Friday, June 27, 2008

I'm quoted in an Obama article in The San Jose Mercury News

Obama's historic run provides comic fodder with race as punch line
By Mark de la Viña
Mercury News
Article Launched: 06/26/2008 07:21:19 PM PDT

Did you hear the one about the black guy running for president?

If not, you most certainly will.

Jokes and comedy routines about candidates are as much a part of election landscapes as bumper stickers and smear campaigns. But with Obama's history-making role as the first African-American presidential nominee, the cavalcade of campaign cracks has a new wrinkle, at least for white audiences: race.

In comedy clubs and casino showrooms, comics happily get their funny on at the expense of Obama's ethnicity. The quips range from mild-mannered lines about how Obama's suspect bowling skills prove his blackness to Chris Rock's bit about how the politician would be more electable with a compliant white wife rather than the assertive - and black - Michelle Obama. Even Dave and Jay's writers slip the rare jab touching on Obama's race into network TV's late-night monologues.

Oddly enough, the serious issue of race is providing rich fodder for more inventive funnymen and women. Much like fools in Shakespeare's plays, these comedians call out the elephant in the room while giving the raspberry to political correctness.

But move into the mainstream and you'll find late-night talk shows working the other side of the spectrum - offering toothless material if they address the subject at all.

Ralphie May, a white comedian who is among the few crossover acts popular among black audiences, said comedians are doing a disservice if they ignore Obama's ethnicity.

"The historic part of Obama's presidential run is not the fact he's young or that he's a first-term senator from Illinois or that he's an orator or an inspirational leader for Americans," said May, who will perform at the San Jose Improv on July 10-13.

And indeed May can't resist making an Obama joke, noting that he used to think the politician was Latino rather than black.

"Obama sounds kind of Spanish," the hefty funnyman said in his Arkansas drawl, "Like, 'Cómo se llama, Obama?' El Presidente!"

Veteran comedian Paul Mooney, an African-American who grew up in Oakland, has no qualms about playing off of Obama's race. The former writer for Richard Pryor has worked with nearly every iconic African-American comic, from Flip Wilson to Redd Foxx. He also appeared as Negrodamus on "Chappelle's Show."

Mooney said race is a factor in every election.

"We've always had to say, does this white man like us?" said Mooney, who's writing the memoir "Too Black for Hollywood." "We've always had to think race. And this is the first time white people have had to think race."

Still, comedians such as Mooney are like canaries in a coal mine when it comes to testing subjects that make people uneasy.

Roland S. Martin, author of "A Black Man's View of America," said that comedy can create that rare sanctuary where the verboten is fair game.

"The comedic moment liberates people to laugh out loud at what they really feel and what they really think, but they're going to naturally suppress those thoughts and views once they're outside that particular arena," he said. "It's OK to sit in that arena and just crack up laughing about rednecks, making jokes about Obama's ears or his race or whatever, but the moment you want to have the conversation, the whole dynamic changes."

The worthwhile stand-up performers will delve into the provocative, said W. Kamau Bell, the San Francisco comedian whose theater piece "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour," proposes that racism is making a comeback. The solo show is at the Shelton Theater in San Francisco, through July 30.

"I'm voting for Barack Obama," he says in his show. "Not for the reason you expect. I did it because he's black. Not because he's intelligent, or well spoken or represents hope. Nope. You had me at Negro."

Though late-night talk shows are viewed as a sort of measuring stick for mainstream American tastes in humor, they are usually too timid to address the issue of race, said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. (Representatives from "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and "The Late Show With David Letterman" declined comment for this story, saying that the jokes on the programs speak for themselves.)

"Network television, especially commercial-supported television, takes it sweet old time in areas of controversy," Thompson said. "It doesn't push envelopes; it licks envelopes."

The problem isn't limited to network timidity. NBC's "Saturday Night Live," for years knocked for its lack of ethnic diversity, has cast white actor Fred Armisen as Obama.

"Whether the jokes are funny or not, the fact that you don't have a black actor to play Barack Obama says something about the institution of 'Saturday Night Live,' " Bell said. "And that's horribly troubling."

Stand-up comedy in the Bay Area and beyond has a legacy of tangling with unpleasant subjects - witness "Daily Show" correspondent and political comedian Lewis Black telling jokes about Sept. 11 to the raw but ultimately receptive audience in San Francisco days after the terrorist attacks.

"But a lot of comedians are shying away from telling the Obama jokes," said San Francisco-based Will Durst, one of the pre-eminent political comedians in the country,. "That makes me want to do it well."

Durst has peppered his routine with Obama's lines, which reflect how far we have come as a country, he said. "Race is just a very touchy subject to America. That we can make jokes about it proves that we have come quite a distance."

Recent jokes involving Barack Obama and race:

• "These pundits can be very unfair. They always ask Barack Obama if he's black enough. Nobody asks Mitt Romney if he's white enough. Well, I guess he is white enough." - Jay Leno

• "As if Obama doesn't have enough problems, he's being accused by members of the African-American community of not being black enough. What the hell does that mean? As your designated cracker for this evening, let me just say we don't make those kinds of distinctions. Trust me - he's plenty black." - Will Durst

• "If white people think that black people in America reacted to the O.J. verdict, if Obama gets into White House house, we're going to go crazy. We'll be partying like we're in the Mardi Gras and screaming out 'Obama beat yo' Mama!' The first thing I'm going to do is get on the first public bus and tell white people, "Get in the back where you belong. Obama is president!" - Paul Mooney

• "Senator Hillary Clinton has now lost eight primaries in a row to Barack Obama. Hillary dismissed Obama's success by saying, 'He's only winning states with a huge African-American population - like Maine.' " - Conan O'Brien, during the primaries

• "Barack has a handicap the other candidates don't have: Barack Obama has a black wife. And I don't think a black woman can be first lady of the United States. Yeah, I said it! A black woman can be president, no problem. First lady? Can't do it. You know why? Because a black woman cannot play the background of a relationship. Just imagine telling your black wife that you're president? 'Honey, I did it! I won! I'm the president.' 'No, we the president! And I want my girlfriends in the Cabinet! I want Kiki to be Secretary of State! She can fight!' " - Chris Rock

Several comedians were asked to comment on what sort of changes would come to the White House if Barack Obama is elected president. Here is what they said:

• "They'll be painting the White House black. And I hope white folks don't burn it down. It will be the first president living in a trailer" - Paul Mooney

• "Less Van Cliburn, more Stevie Wonder. Gets rid of the poached salmon on bruschetta rounds; brings out the braised catfish on beds of mustard greens. White House now refered to as 'The Big Crib.' When papers talk about 'Obama's Posse,' they mean his cabinet." - Will Durst

• "In mid-January, there is going to be helluva good barbecue. And I think that 'Hail to the Chief' will get an update and maybe a DJ will skip it a little bit." - Ralphie May

• "His presidential limo will have spinning rims and the secret service will all have bow ties. And the Washington Monument - they're going to add a couple of feet to it." - Blaine Capatch

• Racists are "afraid that the moment he takes that oath of office, he's immediately turning into (Flavor) Flav...And from now on there's gonna be Newports and grape drink served in the Rose Garden." - Robin Williams on "The Tonight Show," June 24

• "Can you imagine how many times the presidential motorcade is going to get pulled over for, DWB - driving while black? And he'll have to retrain the Secret Service to stop getting nervous every time there's black guy around." - W. Kamau Bell

Contact Mark de la Viña at or (408) 920-5914.

Why is it that most comic's Obama jokes involve Obama doing things that a man who grew
up in Hawaii and Indonesia would NEVER do. It's as if these comics had generic black president jokes sitting on a shelf waiting for a black guy to be president. And they have decided to use these jokes BY ANNNNNNNNNNNNY MEEEEEEEEEEEEEANS NECESSARY.


Dean said...

Once Obama is elected, the KKK will be telling it's membership that they've been hoodwinked... they been took... they been bamboozled. We didn't land on Plymouth Barack, Plymouth Barack landed on us!

Hillary Kitten said...

Like any corrupt Chicago politician, Obama would often go the cemetary to register voters. One night he came across a grave so old and worn that he couldn't make out the name on the tombstone. The staffer holding the flashlight got impatient and suggested they just move on to the next plot. Obama angrily exclaimed, "This person has a much right to vote as anyone else here!"

Jerry Holtaway said...

Great to see you included in such august company Kamau! Congratulations

Tony said...

The Mitt Romney "white enough" line is classic.