Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Mix all the colors of light and we see white; the absence of light is black.

Mix all the colors of pigment and we see black; the absence of pigment is white.

This paradox of how we see color often is the source of debate; I’ve heard students complain about being taught different facts in art and physics classes. But it also serves as a useful metaphor for the problem of color as a foundation of race and racism.

When I was young and still discovering and shaping who I am (and necessarily coming to terms with race in the deep South), I was profoundly influenced by stand-up comedians—George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin among the most influential.

Martin’s 1979 comedy album, Comedy Is Not Pretty, is a prescient title for two contemporary stand-up comedians whose routines, viewed together, capture nearly perfectly everything that is wrong with contemporary understanding about race and racism: Dave Chappelle and John Mulaney.

Having recently watched Chappelle’s and Mulaney’s newest specials, I was struck by how many of their bits were similar—both used their wives’ minority status to tread on dangerous material, both depended on meta-jokes based on reactions to their routines, both weaved in political humor with the autobiographical, both worked blue, and each addressed race.

However, these two men and their routines are also profoundly different—Chappelle is very much a black comedian (think Pryor), and Mulaney is very much white (think Jerry Seinfeld).

And I imagine anyone knowing these comedians finds this distinction a bit simplistic, even bordering on crass, but I want to argue here that race becomes the defining element of their work, and as such, exposes a central problem in public discourse about race and racism: Many whites are apt to resist discussions of race and racism with “Why does everything have to be about race?” or “I don’t see color.”

Let’s start with a few clips, a shortened version of Mulvaney’s Trump skit (here on TV, but expanded in his new special) and a couple clips from Chappelle on Netflix:

Mulaney’s political humor is indirect; it is metaphor—in a similar way his profanity is rare and his special includes one direct reference to being white.

Chappelle’s political humor, profanity, and race, by comparison, are direct, even blunt, and pervasive. Consider especially the second clip above.

Because of his whiteness, his privilege, Mulaney is afforded the space of being indirect while Chappelle, even as he acknowledges his wealth privilege, cannot risk these subtleties.

The paradox of race/racism in human behavior is parallel to the paradox of color in light/pigment: For whites, race seems always invisible because white is the norm of U.S. culture (the absence of race is white), but for blacks, race is a constant reality, something always visible (the presence of race is black).

The media rarely identify race for whites, but nearly always do for black and brown people—especially in criminal situations.

Whites, then, watching Mulaney are apt to see the routines as not about race (even though the entire routine is imbued with whiteness) and mostly not political (although, again, his entire routine is a political commentary); those same whites, we can guarantee, would see Chappelle as racial (if not, to misuse the term, racist) and strongly political.

The problem with race/racial/racism as that intersects with political is that everything in human behavior includes both, but the norms make one invisible to the dominant race (white) and omnipresent to the marginalized race (black). And thus, all human behavior is political either by omission (maintaining those norms) or by confrontation (changing the norms).

Mulaney, in his whiteness and the primary state of omission, becomes a seemingly less radical comedian; Chappelle, in his blackness and confrontation, becomes a seemingly more radical comedian.

I include “seemingly” because, as Chappelle acknowledges, both comedians work with wealth privilege—even as Chappelle is not afforded through that to rise about his being black (see his skit about being pulled over by the police while a friend is driving for him).

Almost 40 years past Martin’s visual gag (and he too may seem less political in his whiteness), Chappelle and Mulaney offer by comparison comedy that is not pretty, but is pretty sharp in terms of modeling the lingering problems with race and racism in the U.S.

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