I’m going to get a bit serious about comedy (I know, I know).

Someone sent me video of a local comedian’s youtube video of a character I’ve seen him portray once before. To call it infantile and racially insensitive would be a gross understatement. For the targets of his ridicule, it’s every bit as offensive as a mean-spirited performance in blackface. But because it’s against one of the few groups for whom bigotry, hostility, and ridicule is still acceptable (Chinese Americans and others of Asian and/or Pacific Island descent), it’s seen as okay by most and even encouraged by other local comedians.

But it’s not. To the point where I not only felt disgusted by the video, but was reminded of how ashamed I felt to have even sat through a live performance of the character.

I’m in an awkward position because of the nature of comedy and especially this local scene, which makes calling it out publicly a murky proposition. So I won’t, and perhaps it’s for the better, as I’d rather not call attention to it. All I can do is refuse to name the person in question and refuse any offer of a shared bill, for what little that may be worth since we haven’t run into each other yet, haven’t met personally, and probably never will. In fact, I almost guarantee he won’t ever even read this.

And in case you’re wondering, no, it’s not even funny.

When someone talks about a comedian’s offensive material or attitude, there’s always the cop-out counterpoint of comedy as expression, art, and/or satire. But there is a line. One could argue it’s subjective but it’s still easily defined. It’s crossed by tone, degree, context, and especially when something cannot be construed in any way as ironic or satirical and simply propagates harmful stereotypes while belittling an entire people. There is a big difference between racial humor and racist humor, and anyone with even a modicum of intellect at his or her disposal should be able to discern the difference whether they’re performing the material or preparing to defend it.

I don’t purport to be anything approaching enlightened or greater than. I do have the benefit, however, of having my eyes opened in a very real way from a college course I took with a man named Amnat Chittaphong who, in addition to being a teacher and Director of Multicultural Affairs for Siena College, was himself the victim of racial antagonism in his undergraduate days. But it wasn’t merely enrollment in his class and completion of a few readings that did it. It was the other members of that class, many but not all of whom fit the category of being of Asian and Pacific Island descent, who shared their experiences with me. I did not become close friends with them and their names are lost to the haze of my memory, but I remember distinctly how they felt about this sort of thing and how crushing it was to them to have to see and hear it and, especially, to have it tolerated. And so, because of that experience, I am slightly more aware and conscious than I otherwise might be about the damaging effect that stupid, racist bullshit that doesn’t advance any dialogue and only insults and/or ridicules a race of people can have on the intended target of a person’s ridicule. That’s why I wouldn’t do anything that approaches Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the film adaptation of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for a cheap laugh at the expense of others, simply because I’ve seen first-hand what that’s done to the targets.

But, again, I have the benefit of context. Which is to say that hearing people and especially kids get emotional about this sort of thing gives me pause about it where it might not others. So take that for what you will.

On another note, and perhaps to provide some karmic balance, check out this video Todd Glass recently did for GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). Glass, whom I’ve always been a fan of, surprised a lot of people recently when he came out after decades of exposure on the WTF podcast. His message on that show was that he didn’t want gay youths to think that it wasn’t okay to be gay. Really powerful stuff. Check out the video and, if you get a chance, give the episode a listen.


9 Responses to Where I Draw the Line in Comedy

  1. Dingo says:

    Going just off of all of the comments on your blog, in its entirety, your opinion about comedy and where you “draw the line” matter not an iota. You’re screaming from obscurity and no one hears you.

    • kevinmarshall says:

      I think it’s adorable that you chased me all the way from Google Plus to continue trolling.

      I’m sorry other people say things and have opinions on their own personal blog. It must be so awful for you!

      • Dingo says:

        You really need to work on your comebacks, man. You claim to be a comedian, but I’ve been scouring your site to try and find some evidence of comedy, and I’ve been woefully unsuccessful.  Maybe open mics are more your speed? You should head on down to Chuckles and work some stuff out before you put “Comedian” on your calling card. Now, come at me with a good comeback, make it sting. :)

  2. Jessica Pasko says:

    In addendum to your post: gays and lesbians are also one of those last frontiers that people seem to think it’s okay to make fun of. I think it’s starting to change, but it’s been a long time coming.

    “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is one of my favorite movies but the Mickey Rooney character kills me. It’s amazing to me that it was okay at the time. See also “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” I was very curious how the Asian characters would be portrayed when Saratoga High put on TMM as their musical…. so many of the old plays and movies of our culture are not all P.C. by today’s standards. I’m always wondering how high school teachers deal with that when putting these plays on. Do they address it at all? 

    • kevinmarshall says:

      I’m not sure. I would assume (hope?) so, though probably not as vigilantly as they would in other cases. I’m surprised they would even attempt it in the first place. There are plenty of plays that they won’t produce and films they won’t air (“Song of the South” being the most obvious example) anymore because of the racist caricatures and portrayals, including many that weren’t necessarily constructed with bad intent.

      I remember when I was blogging with the Times Union they had an event where they screened “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” A lot of people went, nostalgic of the film, and I watched their faces when the Mickey Rooney character made its first appearance. Many were aghast. Different times, indeed.

  3. J Eric Smith says:

     So much for Iowa Nice, Dingo . . .

  4. J Eric Smith says:

     Whoa . . . did I vaporize him?!?

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