine. She gave up and tunneled through her purse for cash. By the time she finally finished with the purchase both the cashier, who was black, and I had had enough and just wanted her to leave. I get up to the cashier and say “White people!?” with this look of total exasperation on my face, much like hers. She busted out laughing and had a great smile on her face when I left. We both knew the joke was about her class (and lack of) not about color. People from a low income background can spot each other instantly. We all have the same contempt for white rich idiots.