Throughout American history, comedy has been one of main ways to cope with the difficulties that life has to offer. Whether it was the pilgrims dealing with harsh conditions and the Native Americans, racist slaveowners in the civil war, or the many different minorities that make up the US today; the role of comedy and humor has stayed relatively consistent in society. The comedic viewpoint fulfills an essential requirement in America, one that helps people to deal with their own problems and insecurities, especially those that are considered a taboo to talk about normally. Laughter and humor provide us with a much-needed break and relief. With the increase in those with extreme stress, depression, anxiety, and worldwide tragedies happening on a daily basis, the role of comedy to cope and reflect upon ourselves is more important now that ever.
According to Ethnic Comedy in America, it was when immigrants started coming to the USA in the 1800’s that America really started to develop it’s own style of comedy, Jewish comedy. Greene states that “In addition to the external framing of our racial and ethnic groups in comic stereotypes, these minorities possessed their own comic traditions that were a part of American humor. American culture is a pluralistic composite of many discrete local and regional and ethnic subcultures” (Greene 2016). Because America is a melting pot of cultures, its humor must come from a combination of all the immigrant’s culture’s as well. One of the first wave of immigrants in American culture were the Jews, and they used their perspectives of being an outsider in American society to generate their ethnic humor which is the basis of the now “American” form of standup comedy used often today. Lowe states that most of ethnic humor is made up of mostly Jewish and African American humor. (Lowe 1986). “Ethnic humor has always formed a significant part of American culture, partly because it provides pleasure and partly because of its connection with the concepts of aggression, struggle, and Americanization” (Lowe 1986). This ethnic humor can be seen today in comedians such as Larry David. In one of his jokes, he goes up to order a coffee at a local café. The cashier asks “Hi, What Can I Get for You?” and he responds in his thick New York Jewish accent with “Some Vanilla Bullshit, latte cappa-thing. Whatever you got I don’t care.
This joke shows him as the outsider, an old grumpy man making fun of current American coffee culture. He just wants a coffee without the complicated hassle it has nowadays. This is an example of how this technique of being an outsider and using that perspective when delivering humor has influenced the American style of humor. This outsider perspective has been used by a lot of different ethnic minority comedians over the years including African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, Gays, and Women.
While some people argue that comedy can be harmful to these minorities due to stereotyping and disparaging humor against different groups, comedy has ultimately been beneficial to minorities over the years more so than it has hurt them. One of the ways comedy has helped ethnic minorities in the United States is by positively changing the publics perception of them. When minority comedians get on stage and make fun of their own ethnic groups, it is usually done in a way that doesn’t look down on them, but rather points out the absurdities and humor in these perpetuating stereotypes. This can be seen firsthand when analyzing different ethnic comedians. One such example is a Russel Peters joke comparing Indians to Chinese people, and how they are unable to do business together. While Peters was born in Canada, he grew up with traditional Indian parents in a traditionally Indian household. “While being lightheartedly funny, he implicitly points out the absurdity of stereotypes and thus, is instrumental in dispelling social misbelieves about being Asian. This purpose is made clear by Peters at the beginning of his acts, which averts misunderstandings and orient the audience toward more conscious views on different Asian groups. In the macro level, his comedy provides a comfort space for the public to think about otherwise ‘taboo’ topics, i.e. Asian stereotypes. This effect of ethnic comedy is studied in a research by Green (2012), which claims this type of comedy helps lighten the topic of race” (Pham 2016). This shows that even though Peters, of Asian descent himself, is making fun of Asians, he is making a positive impact on minorities by dispelling stereotypes and making it easier to discuss race which is definitely a positive impact for minorities in America as it positively impacts the public perception of them. Another argument from Lowe suggests that minorities are better at succeeding and fitting in American society when they utilize their ethnic humor. He also states that “Although minorities have often entered into full citizenship through long and arduous struggle, this process has been shorter or sweeter when they have made up their minds to enter in laughing, using more delightful aspects of ethnic humor to win friends, success, or material success” (Lowe 1986). This emphasizes the positive experiences for minority groups that embrace humor, most likely due to the simple fact that everyone likes someone who can make them laugh and smile. The use of humor by ethnic minorities has also allowed for many controversial statements to be said and open up a dialogue with the public about some of the issues that he brings up. A perfect example of this is in Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special “Sticks and Stones.” Many critics who watched the special deemed many of the jokes hurtful to minority groups. He jokes about Michael Jackson being dead for 10 years and still being charged with crimes, but R. Kelly still playing live shows (pedophilia), how school shootings are only committed by white men, and about “cancel culture” being harmful. While these jokes are considered edgy, it prompted hundreds of articles and discussions about what should be allowed to be said and what is funny in today’s America. However, these things he jokes about are real problems going on in America, many of which were not talked about at all until his special. This is related to how ethnic comedians say controversial things to open discussion about problems in their life including the racism they still face all the time. This open discussion is a positive for ethnic minorities as people become more aware of these problems. It is also possible for ethnic comedians to make fun of their own stereotypes in a lighthearted way that isn’t disparaging to their culture or others. George Lopez is great example of how he turns the Mexican stereotypes on their head and uses them for a lighthearted joke. In one of his jokes, Lopez says “Chicanos never say congratulations when people do well. ‘I got a job over at the hospital.’ ‘S about time.’ Do we say good luck? No, we say, ‘Don’t fuck it up like last time.’ Or, ‘So now you think you’re all bad, or what?’ Go to the Hallmark store and look for that card. ‘Do you have a Now-You-Think-You’re-All-Bad card?’ (Lopez: Why you Crying 2005). This joke does not disparage Latin American culture at all, but instead is lighthearted and pokes fun at them in good fun. This further proves the point that comedians are able to use ethnic humor without being offensive and having a negative impact on ethnic minorities. The role comedy and humor play in the United States can give social critique and start a transformation. As Roger Cohen, a New York Times journalist, writes “comedians will make everyone uncomfortable at some point, good comics are playing an important function in society by holding up a mirror and forcing us to confront realities that we would often prefer to ignore, serving as a tool to neutralize the power of stereotypes that obstruct their path to equal participation in society” (Cohen 2016). He goes on to point out the sad reality of our culture in which whites and blacks don’t live in the same world and interact much, so in turn society is rarely ever honest in talking about race relations. He believes it is the job of comedians to start the “unfiltered honest conversation about race and ethnicity” (Cohen 2016). Another argument of how the role of comedy helps ethnic minorities is that it helps American society accept them for who they are. Cohen highlights a “pattern” in which certain minority groups are targeted by stereotypes and degrading jokes, so they retort by doing comedy and making fun of themselves. When they can make everybody laugh it creates this “connection and cultural cross-over” (Cohen 2016). Further, in the words of Dr. Meriwether-de Vries, “it not only undermines the prejudice, but also destabilizes their power and takes their ability to use that stereotype against me” (Cohen 2016).
Despite these arguments, there are some psychologists that insist that the role of comedy and humor in the United States has been detrimental to its ethnic minority groups. Of course, one of the main arguments stems from how stereotyping anything in anyway is “bad” and is a punching down technique that spreads and promotes racism. Thomas Ford, professor of social psychology at Western Carolina University states that “disparagement humor is anything that makes a punchline out of a marginalized group, and it sends two simultaneous messages; one is an explicit, hostile, or prejudiced message, and the other is it does not count as hostility because I didn’t mean it, ‘It was a joke’”(Ford 2016). Ford implies that “disguising” these messages in the form of jokes can generate mass discrimination against certain ethnic minority groups. After a conducting many experiments, he concluded that these kind of jokes influence ones comprehension of “social norms and the implicit rules of acceptable conduct” (Ford 2016). Basically, Ford is saying that when those who are racist are exposed to racist humor, they are more likely to feel freer expressing those racial attitudes, which is an obvious step back for minority ethnic groups fight for equality in the United States. He also suggests that when ethnic comedians attempt to expose the absurdity of certain stereotypes, such as in the Russel Peters example, “the audience must understand and appreciate that intention in order to undermine racism; and there is no guarantee they will!” (Ford 2016) This relates to another argument for why comedy and humor as been disadvantageous to ethnic minorities in America called the Normative Window Theory of Prejudice. This theory states that groups for whom the prejudice norm is shifting, and there is still no consensus not to discriminated against (women, gays, Muslims, etc.), if one hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them releases inhibitions one might have, and feel it’s ok to discriminate against them (Greengross 2011) For someone with mild racist attitudes, hearing these kind of jokes seems to influence their beliefs about what is acceptable behavior towards ethnic minorities, thus hampering the social growth of ethnic minorities, even if the jokes are not especially hurtful or degrading. However, other psychologists such as David Gilota from the University of Wisconsin disagree with this claim. He believes that when “wielded by the white majority, ethnic humor can be used to ridicule and demean marginalized groups, but in the hands of ethnic minorities themselves, ethnic humor can work as a site of community building and resistance” (Gilota 2013). The ethnic humor seems to act as a “window through which to examine the complexities of American race relations” and ultimately attempt to influence them in a positive manner. This means that while disparaging humor used by white Americans is definitely detrimental to ethnic minorities, its use by ethnic comedians themselves is actually a good thing by not only creating a sense of community but open the discussion for race relations between whites and all ethnic groups as they continue for the fight for equality in multicultural America.
Through analyzing the differing opinion of different scholars, one can see that there are many ways in which comedy and humor affect ethnic minorities in the United States, likely being both positive and negative. After seeing how standup comedy can bring minority groups together, dispel stereotypes, change public perception of them, and bring delicate race issues into conversation, I believe that these positives outweigh the negative effects discussed by psychologists Ford and Greengross. In conclusion, ethnic minorities have done an excellent job in using comedy and humor to cope with difficulties as well as advance their fight for social justice in a rather racist multicultural American society.