White audiences and comedy about race

This article talks about how late-night hosts are having a tough time finding funny jokes about Barack Obama:

Of course, the question of race is also mentioned as one reason Mr. Obama has proved to be so elusive a target for satire.

“Anything that has even a whiff of being racist, no one is going to laugh,” said Rob Burnett, an executive producer for Mr. Letterman. “The audience is not going to allow anyone to do that.”

Ooh, comedy and race. Always a fun/touchy subject.

Comedy is one the few places in our society that people actually discuss race openly. So watching a crowd react to racial material is interesting. What I've noticed: White audiences can get very uptight about the subject. They often just shut down. Meanwhile, black audiences are a lot more receptive to jokes on the topic, if they're delivered properly.

(I'm not talking about racist humor. Just racial humor. You can talk about black people, or whomever, and joke around without being a racist.)

In clubs, you see this tension with comics who really get into race, like Todd Lynn (who's black) or Mike Destefano (who's white). They'll tell a racial joke and the audience goes quiet.

Often, Lynn or Mike D will then berate the audience. These guys are pros and they know how much laughter a joke should get. If they don't get it, they'll tell the audience why they're wrong. Lynn will say, "That shit is funny right there, I don't care what you people think."

White audiences in alternative rooms (wow, was that phrase redundant or what?) are the worst. They get scared of anything that deals with race. Liberal guilt, I guess. And also perhaps since you don't see black comics in alt rooms as often as you do in regular clubs. Another good reason that it's healthy to check out shows in both scenes.

In mixed rooms, I've seen this a lot: White crowd looks at the one table with black people in the room to see if they're laughing. It's like that table becomes the referee for whether it's ok to laugh. Comics will point this out too. I've heard plenty of club comics say things like, "Sure, look at the black guy to see if he's laughing..."

A few times I've seen a black comic doing crowdwork and pick out some Asian dude in the room and refer to him as Jackie Chan. And the whole room laughs. Hmm, what would the reaction be if some Asian comic referred to a random black dude in the crowd as Denzel?

The bottom line is that the audience has to trust you. Eventually, a comic like Lynn or Destefano gets the crowd because he wins their confidence. You've got to be really good and tackle any race material with ultraconfidence. If the audience smells you're weak or unsure, they won't trust you. And also, don't actually be racist.

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