Fade back to 1983. Reaganomics has black America in a stranglehold, unemployment is running rampant, and my sisters and I have snuck into the basement after lights out to watch Eddie Murphy, clad in a skintight red leather outfit, tell dirty jokes. Eddie says he saw Jesse Jackson working out at the gym now that he’s running for president. He says he saw him running laps on the track.
“Why you working out?” Eddie asks Jesse.
“I gotta be in shape,” Jesse replies. “Because when I give my first speech, it will be like this.” And then Eddie darts across stage, a blur of red leather ducking and dodging, weaving and bobbing so that the sniper rifle can’t get a read on him.
Speed up a bit to 2000. Dave Chappelle is at the Lincoln Theatre in D.C., and I am in the balcony with a friend who smuggled in beers in her purse. Dave says he doesn’t want to be the first black president. Maybe the second or the third, but definitely not the first. Well, on second thought, he could be the first, but he would have a Mexican vice president for insurance.
Black president: both joke and punch line. Black president: an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp. For a long time, comedians have riffed on what having a black president would actually mean as if that would ever happen. That if it did, there would be cookouts on the White House lawn, which would have no grass, a broken-down car sitting on bricks and an old weight set in the driveway.
It was always a fantasy, about as realistic as the Loch Ness Monster, mythical in proportion and scope. The futility of the idea was a reflection of the weight of the past and pessimism about the future. Imagine a black president and fill in the rest with stereotypes and tragedy, because there is a grain of truth in both.
The jokes didn’t land on any one person, so there was no harm. That they never would was the ultimate punch line.
We have become accustomed to using humor to push through the burdens of blackness, says Darryl Littleton, author of Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh. Even in bondage, humor helped lighten the load of slavery. “Slaves that didn’t have the commonality of language would use pantomime to make fun of the slave owners,” Littleton said.
Humor has always been a painfully real thing for black America. It’s been a balm both to the hurtful reality of our place in America and the insufferable parts of our past. Jokes about being followed in a department store or being pulled over by the police, or not being able to hail a cab are funny because they connect the past and present struggle.
So what kind of reception should President-elect Barack Obama expect from the comedy world? Should we be on watch for tasteless racial innuendo? Or do we need to guard against being hypersensitive?
Comedian Katt Williams says black comedians won’t hold back.
Littleton agreed. “We comics unleash,” he says. “There won’t be too many things left unsaid. If he messes up, we won’t leave any meat on the bone. Truthfully, for comics, it would have been better if [John] McCain won. The worst choice is always better for us.”
The New Yorker Thelma and Lousie’d its magazine cover off the edge of comedic satire when it depicted Obama and his wife, Michelle, as Osama-loving-terrorist-fist-bumping Muslims. And Carlos Mencia, in a bit about as funny as a wet sock, dresses himself as the president in black face and afro and talks in that grating black dialect made famous by whites. Mencia’s stereotypical notion of blackness was framed by perceptions about how whites see blacks. But even the idea of a collectively clueless white mass seems quaint now that tens of millions of them voted for a man named Barack Hussein Obama.
Carlos Mencia’s routine crosses over the funny line in the same way as The New Yorker magazine cover because it isn’t edgy political humor or even a well thought-out skit. It is simply taking trash bags full of ignorance and generalizations and dumping them onto Obama because of his race.
For the comics themselves, Obama poses a conundrum. “He’s not stupid, he’s not angry, he’s not fat. Who would want a jerk like that in office?” Bill Maher joked on “Larry King Live” after the election. “We need to get over our nervousness about making a joke about a black person. Obama isn’t black, he is the president. And when we make fun of him, we aren’t making fun of all black people in the same way when we make fun of George W. Bush, it isn’t like we are talking about all mentally challenged people. But he has got to give us something to joke about.”
One place that comedians can look back on for guidance into the future of comedy is the late, great Richard Pryor. In 1977, on the short-lived “Richard Pryor Show,” he does a skit in which he walks out as the first black president and fields questions from the press.
President Pryor explains that the 5 percent unemployment rate only reflects that of whites and that the minority unemployment rate has always been around 45 percent. He thinks that the increase in the space program funding will help send blacks to space, “white people have been going to space and spacing out on us. ”
He declares that Huey Newton will be in contention for director of the FBI since he knows the ins and outs. That there will always be black players in the National Football League and that if he can help it, there will be black coaches and owners, too. The skit ends with a white reporter asking President Pryor about his mother being a maid. “After your tenure, will yo mama do my house?” The bit ends with Pryor rushing from the podium and charging for the man.
The skit has everything in it that comedy can be: brash-abrasive-cultivated nuance that illuminates the struggles of being both black and president.
For the next four years, America will learn to adjust to a new punch line.