Comedy Blog: Racial Comedy Not a Laughing Matter

Jessica Flores

Producer Exposes Racial and Physical Comedy Crutches

By Jessica Flores

Why is race a factor when booking a comedy show? For example, I was recently asked to find a “Hispanic” or “Asian” comedian for an event. What does that mean? Do they want a good, funny comedian who happens to be of Hispanic or Asian decent?

Or do they want anyone who is Hispanic or Asian to fit some theme of diversity? I knew they meant the latter. Wanting to promote diversity is all well and good, but when I look for a comedian I look for someone who is original, thought provoking, creative and hysterical. I look for someone who doesn’t have to exploit their race for more than 90 percent of their material for laughs. When comedians rely on their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation for the bulk of their sets, it’s hackdom at its worst. It’s unoriginal, unimaginative and completely cliché.

The amount of surprise in that person’s voice when I told her that I didn’t know any such comedians was laughable. “Greg Giraldo is Hispanic, but he’s not a “Hispanic comedian,” I told her, “Steve Byrne is half-Asian, but I don’t think that either comic would be willing to do a 6-to-8 minute set. (Both comedians are on tour.)

I brought up the name of a good friend of mine. “The white guy?” she asked. “He’s Italian,” I corrected her. From her lack of response, I don’t think she saw the difference. At this point, I couldn’t believe I was even having this conversation. My friend is a brilliant NYC- based comedian that I’ve known for a couple of years. A few nights before, we got into a bit of a discussion about the current state of stand-up comedy. He told me that, after 14 years in the business, he was getting tired of the scene.

Listening to arguments and living through my experiences in the industry, I completely understood. He told me that he was exhausted of seeing new and up-and-coming comedians telling p*ssy jokes night after night and the audience eating it up. He added, “It’s not the audience’s fault. They don’t know any better. But we do. We should. Why can’t these comedians just write? Nobody writes anymore.”

Of course, there must be exceptions to the rule, but I can’t say that I know very many. But regardless of how funny one can make his or her race out to be (which does work), even they must admit that they are isolating themselves from a broader audience when they concentrate on this sole aspect of their lives. They are single-handedly segregated themselves from the larger population and labeling themselves within the comedic community.

Another emerging problem with comedians that I’ve seen become more popular as of late is that of the “ball of energy” type of comedy. By this, I refer to the comedians who use physical energy for laughs in lieu of actual jokes. I once saw a grown man (at least in his late 30s or early-to-mid 40s) running around and jumping awkwardly on stage. I turned to realize that most of the audience members were holding their midsection from laughing so hard. Really? You can’t tell me that he could possibly be doing the same act in 10 years time. There’s just no way.

A man his age shouldn’t be relying on “Cookisms” for his material. I just don’t see him or any other comedian pulling that stunt in their 50s. It will be sad and physically daunting. I’ve also had the misfortune of seeing a young comedian doing the running man with a wig of dreadlocks on his head.

I suppose there has always been bad comedy and bad comics. It just kills me when I see so many of them become famous and make obscene amounts of money for what they do, when on the other hand, comedians who are original and brilliant struggle to book lucrative gigs and contemplate quitting.

Just write. Please write. Be original. Avoid clichés. You’ll grow old, so avoid relying on the physical stuff for the majority of your sets. Challenge yourselves. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t be afraid to be controversial, strange, shocking or just different. Be funny. Be smart. Your audience will appreciate it.

Jessica Flores is the Associate Producer of the NYC-based weekly comedy show, Tell Your Friends, hosted by Liam McEneaney at Lolita Bar on the Lower East Side.

24 Responses to Comedy Blog: Racial Comedy Not a Laughing Matter

  1. Hi Jessicia, Thank you for the insightful column. Hopefully in the near future comics will be chosen for their originality and talent and for engaging the audience. It hurts comedy when a quota system has to be used. Here’s to a time when talent is all that matters. Kudos, Erica Lynn

  2. Jessica,

    First off thanks for a well written article and more importantly, for caring about the artform. While I agree with much of what you say, I have to disagree with a couple of topics.

    First, the use of ethnic material alone doesn’t make someone a hack. We’re very quick in this industry to slap that label on each other, however it isn’t like there’s a universal “hack formula.” Richard Pryor did a ton of racial material, — and before anybody says it wasn’t the majority of his act listen to any album pre ’78, — and he was a true artist. Freddie Prinze did racial material and he is still timeless. What is hack is what is trite, stolen or unoriginal. If you have ethnic material that is unique and thought provoking, you could do it forever and never cross into hack.

    Also, I think that some shows are booked, and some are cast. In this case they wanted to cast a Latino or Asian comic. It is absolutely no different than saying the show is all female, all gay, has an all alternative line up, or is all political. Come the end of the day it is about finding the comics that you think best suit your audience and giving the customers what they want.

    Every one of us who takes the stage aspires to be an artist. With that, we want it to be about the art and who is the funniest. It isn’t always about that. There’s a business attached to what we do, and it is about audiences.

    As an artist, and as a booker, you have the right to say you won’t do any business with an exclusionary market. However, those markets exist and the money we make in those shows can fuel the more artistic, less financially rewarding gigs that we all love.

    Jim

  3. I appreciate the second half of your article– that comics have to write original material that’s different from what else is being written.

    But regarding the first half, about choosing comedians in order to have a diverse show– I think to some extent you’re making an incorrect assumption. Saying someone wants an Asian or Hispanic or female comedian doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re seeking someone whose act reflects being Asian, Hispanic or female, and certainly not that they’re looking for ethnic/gender hacks. It may just mean they want a show that isn’t 100% white guys. I’m a 100% white guy and even I notice when a showcase is all white guys. I’m not saying that all white male comics share a viewpoint but at some point the audience may start to notice a pattern. I have heard audience members comment on the lack of black or female comics in a show.

    People tend to associate with other people from a similar background– it’s what we’re most comfortable with. When I worked in banking I noticed that my friends at work tended to be like me– and the one exception to that was a guy from a very different background… but we had something in common (an interest in cycling).

    Which is possibly why a white guy booking a show may tend to favor white guys… and similarly for other groups of people. We’re most comfortable with people like ourselves. So frankly I find it refreshing when somebody notices and says “Hey, there’s too many of me in this show, let’s find someone different.”

    And by the way, maybe in some places an Italian-American man may be considered ethnically exotic, but here in NYC that’s just a version of ‘white guy.’

  4. Thank you so much for your feedback.

    I did say that there were a few exceptions. Who can deny the greatness of Proyor, Chappelle, or Lopez? But they are just a hand-full out of how many comedians? I find that, for the most part, when comedians do these type of acts without the craft and ingenuity of their predecessors, they often segregate their audience.

    As to the incorrect assumption-For three years I worked with an organization that catered their events to the African American community of a university, even though they were not the predominant race in the school. Great amount of the organization’s budget was placed om booking hip-hop artists, reality television stars and Def comedy and spoken word artists. Getting enough money to book comedians like Greg Giraldo, Robert Kelly, Steve Byrne, Russ Meneve, just to name a few, was always a struggle for me. I know these people very well so I’d have to disagree with your well-mannered belief. I wish you were right.

    Thanks again for reading and posting your thoughts. I’m eager to read more.

  5. Thanks for a useful take on this, Jessica. Something more generally about comedy and race that bothers me is how white folks in particular don’t like to hear about race unless it’s addressed comically. Especially about their own race. White folks don’t think race matters in their own lives, but as a white guy who’s thought a lot about my own racial membership, I wish I could convince them it does.

    I recently wrote about this on my blog:

    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2008/04/laugh-at-other-white-people.html

    Thanks again, and best of luck convincing the fools,

    Macon D

    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/

    macon d’s last blog post..party in talking clusters

  6. I agree with many of your points but I think we as artists are the best judges of comedy as an art form. I do believe that you can address issues of race as they do affect us everyday. To me it boils down to how race is used. If you’re just re-enforcing steroetypes and playing to the audiences expectations then perhaps you’re engaging in coonery and bafoonery. "I’m black and I got bad credit" or "Look I’m a mexican dish washer" are ot examples of actually writing a joke, but of pandering to the audiences presexisting bad stereotypes as a joke. To me that’s not funny.

    If you are using race to point out the obserdity of human nature and it’s "need" to group others for both a tool and a crutch, then perhaps you’re actually doing something different or at least "intellectual". You might have to write that joke instead of pimping out a stereotype.

    Josh Homer’s last blog post..Monday Show

  7. Great article and very true. But the industry seems to be steering away from funny and looking for zany, stupid or something they can expliot and the ones that have invested their time and talent in the art form they truly love, get overlooked. If the industry would realize that when you go for the cheap you get all the dredges that are only looking for 15 minutes of fame and It’s an embarrassment to all the great , funny, original comics out there.

  8. "I’ve also had the misfortune of seeing a young comedian doing the running man with a wig of dreadlocks on his head."
    That actually sounds like a pretty good day at the office to me. Better than a cubicle.

  9. Enough already with the racial comedy. Certainly, our physical appearance and life experience play a big part of our material but too many comics out there have little else to say. BTW, why is Freddie Prinze held in such great esteem? I remember him as being one of the first of his ethnic background to get mainstream recognition but I don’t recall his material being very good. I only knew him from television so maybe I never got the full picture. As one of those older guys Jessica talks about I can tell you that being that age and jumping around on stage just doesn’t cut it after a certain point. Besides, sports bras for men are hard to find.

  10. There are two discussions: one is about racial comedy (art) which most of you have commented and the other is about how race is being used as a factor in booking comics (business), which is prevalent in comedy. It’s interesting that when race is discussed, we automatically equate it to a person of color, but racial preference is not limited to just blacks, Asians and Latinos. Club bookers and independent promoters often use race to determine which comics are booked. For example, mainstream rooms book predominately white male comics because the assumption is "our audience is predominately white, so that’s what they will want to see." Therefore, the booking is done with regard to race. It’s the same thing if they’re producing a Latin or urban show. Those shows are booked with regard to race.

    I agree with Jessica that booking should be less about race and more about who’s funny and original.

    Tasha

  11. Guys,

    This conversation is at the heart of what most rising comics struggle with, the battle between the art of comedy and the buisness of comedy. Although many wonderful points have been brought up the underlying truth is that some venues are concerned only with the bottom line. And some comics, although we may not like it, are concerned only with their bottem line.

    "I appreciate the second half of your article– that comics have to write original material that’s different from what else is being written." While I do believe this is true, the breaking point should be "honest" and not "Unique." If similar comics from similar social and economic backgrounds have similar experiences to share on stage it’s the luck of the draw. In that case it is up to the booker to make sure that the audience isn’t subject to the same material in the same show. However, in my opinion, I think dishonest material, the educated comic playing dumb, or people "ethnicing it up" just to get laughs is the problem. Without the humanity of true life experience behind it, it just feels trite.
    ‘I find that, for the most part, when comedians do these type of acts without the craft and ingenuity of their predecessors, they often segregate their audience." I think you’re lumping the good in with the bad. I contend that there are no "ethnic acts" or "Alternitive acts" there are only comics. Look at the 70′s, Pryor wasn’t a black comic, and Andy Kaufman wasn’t an alternitive comic, they were just comics. Still are. The fact is that not every comic is right for every audience. Instead of criticizing the comic for it, look at the comic. Talk to them. Are they doing material that is close to their experience and near to their heart? Instead of judging someone else’s artistic chooices, speak to the artist. And as far as the comic polerizing the audience, I think it is the audience that is creating the need for the comic to learn to play segregated rooms.

    "For three years I worked with an organization that catered their events to the African American community of a university, even though they were not the predominant race in the school. Great amount of the organization’s budget was placed om booking hip-hop artists, reality television stars and Def comedy and spoken word artists. Getting enough money to book comedians like Greg Giraldo, Robert Kelly, Steve Byrne, Russ Meneve, just to name a few, was always a struggle for me." I’m sorry, but if the job was to cater the events to the African-American community, and the Def Jam comics and Hip Hop Artists were what the person in charge felt was the order of the day, why is this an issue? Greg, Steve, Robert & Russ are brilliant, but this orginization wasn’t about comedy, it was about serving the African-American community. Instead of blaming the artists who cater to that community for having acts that the powers that be felt were better suited for their audience, take the time and overthrow the powers that be!

    "BTW, why is Freddie Prinze held in such great esteem? I remember him as being one of the first of his ethnic background to get mainstream recognition but I don’t recall his material being very good. I only knew him from television so maybe I never got the full picture." — Freddie was an effortless, charismatic performer who brought the inner city experience to the mainstream. While listening to his material now might not make him seem groundbreaking, put it in context. It was in the mid 70′s when city life, and Latino culture were unheard of on TV. It was also before a slew of performers came and performed his bits with the gusto of a cover band. He was the first and only Latino to be the Lead on a #1 sitcom, and one of only 2 — with Desi Arnez being the other — to even be on a number 1 show. Unfortunately, not much of his stand up remains. Listen to the album "Lookin’  Good" or get your hands on the Midnight Special DVD’s or the Dean Martin roasts that he’s on.

    "As one of those older guys Jessica talks about I can tell you that being that age and jumping around on stage just doesn’t cut it after a certain point." — Again, I disagree, it just has to be honest. On Monday night I attended a benefit where Martin Short performed and did 4 perfectly executed front facing falls out of a high bar stool.  He bounced around the stage like a madman. It worked because it is what he does and he does it well.

    "I agree with Jessica that booking should be less about race and more about who’s funny and original." Ok, we all do, but as long as this is the only artform with a 2 drink minimum, it won’t be. If we want places to work our craft it has to be about finding an audience.

    Jim

  12. We are more more obsessed with race not less in this country. Promoters and bookers are probably just responding to the marketing opportunities available to this growing form of isolation. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a tour of Left-handed Irish Comics with a Limp. I suppose all of the right-handed Irish Comics with a Limp will be mad at me now.

  13. Boy, am I getting weird. I’m watching Rep. Carolyn Maloney conduct a hearing on abusive practices in the credit card industry and I’m thinking, "She kinda hot." Must be the gigantic pearl necklace.Jim, I have heard Freddie Prinze on some of old Dean Martin roasts and wasn’t impressed. I’ll try to find "Looking Good" and be, if may, Freducated. No doubt he is an important figure in the race history of show business.Martin Short, incredibly talented as he is,  can jump around because he’s got that munchkin quality that allows him to get away with things that would make most normal sized older comics look like they had brain damage. I suppose getting away with that is the least he should get in return for being a munchkin.

  14. We are becoming more fractionalized in America. In the past, we were just Americans, but not we’re Italian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and South Island-Americans, among others. It seems to me that the promoters and bookers are responding to this trend. Let me know when a tour of right-handed Italian comics are formed. I’m in. Erica Lynn

  15. "we’re becoming fractionalized in America. In the past, we were just Americans…"

    What America are you referring to? In the past my "kind" couldn’t even drink at the same fountains as other Americans. That was my mom’s generation, one that is still alive. I forget the documentary but there was man (he was Euro-American) and his quote was, "White people forget it’s about race, it’s always been about race." It doesn’t affect you on a daily basis, but for those of us with darker hues it around all the time. I could tell you stories about police officers, coworkers, etc that you would not believe, and why should you? It would never happen to you. You can go to youtube and see videos our own government made regarding the "lower races" and "gays" neither of which are flattering or promoting of exceptance.

    Talking about race and racism is a good thing. Propigating the stereotypes, not so much.

    Josh Homer’s last blog post..Is it really that serious?

  16. Josh, your last line was words of gold. Although not as discriminated as your ancestors were, I’ve heard stories of elderly Italians and other Eastern European groups who had a hard time. As late as the 1960s, if you were of Italian descent, you couldn’t buy a home in some suburbs of Metro Detroit. Not every Italian was in the Mafia. Josh, my fondest wish is that someday we won t even have to discuss this subject. Bias on race, sex nationality, religion, etc will have ceased to exist. Erica Lynn

  17. "What America are you referring to?"I think we need to carefully make a distinction between racism, which shouldn’t be tolerated, and other issues around racial or ethnic identity. One’s otherness is the focus of attention in the extreme nowadays. This can’t be good for the cohesion of the country. It just seems like we’re obsessed with our differences. I know what it’s like to be suspect just because of who you are. I’m a middle-aged, white-guy and everybody has it in for us. 

  18. The thing you don’t see because you are not a minority is your race affects you everyday. As a comic it effects your bookings. Look at any club and count the number of minority headliners they have in one year. I even had a booker say that he likes to have a black MC that way he doesn’t have to book a black comic on the show! Many shows in NYC do not have more than one minority comic on at a time unless its an indie show (sure we’ll have a bunch of minorities on this show because we are not paying).

    Look at the major sitcoms all white characters, very little minority representation unless the minority is the butt of the jokes (Aliens in America?). Black characters on Seinfeld? Friends? Home Improvement? Two and a Half Men? Anytime a black person gets a sitcom it has to be about them being black. Remember Dave Chappelle being banned from Fox because he refused to put a white character on the show?
    As a black comic I know I am constantly reminded that I have to work harder, that marginal comedy will not do, and there are opportunities that are not afforded me because ‘they already have one black guy on the show’.

    Ok I know I am off topic and ranting.

    Josh Homer’s last blog post..Obama, the remix

  19. Josh I don’t know about New York, but Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle is very fair to minorities. Go to the ComedyCastle.com and check out the calendar. No. I don’t work for Mark Ridley and the Comedy Castle. I’m just a friend who observes the comedy scene from there. You are right in that your race affects you everyday, and I’m sorry for that. Josh as I said earlier, I hope that changes in the future. Females in comedy also struggles to get bookings too. (51% of the U.S. population called a minority). However, only 5% of women are in standup. Let’s hear from you and others out there on what you’ve encountered. Kudos Erica Lynn

  20. I think you need to be funnier than your group. If you fit into a sub-group aka a minority, be one of the best. Sure some clubs and bookers might cast their line ups based on “we need one of these and one of those,” so be one of the best.There are some clubs who take it to an extreme. There are club owners and bookers who are racist and as sexist. There is a club on the NJ shore, who the owner likes to hire Italian comics and that’s fine. He only books white males. Sure, if you go to his website he has a photo of Melvin George, but he performed there over 2 years ago. There is also a photo of Patrice O’Neal. He will book Patrice for one reason: Patrice can get on O and A and sell out the room. There are no gay comics, no Latin comics, and no women. He actually has said that when he puts a woman on the bill the show never sells. Yes the 2 times he has done it, I’m sure it has. It was also dead of winter and a snow storm but does that count? There are some women on the website, but no woman has performed there in over a year. No Asians either. It’s wrong. It kills me when I see comics I respect performing here. If established good guy comics would call him out on this, perhaps this guy would cry UNCLE .

  21. Funny mom,
    No one is calling anyone on anything. Established comics are booked places so it’s not their concern or in their best interest to bring in competition. But just like you said, be the best, be on TV, etc and club owners/bookers will book you because then is makes them money and that’s what it’s all about.

    Josh Homer’s last blog post..Conversations with my wife

  22. …booking should be less about race and more about who’s funny and original." Ok, we all do, but as long as this is the only artform with a 2 drink minimum, it won’t be. If we want places to work our craft it has to be about finding an audience.

    Stand up is not the only art form with a two drink min. Music, in particular live music clubs such as BB Kings and top jazz clubs requires admission and a food and/or drink minimum. I don’t think the problem is so much with the drink min as it is with product quality.

    Tasha

  23. I’m a nobody and by no means important or a necessity to this conversation, but I do have an account here so I’m going to write something.

    My thoughts are that 100% of the human population has been affected by racism for 100% of our existence (not just one race or another either)…and we’re still bitching about it.  We’re not the first and we won’t be the last.  Like it or not, its a fact. 

    It’s kinda like leiderhosen.  Nobody knows who did it first or why they thought it was a good idea, but sadly it has survived the test of time and will probably continue to be a stain on mankind’s history.  Tragic, but a reality nonetheless.

    I’m just not personally big on constantly stepping on other races/ethnicities/whatever to try to equalize it.  Racial jokes do get old when someone devotes an entire set to it.  I personally get tired of comedians who make fun of white guys the entire time they’re on stage.  Sure, they may have funny stuff and valid points, but it gets old and tired, be innovative.

    …and I don’t have one of those stupid white guy accents either…

    The earth’s populace is never going to adapt and overcome this hurdle.  Embrace the differences and for God’s sake, have fun with it.

  24. Firstly, I’m loving the amount of comments made on this topic.

    ON ETHNIC HUMOR-

    My heart is broken at what American comedy has become because a hugely diverse America prefers to avoid the beauty of subject.

    “Ethnic Humor” itself is a powerful negative label because it invalidates the comics experience. If a group of comics of the same race and age have similar experiences, that’s not ethnic humor…that’s LIFE!

    The issue is too complicated to be simplified.

    Truth is, there is no right or wrong answer.

    BALL OF ENERGY-

    Many a comic these days aren’t really saying anything but is that good or bad? I liken this situation to Hip-Hop. When rap first started, everybody had originality and empowering messages it seems. But that’s not the case now.

    Comedy is the same way. Being loud and energetic doesn’t mean that a person is funny.

    But I’m realizing that there is a big picture to humanity. The picture is when you strip away the occupation, religion, race, geography and gender you have the same thing. A human being.

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