In perhaps his most famous sketch, African-American comic Dave Chappelle plays Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who has never learned that he’s black. In one scene, Bigsby rants about hating African Americans: “First of all they’re lazy, good for nothin’ tricksters, crack smokin’ swindlers, big butt havin,’ with their wide noses breathin’ all the white man’s air. They eat up all the chicken, they think they’re the best dancers, and they stink. Matter of fact, my friend Jasper told me one of them coons came by his house to pick his sister up for a date. He said ‘look here nigger, that there is my girl. If anyone is going to have sex with my sister it’s gonna be me!”
Beneath the humor lies a rich layer of social commentary about race relations in the United States.

Many people see comedy like this as merely funny, but there’s more there than just a laugh. Beneath the humor lies a rich layer of social commentary about race relations in the United States. While comedians will make everyone uncomfortable at some point, good comics are playing an important function in society by holding up a mirror and forcing us to confront realities that we would often prefer to ignore. For minority groups, humor also serves as a tool to neutralize the power of stereotypes that obstruct their path to equal participation in society. Stand-up comedy can give social critique and instigate transformation in a way that leaves many audience members wanting more.

Comedy, especially stand-up comedy, regularly draws criticism for being offensive and for perpetuating negative stereotypes. This, however, is a sign of a healthy comedy culture because it means that comedians are pushing social boundaries. Stories and expressions that are normally unacceptable are met with laughter and agreement when they are told on stage. The fact that the content is encrusted in humor is like a sugar coating to bitter medicine. The laugh takes away the sting.

“Comedy is a tradition with deep historical roots,” explains Dr. Cynthia Merriwether-de Vries, a sociology professor at Juniata College who specializes in humor, music and popular culture. “Evidence of jokes based on race and other groupings can be traced back at least as far as ancient Europe, with court minstrels mocking the stench of the Visigoths. We have memos from Medieval Europe warning that a certain jester’s jokes about the Habsburgs were going too far and beginning to affect political relations.”

In today’s America, the minstrel still performs his duty, only now his audience has expanded from kings and courtiers to the general public. Venues such as Comedy Central, a cable television station dedicated exclusively to humor, have gained an enormous viewership in recent years. Proof of the prominence of comedy in popular culture has been the enormous success of Dave Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central, which has sold more DVDs than any television show in history.

Most of American comedy has its roots in the stand-up routine. Nearly all of the great comics of television, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, David Letterman, and Jamie Foxx, to name a few, started their careers as stand-up comics. Characteristic of a stand-up act is its fast string of amusing stories, short jokes, one-liners, and the occasion of spontaneous interaction with the audience. Normally, the stage contains nothing more than the microphone, a stool, and perhaps a glass of water.

What makes stand-up comedians worthy of research is that their search for laughter leads them to seek out, explore, and articulate the unspoken taboos of society. Much like Adam Smith’s observation in the eighteenth century that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” it is through the comedian’s selfish pursuit of the laugh that society receives its social critique.

“Comedians don’t start out to change the world, but in the end, that’s what they do,” says Stephen Rosenfield, founder and director of the American Comedy Institute in New York City, where he teaches aspiring comedians the art of writing and performing comedy. “Comedians are aware of the power of jokes to change societies, but they’re not necessarily idealistic about it. A comedian’s first concern is to find funny material. That is his job.”

“A good joke provides tension, and then, release of that tension,” says Greg Giraldo, a Harvard Law School graduate turned comic who hosts Comedy Central’s Friday Night with Greg Giraldo show. “You build the tension by saying things that are controversial. The release is the laugh. The bigger the surprise or insight in your joke, the bigger the laugh.”

This anatomy of tension and release ensures that the comic is going to discuss material that is at the fringe of what polite society will talk about. There’s plenty of controversy to confront, says Giraldo, enjoying a meal of sushi after a Tuesday night appearance at the Comedy Cellar in New York’s Greenwich Village. “A lot of racially charged shit happens here in New York City. Yet mainstream culture likes to pretend that race issues don’t exist. Ninety-five percent of white people and ninety-five percent of black peole live on different planets. They don’t speak the same language. They don’t interact. They’re not comfortable around one another. That’s fucked up. It’s the sad reality of our culture. Unfiltered honest talking on race is rare, but comics are comfortable with race. Comics are honest.”

No taboo is too sensitive to talk about, no matter how controversial, as long as the comedian is funny, says Giraldo. “When I started doing comedy, people said: never do jokes on cancer or suicide. Well, as far as cancer goes, it’s not true. My dad died of cancer and I’ve made jokes about that. And pedophile jokes, I do lots of them. It’s like with pornography, you know a good joke when you see it. Nothing is off-limits if handled properly.”

Minority groups have long used comedy to get the American mainstream to accept them for who they are. “There’s a pattern in stand-up comedy,” says Rosenfield from the American Comedy Institute. It starts with certain groups or minorities – immigrants, blacks, women, old people, Jews, Muslims, gays, Arabs, Asians – being the target of stereotypical jokes. In response, people from the target group will start doing stand-up comedy themselves. When the audience sees one of these new comedians on stage, talking about themselves with a sense of humor, they begin to recognize how dimensional the stereotyped group is. “If they know how to make us laugh, there’s a connection, a cultural cross-over. The original stereotype will start breaking down, making it harder to perpetuate.”

By playing on stereotypes, minority comics undermine the potency of the prejudices. “I know what the people in power say about my community and I’ll say it myself,” states Merriwether-de Vries. “This doesn’t give me power necessarily, but it destabilizes their power. It takes away their ability to use that stereotype against me.” Merriwether-de Vries points to Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley, an African American comic popular in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. “She made fun of old black women and domestics, never wore a bra, accentuated her droopiness, and made fun of the fact that she had no teeth. In short, she played upon the stereotypes of what was wrong with black women.” Merriwether-de Vries goes on to argue that by making those jokes, Mabley was taking ownerships over the stereotypes. They had become a source of fun, instead of being a source of power over the African American community.

It’s a classic tactic, of course. Trip over a rug, and you better be the first to make fun of yourself. If you’re not, someone else will. Richard Pryor, the godfather of contemporary stand-up, used this brilliantly in his performance Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip (1982). Pryor jokes about the highly publicized incident in which he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, an event in later years he admitted was a suicide attempt. “Y’all gave me a lot of love when I was not feeling well,” Pryor says. “Also, y’all did some nasty-ass jokes on my ass too.” He then lights a match and waves it around. “What’s this?” he asks. “It’s Richard Pryor running down the street.”

Although comics might think any subject is fair game for comedy, there are critics who argue that jokes can seriously backfire. This critique even comes from within the comedy business itself. Comedian Bill Cosby, famous for his clean and gentle brand of comedy, is known to oppose the use of the word ‘nigger’ in comedy. He considers it ‘cheap linguistic pandering.’ Charles Grodin, an actor and former commentator for 60 Minutes II and host of the CNBC talk show The Charles Grodin Show, has criticized jokes about minorities, gays, and Jews. “They perpetuate stereotypes. If you don’t think so, just look at the anti-Semitism and racism still around. We can’t afford to laugh at certain things. Pedophilia jokes just aren’t funny.”

An often cited example of comedy perpetuating racial stereotypes is a routine from Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain (1996) show, called ‘Niggers vs. Blacks.’ “I hate niggers,” Rock says. “You can’t have anything valuable in your house. Niggers will break in and take it all! Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people. It’s like our own personal civil war. On one side, there’s black people. On the other, you’ve got niggers. The niggers have got to go. I love black people, but I hate niggers. I am tired of niggers. Tired, tired, tired.”

Comedy can reinforce stereotypes
Giving weight to the claim that routines like Rock’s are damaging can be seen in the embrace of the jokes by racists., the world’s largest white nationalist website, has a thread dedicated to Rock’s comedy sketch. “It is just about good enough to be used by us,” says a user who identifies himself as Firestone. “It’s a lot more pc to be able to quote a racist black man than it is to quote a white man.” White supremacist groups view Rock’s routine as affirmation of their views on African Americans and the one-liners on ‘niggers’ from Rock’s routine are often quoted. “Everything he said about “niggers” was true,” says another post. “And all blacks in the hall were laughing their asses off. What morons.”

On one level, these remarks show that comedy can reinforce stereotypes. Not everyone is a white supremacist, but for those who are, maybe this sketch will strengthen their prejudice. But, on a deeper level, the sketch shows early signs of provoking the ‘cultural cross-over’ mentioned by Rosenfield. As questionable as Rock’s distinction between ‘niggers’ and blacks may be, at least these white supremacists are starting to appreciate the multi-dimensionality of a stereotyped group and experience the cognitive dissonance of quoting and appreciating the opinion of a black comedian.

Both Giraldo and Rosenfield are aware of the pitfalls comics face. “Just doing racial stereotype jokes is bad,” says Giraldo. “It’s making the joke to get the laugh for the wrong reasons.” Rosenfield argues that the material won’t be funny unless it rings true to the audience and consciously teaches his students not to bash. “If you say that men stink, that they really smell bad, that’s just bashing. It’s based on things that the audience knows aren’t true.” Instead, Rosenfield urges his students to be specific. “Don’t paint with a broad brush. Root it in specifics. Be real.”

America needs its comedians to start conversations about taboo subjects it’s afraid to confront. We also need stand-up comedy as a venue for minorities to challenge the assumptions of mainstream society. What makes all of this work is the laugh. If it’s funny, people can treat heavy content lightly.

In the end, the only meaningful criticism a comedian faces is a silent audience. “If people are laughing, night after night, who cares?” says Rosenfield. “It’s a comedian’s job to go too far. Otherwise he’s not fulfilling his functions. Comics are the court jesters. There has to be that outlet for the unspeakable to be spoken in a way that’s acceptable. If you’re not offending someone, you’re not doing your job.”

The need for good stand-up comedy is ever renewing, as demographics and social concerns cause new rifts and stereotypes in American society. In response to the anti-Muslim climate in the United States since the September 11th terrorist attacks, several Muslim stand-up comedians have started touring the country. “They haven’t crossed over to mainstream culture yet,” says Rosenfield, “but they will transform the perception of American Muslims as a group. Think of it, people just don’t perceive Muslims as being funny. Now that will change.”

And they are pretty funny. Take the opening line of comic Azhar Usman, of the “Allah Made Me Funny” tour. “Assalam Aleikum,” he says. “For those who don’t know what that means, I’ll explain it to you. It means: ‘I’m gonna kill you.’”