How much should comedians play up their ethnicity?

By | August 19, 2011 at 5:01 pm | 11 comments | Audio/Video, Opinion, TV/Movies | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This year late night TV has seen the likes of Reggie Watts, Hannibal Buress, Ian Edwards, and more bring their unique stand-up comedy to the masses on Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Recently, Portland comic Ron Funches killed it with his performance on Conan. In a perfect world, that should just mean that very funny comedians have had hilarious sets on late night TV.

But “perfect” isn’t the best way to describe the state of comedy, much less the entire world, and, as such, Watts, Buress, Edwards, and Funches mean a little more than than 2nd sentence. The fact is they are all black comedians performing on shows with white hosts like O’Brien, Letterman, and Kimmel.

Ever since Dave Chappelle famously left his own show and massive multi-million dollar contract with Comedy Central, there has been a void between what is often referred to in the industry as “urban comedy” and the rest of comedy. While each has their brand and specific demographic, few performers are able to bridge the gap in appeal between the two. Sure, both Nick Cannon and Kevin Hart have millions of Twitter followers between them, but their names are far from being held in the regard that Chappelle’s was.

Ethnic themed nights at comedy clubs and bars across the country have always been successful and thus stifled such a bridge from forming. Why, as a comedian, should you suffer through the process of creating a truly original act when quick and easy success can be gained from pandering the Any-Ethnicity Kings of Comedy Show?

Such is a debate for any ethnic up-and-coming comedian. A lot of these comedians will end up on any number of comedy circuits that cater to “urban,” “latin,” “filipino,” whatever. Some will never move past that circle. Pushing past such labels and focusing solely on their comedy has brought acts like Buress to SNL, 30 Rock and touring nationally as a stand-up. Funches is not only appealing to a wide, diverse audience because he tells jokes about bumping Alanis Morissette in the south side of Chicago and blackberries, but he’s an incredibly original act with unique timing and delivery that is almost a mix of Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright.

While it has yet to be seen if any of the aforementioned comedians become as universally beloved as Chappelle, they certainly seem like their on the right path, which all stems from them just being funny with no regard of what color their audience is.

About the Author

Jake Kroeger

Jake Kroeger has dedicated his life, for better or probably worse, to comedy. Starting and continually running the Comedy Bureau, a voice for LA comedy, by himself, he also writes and performs stand-up comedy in LA and watches more live comedy than is probably humanly tolerable. He's been a daily contributor to Punchline Magazine, now Laughspin.com because he loves and believes in comedy so much. Said of Kroeger, "...without his dangerously insane, unhealthy work ethic, certain comics would not have any press at all."

  • http://twitter.com/NoahOdabashian NoahOdabashian

    Something that the author isn’t really considering is the demand that is placed on non-white comics to play to a certain stereotype. You can see it in the early open mic stages, its like a casting call for the part of a bad black/latino/asian/etc comic. “Im so broke/my neighborhood is like this/my mother is…/etc” The white version of this is “rape joke/abortion joke/ violence towards women joke/etc”

    So there is pressure to fit that form, to be a caricature of a non white comedian. Inspired comedians transcend that and come up with relatable ways to talk about who they are (which includes their race).  Which makes me realize:

    This author is scared to talk honestly about race because he used ethnicity as a synonym for race, they arent the same but they can overlap. As evidence, he basically only referenced black comedians. I think that fear to address race honestly and head on is at the root of the question “how much should comedians play up their ethnicity(race)?”

    The answer is: As much as they want as long as its genuinely funny and original.

  • Josh H

    Talking about your experience, whether it is about being a parent or being gay or being black/brown is not pandering. Any topic can be covered in a hack way, and conversely any topic can be made new an original based on your point of view and unique perspective. 

    I also agree with the “Man of Action” (I guess the people who came up with Ben 10 and Generator Rex) that Funches’s set on Conan was pretty much all racial humor, and he played the race card throughout. Just because he played it differently doesn’t make it less apparent that he played off of existing stereotypes and racial norms. 

  • Gee

    its a good thing dave chappelle didnt talk about race, or ethnicity, or being black. cuz according to the author that would have left him pandering to the urban audience and stuck in that niche.  i dont think the author fully understands being an ethnic comedian.  funny is funny, if ur perspective is shaped by race, than make it funny. u dont need to ignore it, but u dont need to focus entirely on it either. theres no rules.

  • Gee

    its a good thing dave chappelle didnt talk about race, or ethnicity, or being black. cuz according to the author that would have left him pandering to the urban audience and stuck in that niche.  i dont think the author fully understands being an ethnic comedian.  funny is funny, if ur perspective is shaped by race, than make it funny. u dont need to ignore it, but u dont need to focus entirely on it either. theres no rules.

  • Gee

    its a good thing dave chappelle didnt talk about race, or ethnicity, or being black. cuz according to the author that would have left him pandering to the urban audience and stuck in that niche.  i dont think the author fully understands being an ethnic comedian.  funny is funny, if ur perspective is shaped by race, than make it funny. u dont need to ignore it, but u dont need to focus entirely on it either. theres no rules.

  • Gee

    its a good thing dave chappelle didnt talk about race, or ethnicity, or being black. cuz according to the author that would have left him pandering to the urban audience and stuck in that niche.  i dont think the author fully understands being an ethnic comedian.  funny is funny, if ur perspective is shaped by race, than make it funny. u dont need to ignore it, but u dont need to focus entirely on it either. theres no rules.

  • Gee

    its a good thing dave chappelle didnt talk about race, or ethnicity, or being black. cuz according to the author that would have left him pandering to the urban audience and stuck in that niche.  i dont think the author fully understands being an ethnic comedian.  funny is funny, if ur perspective is shaped by race, than make it funny. u dont need to ignore it, but u dont need to focus entirely on it either. theres no rules.

  • Gee

    its a good thing dave chappelle didnt talk about race, or ethnicity, or being black. cuz according to the author that would have left him pandering to the urban audience and stuck in that niche.  i dont think the author fully understands being an ethnic comedian.  funny is funny, if ur perspective is shaped by race, than make it funny. u dont need to ignore it, but u dont need to focus entirely on it either. theres no rules.

  • Man of Action

    I saw Ron Funches set on Conan and he exactly was playing up his ethnicity in his act. All of the humor derived from his set was in contrast to what white people think are the traditional aspects of being black and how much he doesn’t fit them. His still using his ethnicity but just in a way that panders to a white audience instead of an audience of his own ethnicity. White people will call it original because his comedy is a compliment to their culture. 

  • Man of Action

    I saw Ron Funches set on Conan and he exactly was playing up his ethnicity in his act. All of the humor derived from his set was in contrast to what white people think are the traditional aspects of being black and how much he doesn’t fit them. His still using his ethnicity but just in a way that panders to a white audience instead of an audience of his own ethnicity. White people will call it original because his comedy is a compliment to their culture. 

  • Tomemorello

    I understand and acknowledge the sentiment of this article, but take some exception to it’s intent. Why are you saying that “ethnic comedy” is pandering, easy humor? That’s a fairly broad brush to paint an entire genre of comedy with. Do you consider relationship material, or jokes about drug and alcohol use pandering or easy? It’s not that black-and-white, as there are brilliant takes on race and ethnicity, just as there are on any other well-worn humor topic. If a comedian uses their ethnic background to gain some viewership/fans/media where’s the harm done if it’s good stuff? I just don’t like the idea that there’s a “right way” to be an ethnic comedian. If there’s an audience for niche shows, then they deserve to be entertained! If someone’s an awful comic who makes a living pandering with ethnic street jokes, then that’s a different animal altogether. Thanks for a thought provoking article, Jake!