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Learning From Blackface Comedy

Ella Khulusi considers the prevalence of blackface in contemporary comedy, and what we can learn from what makes us laugh.

CW: Racism

An overweight Black woman, employee at an airport café, bemoans a lack of paper cups in a warbling Caribbean falsetto. In fact, she’s hidden the cups herself to get a day off work, and she isn’t a Black woman, she’s Matt Lucas. If you turned on your TV now and that’s what you saw, would it make you laugh? The line between humour and hurt is a fine one, and it’s one which shows such as Come Fly With Me now find themselves on the wrong side of. BBC iPlayer removing Come Fly With Me is one of many recent attempts to rid our screens of blackface: Tina Fey asking NBC to remove episodes of 30 Rock; Netflix pulling an episode of Community; BBC iPlayer removing The League of Gentlemen from its platform; Hulu ditching episodes of Scrubs, the list goes on. With some of these episodes being less than a decade old, it’s alarming that content coming from a place of privilege and caricaturing minorities as comedic fodder is not yet a thing of the past. But the way in which blackface is used in comedy has undoubtedly changed, and it’s important to understand exactly how this new breed of parody harms the anti-racist movement.

The thing is, these scenes are created in the full knowledge that they’re going to be controversial. In Community, Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley asks, “So we’re just gonna ignore that hate crime, huh?” in response to Ken Jeong’s character in blackface. Likewise, Peep Show’s Jez says, “It just feels almost wrong. Are you sure this isn’t racist?” when he sees his girlfriend in blackface for a fancy-dress party, and in Golden Girls, Rose feels the need to establish that “this is mud on our faces, we’re not really Black.”  Recently, then, the gag isn’t the use of blackface itself, it’s the uncomfortable atmosphere it creates. This kind of humour is only indirectly dependent on racial stereotypes – it’s a parody of a parody, a kind of nudge wink humour saying “look, here’s an inane and outdated mockery of race, but we’re enlightened enough to laugh how ridiculous racism is!” And yet this isn’t what modern racism looks like. The fact that we ourselves may subconsciously harbour internalised racism isn’t addressed, nor the fact that systemic and institutional racism works in far more pervasive and insidious ways than any single bigoted individual. Caricature of both victims and perpetrators of racism alike makes it too easy to draw a line between some distinct set of racists and ourselves as viewers. Laughing at the progress we have made since the days of The Black and White Minstrel Show is uncomfortable when we still have so much progress left to make.

But is erasure of these scenes really the best move against racism, or is it just tokenism? Channel 4 recently described Netflix’s decision to remove an episode of Peep Show as “erasing our creative history” and has no plans to remove it off All4. Whether or not removing content from streaming platforms constitutes a form of censorship is undoubtedly an important debate, but what’s also certain is that as long as people can watch racist tropes in the comedy section, some will find them funny. When people are shown videos of crashes, falls and accidents with a canned laugh track, they laugh. You don’t approach comedy programmes thinking about their ideological implications or the white privilege of their creators. You approach them knowing they’re meant to be funny, making it more likely to be so. If you want to see this phenomenon in action, just try watching old Friends episodes without the laugh track – painfully awkward, right? Laughter is social, so it’s no wonder that changes in societal attitudes towards blackface mean that a growing number of people now see these jokes as painfully thoughtless rather than funny. So, the real question is not what content streaming services deem it acceptable for us to laugh at, but what content we would laugh at had we not been socialised into finding racist tropes funny. Surely the removal of blackface content is a step in the right direction for ending this socialisation.

We need to build on the growing recognition that we aren’t yet distanced enough to joke about the racism of the past, and that conformism to a prejudiced society shapes our perception of humour more than we may realise. Suppression of blackface content isn’t a quick fix for racism, and it must not be a performative gesture by contrite broadcasters or comedians – it must be backed by a real commitment to diversifying comedy and producing authentic narratives rather than parodies. No matter your opinion on how best to deal with the problematic comedy of the past, we can all agree that the future of comedy needs to be different; the removal of blackface episodes from streaming platforms is at least a sign of our burgeoning collective understanding of how far we still have to go in the fight for equality.

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