In Need of New Material.


Mix It Up, Tracy.


I caught the first 2o or 25 minutes of a Tracy Morgan stand-up special the other day.  I don’t know when it came out, but it was taped last year, so I think it is his most recent stand up work.  Tracy Morgan is hilarious.  He’s funny on television, and his stand-up is funny as well, but I was a little disappointed to find him spend a good portion of his first 20 minutes on stage doing the old difference between white and black people bits.  Complete with the “white guy voice.” For me, this gimmick has kind of run its course.  I’m not going to say it wasn’t funny, because there were still some good parts to it, but I’d just like to see some new ground being broken by these guys.  I guess they stick with what works…

The white person voice has become a staple in black comedians’ routines.  I’m sure some variation has been around for a long time, but I think the first time I ever heard it was when Cedric the Entertainer did his version in the Kings of Comedy.  That is perhaps my favorite comedy special ever, and when Cedric did the bit of the white people arriving to find people in their seats…I was dying.  It was also like 1997.  I think Dave Chappelle probably mastered it with his stories about “Chip,” and the white police officers.  “Open and Shut Case, Johnson!”  Again, hilarious, but not exactly 2011.

The funny thing is, I think these jokes and sketches are probably more popular with white audiences than they are with black audiences.  The white guy voice and sketching out the differences between white people and black people helped a lot of black comedians expand their audience.  Back in the day, if you caught an episode of Def Jam, it wasn’t exactly the most culturally diverse crowd.  In fact, it was pretty common for the performer to make note of any white people in the audience.  It was worth a quick laugh.  But, in the last 10 years maybe, comedians like Chappelle, the Kings of Comedy Guys, Katt Williams, they have brought in a huge amount of white people into their shows mostly, I think, by making fun of them.  They like to be in on the joke.

I think the general unwritten rule had always been you can make fun of whatever you are.  If you are a Jewish comedian then you can poke fun at that culture.  There’s a Seinfeld episode based on this.  If you are Latino, then those jokes are available to you, and so on.  The white guy voice I think broke that barrier down a little bit.  For whatever reason it went over a lot better than I imagine a white person imitating a black person would.  Is this because your standard white guy has a great sense of humor, and can laugh at himself?  Probably not.

I think one of the reasons it is so popular is because people are also laughing at the other side of the coin or at least some of them are.  Not only are they laughing at the corrupt white police officers in Chappelle’s skit, but they are also laughing at the stereotype that all black people are criminals.  You see, the joke doesn’t really work without both sides. There isn’t really anything inherently funny about talking like a white person.  You have to do it in a context that shows how different it is from something else.  If Chappelle says in the white person voice, “Do you want some Apple Juice?” That’s not really that funny.  It becomes hilarious when he says black people don’t know what juice is.  They want some Apple Drink.  It’s Green.  So, what are you really laughing at there is the question?

It is the question that sent Chappelle on his soul-searching mission.  I think he started out feeling like maybe he was having some fun at white people’s expense, but then realized he was just hammering home stereotypes about his own culture.  And, I think that is what the voices, whether they be the white guy or anyone else do for the most part. And, really I am not going on a crusade against this or trying to get on a pedestal of intellectualism and equality, but I think it might be time to move on from this particular brand of humor.

We’ve all laughed at it, but maybe it is time to start laughing at something else.  These comics are brilliant people.  Some of them can say almost anything and you laugh simply because of their tone or inflection.  I think we should send them back to the drawing board to come up with something fresh.  I don’t want another decade of the white guy voice.


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3 thoughts on “In Need of New Material.

  1. really interesting and though provoking post, and i could see it as an Op-Ed. submit it, dude!

    my stance, since i do consider myself a social psychologist and someone who grew up with a flare if minority status to them…making fun…is a twofold process:

    1, humor is often defined in psychology as a higher order human defense for processing emotional pain. where, fighting…not so much. so, actually, it’s not that hard to understand that comedians often have a dark side. also, it is essentially a normalized way of ranting. i mean, wanda is hilarious, yet her rage is palpable.

    2, secondly, there is this unspoken (though spelled out by many social theorists like my beloved Cornel West) that in-group fun poking is kosher because it is sort of taking back the stereotype and putting it on its head. this works sometimes, but mostly – in social work, we call this internalized oppression, where the minority is sustaining the stereotype…to fit in.

    SO, on that note and with those sentiments in mind…do i think comedians need to expand their subject matter? absolutely. seinfeld did this well re: “nothingness” and the mundane of life or city culture. that sustains him and kept him mainstreamable. do i think comedians are capable of this? probably not, at least not often, because – if i know anybody well, who can be hilarious – it’s my brothers…his wounds are deep.


  2. i think your point about chappelle’s feelings on it, whether that accurately describes how he felt, is spot on in general about that type of joke. at worst they tend to make white people look like dorks, with the race of the comedian usually coming out looking worse than that if you think about it.

    with the apple juice joke for example, people get caught up in the voice and don’t think about who is actually getting made fun of. chappelle isn’t really making fun of white people for liking to drink real juice.

    on a semi-related note, i once saw tracey morgan perform at some uva-sponsored thing. a bunch of parents had come and actually brought some children with them. i think they must have expected him to just do his Brian Fellows bit the whole time or something. he was pretty raunchy and a number of people walked out. he started making fun of them as they walked up the aisle toward the exit. pretty hilarious.

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