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Jay Leno and other white comic icons finally address racism in comedy


It took “only” 15 years of Asian American organizations’ calling out Jay Leno’s anti-Asian jokes for the comedian to offer an apology for the pain he caused to the community. While his apology last month was long overdue, it feels somewhat encouraging that he worked with Asian American groups in issuing it. Perhaps it was even a step toward moving cultural norms in the right direction.

Some people might think: What’s the big deal about a joke? I can assure you most of those people thinking that are not minorities.

Some people might think: What’s the big deal about a joke? I can assure you most of those people thinking that are not minorities. The unfunny truth is that primarily white comedians have long employed stereotypes about historically marginalized communities as comedic fodder to make other white people laugh at the expense of these minority groups.

We often chalk past transgressions like Leno’s up to the times or to people’s not knowing better. But most of the time, that’s a myth. When he offered his apology, Leno said that when he was making jokes that mocked Asians, “in my heart I knew it was wrong.” But still, he told them.

Of course Leno knew the jokes were wrong. I’ve performed standup for over 20 years — over 10 of them as a full-time comic touring the U.S. and the Middle East. Every comic knows that telling a joke that perpetuates stereotypes about any minority community is wrong.

In the best case, a comic telling these types of jokes is simply being lazy, counting on the likelihood that tired cliches about minority groups will get laughs at the comedy clubs. (And, sadly, they still do.)

The worst-case scenario, though, is when a comedian is truly bigoted and the jokes are designed not just to get a laugh, but also to share the comedian’s sincere disdain for certain people. From my experience, that’s rare, but I did see it happen in the immediate years after 9/11, when plenty of comedians spread dangerous stereotypes about my community — Arabs and Muslims — because, as I learned firsthand in speaking to some of them, they didn’t like us.

The unfunny truth is that primarily white comedians have long employed stereotypes about historically marginalized communities as comedic fodder to make other white people laugh.

Lately, more comedians seem to be coming forward to issue apologies for past racist jokes and behavior. I believe most of them when they say they were simply going for the laughs, without any malice. But this still means they performed them with little to no concern whether they caused pain.

As a society, we’re going through something of a reckoning when it comes to how our culture portrays race — even comedians. This means some comics are finally addressing past jokes that not only furthered negative stereotypes, but also helped fuel systemic racism.

In Leno’s case, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans had called out Leno’s repeated jokes that furthered stereotypes that Asians, especially Koreans, ate dogs. In 2019, when he was a guest judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” Leno joked that a painting depicting pets belonging to the show’s executive producer resembled items “on the menu at a Korean restaurant.”

First of all, can you get any lazier as professional comedian than that type of joke? Seriously!

While the joke didn’t make it to broadcast, Asian Americans working on “America’s Got Talent” and other staff members voiced complaints.

In response, the Media Action Network called for NBC to sever ties with Leno, while the Council of Korean Americans released a powerful statement noting that Leno’s jokes about Asians “are offensive and propagate false perceptions of Asian Americans as suspicious, uncivilized foreigners engaging in repugnant practices.”

First of all, can you get any lazier as professional comedian than that type of joke?

In the past year, other well-known comedians have apologized for bits they delivered that at the time didn’t raise an uproar — or even eyebrows in the media. Many say that in retrospect they understand they were wrong. In June, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel apologized for having appeared in blackface while doing impressions of Black celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Karl Malone, on his Comedy Central show from 1999 to 2003.

The public’s reaction to comedy’s history of racism has put things into perspective for many people.

These recent apologies haven’t just been limited to jokes about race. After the recent premier of the documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” about the pop star’s painful struggle to take control of her life from her father, Sarah Silverman expressed regret for what some viewed as sexist jokes she had told mocking Spears in 2007 at the MTV Music Awards.

It was the emotional apology by “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, for his appearance in blackface while doing an impression of Chris Rock on “Saturday Night Live” in 2000, that hit home for me. Primarily, this was because I worked on the production staff of “SNL” at the time. (Both “The Tonight Show” and “SNL” are on the NBC network.)

When the sketch aired, there was no outrage, at least none that I recall. I also don’t remember any behind-the-scenes concerns’ being expressed; the sketch aired and that was the end of it — until years later.

And that’s been the catalyst; the public’s reaction to comedy’s history of racism has put things into perspective for many people. Even I don’t recall being upset with the sketch when it aired, but then again, in 2000, I was still a “white person.” It was only in post-9/11 America that I became a minority.

But times change, and so do cultural norms — even when it comes to comedy. Comedians know just like everyone else that they must evolve with the times to stay fresh and relevant. That likely means dropping certain jokes from acts that at one time were acceptable but now are clearly wrong — even if those jokes still get cheap laughs.

And to be clear, this comedic evolution isn’t about “cancel culture,” as Leno specifically pointed out in his apology, but rather acknowledging “a legitimate wrong that was done on my part.” Leno’s apology is evidence that he recognizes the changing times.

Even Chris Rock, who in the past has complained that college students are getting so “politically correct” that he had stopped performing on college campuses, slammed white performers appearing in blackface, saying: “Blackface ain’t cool, OK?! … Blackface is bad. Who needs it?!”

Exactly — who needs it? Comedy can be hilarious without furthering dangerous and hurtful stereotypes. True, it may mean more work to write better jokes, but comedians’ careers, their audiences and our society will all be better off for it.

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