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.