Black Ops: ‘Post-Racial’ Comedy in the Age of Obama
In 2010, former troupe-mates Donald Glover and DC Pierson returned from Los Angeles to perform at The Creek and The Cave, in New York City. Glover was tossed a question from an audience member: What’s it like working with Chevy Chase? In response, he described how Chase had delivered a 40-minute lecture to Saturday Night Live cast member Bobby Moynihan laying out the case for why Glover has to be homosexual, which he is not. “That’s the only way a guy like Chevy Chase has of processing a black guy who looks like me, talks like me, dresses like me,” said Glover on stage that night. “That’s how alien I am to him.”
There is good reason for Glover — for Black America as a whole — to seem alien. In the 2010-2011 season, there was only one black protagonist on broadcast television: the title role of The Cleveland Show, a black cartoon character voiced by Mike Henry, a white actor. But in the past year or so something has changed.
Baratunde Thurston wrote How To Be Black, which debuted early this year alongside Touré Neblett’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? and Patrice Evans’ The Negropedia. Chris Rock anointed W. Kamau Bell as a successor of sorts, producing Bell’s Totally Biased for FX, which just got renewed for a second season, joining the second season of Key & Peele, Comedy Central’s promising replacement for the long-mourned savvy cult classic Chappelle’s Show.
2012 is a year in which George Lucas has gone from the racist bungle of Jar-Jar Binks to executive producing Red Tails, a dramatization of the Tuskeegee Airmen. It’s a year when the highest-paid entertainer in the country, period, is Tyler Perry and his extensive ouevre’s never-ending mashup of Mama’s Family and Waiting to Exhale. It’s a year when Steel Magnolias is being remade with an all-black cast and some of the biggest hits on Broadway, Porgy & Bess and Clybourne Park, face race in brazen, poignant ways. It’s a year when Cee Lo is making a sitcom for NBC, which is also developing a show starring Glover in an autobiographical sitcom. And it’s a year when America’s first black president is likely to be re-elected. Here’s how candid the Obama cultural renaissance is: 104 episodes are being developed for The First Family, a syndicated sitcom about a not-Obama black family in the White House, with a cast that includes Marla Gibbs, Jackée Harry and Gladys Knight.
At the same time, for every Jay Pharoah who rises in the ranks of SNL, the show burns through a Tim Meadows or a Dean Edwards or a Finesse Mitchell or a Jerry Minor. And don’t forget there was Lucas also admitting that nobody in Hollywood wanted to make the Tuskeegee movie “because it’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all…I showed it to all of [the studios] and they said no. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.” Or Spike Lee saying he couldn’t make Malcolm X today unless Malcolm X could fly. As Gavin Polone noted in an essay criticizing “the false circular logic behind Hollywood’s resistance to black entertainment” for Vulture in February: “Black music artists are huge everywhere, so why can’t that happen with more of our black actors and their films?” He cited a 2011 BET study that found African-Americans buy movie tickets more frequently than whites or Latinos and watch 40 percent more television than the general market.
Although plenty came before him, Eddie Murphy and his meteoric rise — still the only person to host Saturday Night Live while also a cast member, a show he kicked off with “Live from New York! It’s The Eddie Murphy Show!” at 22 years old — made black crossover comedy an epic, irrevocable part of Hollywood. Many comedians of all stripes cite his HBO stand-up special Delirious as an exemplar without comparison, although Murphy himself cites Richard Pryor’s Live In Concert as the ur-routine.
Murphy begins Delirious laying out some rules: “Straight up: faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m on stage,” he said in red leather pants and a half-open red leather jacket. The comment sets off a four-minute rant that begins with “I’m afraid of gay people, petrified. I have nightmares about gay people. I have this nightmare that I go to Hollywood and find out that Mr. T is a faggot. Really, and he be walking up to people going [begins Mr. T impression] ‘Hey boy. Hey boy. You look mighty cute in them jeans. Now come on over here and fuck me up the ass'” but also goes on to warn straight men that if their straight female friends consort with homosexuals who kiss those women platonically, then those women “go home with AIDS on their lips.” The routine then shifts gears into an Elvis fart joke and a joke about how Stevie Wonder can’t drive. Then a joke where he talks about how he “had a girlfriend once and smacked her and got all cool on her and shit.” Then another set on farts. Then a mocking use of American Sign Language. Then a bit about how all blacks and Italians have big penises and “Chinese people are fucked all around because they got little dicks and little asses.” There’s a set of Star Trek jokes in there, too, including a Scotty impression. In a DVD bonus feature interview by Byron Allen in 2004, Murphy called the set “harmless” in retrospect.
Delirious was released in 1983 and Twitter rage was not yet a hazard of performing, partly because the technology did not yet exist but partly because Delirious was bigoted on such a quantum level that it reached through time and space to block Twitter from existence by preemptively crashing its servers. Last year, by contrast, one man wrote a popular Facebook post in which he laid out why he was upset by a stand-up routine Tracy Morgan delivered in Nashville in which Morgan said he would stab his son to death were his son gay, and added that he didn’t care about upsetting gays because “if they can take a fucking dick up the ass, they can take a fucking joke.” After a flood of condemnation, Morgan suddenly cared very much about upsetting gays (and their allies), delivering an eloquent, considered apology that, as Bell pointed out in his Totally Biased pilot, sounded nothing like Morgan. Bell filled the void by having a white lesbian (doing a Tracy Morgan impression) deliver a truer apology; it mentioned mermaids and centaurs.
When 30 Rock won a Golden Globe in 2009, Morgan spoke on behalf of the cast and crew, cheering, in part, “I am the face of post-racial America.” Certainly, comedy has changed greatly in this millennial golden age it’s going through. But what has this meant for black culture? Yes, it’s the Age of Obama, but it’s also still the Age of Trayvon. And even the undisputed pinnacle of black popularity, The Cosby Show, got stupid and vapid and cheap.
Splitsider spoke with 14 black comedians — veterans and rookies, superstars and nobodies — in separate but equal interviews, compiled here for a kind of oral history, a roundtable state of the union. (There should be a stopwatch specially built to see how long a black comedian can talk before mentioning Donald Glover, who did not respond to invitations to participate in this project.)
Who knows this field better than them? Nobody. So read on.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: The state of the union is strong. That’s a good opening line. It’s worked before.
JORDAN PEELE: When Obama became president, it felt like a ‘we’ moment. It felt like a black person can get that love and trust from America. I wept like a little baby. I came to terms with the doors of love and trust in America that I had closed off. I felt this great rush of joy of doors opening, but also this shame because I had, to some degree, closed the doors myself.
TRACY MORGAN: I don’t know what ‘post-racial’ is. We’re still post-slavery.
DAMIEN LEMON: I see white rappers succeeding. I see white women walking pit bulls down the street. Maybe that’s post-racial. But not much else.
PHILLIP JACKSON: I’ve gone for roles when the role is cast for African-American but the character description isn’t black-sounding at all. I think it’s better that these roles for African-Americans specifically are less prescriptive because then you’re getting the actor’s own personality rather than a projection of a stereotype.
WAYNE BRADY: It’s pretty Pollyana to say everyone is the same. I wake up black. I was born black. I’m going to die black. I can be a fan of NWA and 2Chainz, but also Bachman Turner Overdrive and Chicago. And there are a lot of Star Trek episodes I can quote but I’ve also seen Coming to America 15 times.
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: There are all these folks — Jordan, me, Wyatt Cenac, Reggie Watts, Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Eric Andre — who you might call, that someone might call ‘white comedians’ or comedians who have a white sensibility despite their brown skin, the whole Wayne Brady thing.
BRADY: This is Paul Mooney’s joke of ‘white people love Wayne Brady,’ as if that’s so bad. And, yeah, maybe I get a stick up my ass about that. Because you mean to tell me, as a comedian — I mean, I perform and I might have an old woman who likes me on Let’s Make A Deal, I might have a middle-aged woman who liked Who’s Line Is It Anyway, I might have some younger housewife who liked The Wayne Brady Show, and then whoever else, and I can make all of them laugh. I can make the whole world laugh. And you’re telling me, as a comedian, you’d say ‘Fuck that! I’m doing this for me! For my people! Represent!’ Really? Really? That’s stupid. I can make all these people laugh: old, young, college, Hindus, whatever. And that’s every comedian’s dream. That’s what any of us wants.
KEY: But here’s the thing: I can’t act white. I can’t act like I am devoid of melanin. There’s a huge difference between culture and the value you put in culture. And here I say ‘culture’ but in most jokes the shorthand for culture is race.
MICHAEL CHE: I don’t think about it so much. Whether I like it or not or embrace it or not, I’m a black comedian. So I just try to be myself as much as possible.
JEFFREY JOSEPH: ‘Post-racial’ is just shit people say to make you not follow your dreams because it makes your dreams feel outdated. Your race gets ignored, which is just a fancy way of ignoring you as a human being.
LEMON: When we get into ‘post-racial,’ which is bullshit, we get a black man running the country, but where’s a black man running a bank? Running a movie studio? Running a network? Running all the other forms of power in this country? You don’t even have that many blacks coaching pro teams.
PEELE: It’s all so regressive and simplified and cozy. That’s what made Dave special: if you talk about Dave Chappelle, you can’t also talk about how cozy everything is.
JOSEPH: Chappelle did it well with The Niggars sketch. He was sharp dealing with race and class.
JAYSON CROSS: ‘Post-racial’ is a semantic veneer we put to make it look smooth and sparkly. But it’s not. It’s putting a veneer on a tooth that’s rotten and needs a root canal. The only reason I’m making this analogy is I just had a root canal. You gotta drill in and get out the decay. Nobody wants to go through that drilling because there’s no Novacain for this. Self-analysis is hard as hell.
MORGAN: People talk about Obama like that’s something. But you know what that does? It only cares about what white people think. Nobody was asking black people what they thought of having a white president. And now we get the first black president and made him show his ID.
CROSS: I don’t think it’s possible to be post-racial. When they said it was over, it made it more racial, just swept under the rug. Nobody wants to have that real conversation. There was a movie with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah where this white dude saved her from this big nasty black nigger. Then Steve Martin, at some awards show, calls her ‘sequel money.’ I guess that’s post-racial America.
PEELE: We’re not in a post-racial world, but maybe a world where what we think of as ‘race’ has broadened.
MORGAN: They don’t make many jokes about Obama, you’ll notice. White people are scared of making jokes about Obama. Don’t know if they’re gonna get jumped later when they’re walking home at night for telling a joke about the first black president. You gotta wait that out. Maybe tell a joke about the fourth black president. Maybe wait until that next-level shit happens and we have a Dominican in the White House, an Ecuadorian up in there.
PEELE: Chocolate News came at a time when Obama was coming up on the national radar. The racial divide was evolving very fast at that point. Obama was a catalyst for opening up that conversation.
KEY: A catalyst, to me, is a phenomenal thing, something that happens in a moment. This is an oxymoron, I know, but I’m going to say it anyway: Obama is a perpetual catalyst.
PEELE: We have a place on TV today because of Obama.
JOSEPH: There’s this delusion, this cultural delusion, that we’re living in a post-racial society, that what Obama has done means that comedians can say whatever they want. But we’re in an age where, really, it’s the audience that can say whatever they want.
KEY: But Jordan and I have a lot of late-80s, old-school, Def Jam jokes of ‘white people do X this way, and black people do X this other way.’ Those still resonate.
JOSEPH: I’ve been in all-black audiences that you wouldn’t call ‘a black room.’ They’ve gone to college, have professional jobs, but they have black identity and want to see something from that, that speaks to that in them.
LEMON: Black isn’t a flavor, OK? It’s not a personality. There are boring-ass black people just like there are boring-ass white people. Do you need to be, y’know, sassy? Or urban? Or whatever? No. If Fred Armisen can be Obama, I can be whatever I want, too.
CHE: It’s not a color thing. It’s a cultural thing. There are things you can ask about ‘being black’ that you couldn’t ask, y’know, Wyatt Cenac.
HANNIBAL BURESS: Wyatt, I think, wrote for King of the Hill.
LUCAS ZACHARY HAZLETT: Wyatt Cenac wouldn’t be popular in Harlem clubs; that’s why he sticks to Brooklyn. Donald Glover is funny, and his funny is universal, but he got grown in the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is almost all white people — white comedians, white audiences — and so it’s, like, focus-grouped, pre-approved.
PHIL LAMARR: It’s Will Smith, a clear triumph of perception over ability. He had the easiest, flattest, whitest rap out there.
CHE: The Fresh Prince wasn’t rap. He was rap lite. He was nobody’s favorite rapper. He was passable. But now you’re judged by how much you can make those in-roads, make yourself popular with the white kids in the suburbs. Being passable is something good now. Now you have 50 Cent doings ads for his own flavor of Vitaminwater. It’s sad.
LAMARR: There’s a fear in feeling unfulfilled, not being black enough. And they fix it in the smallest of ways. Ross dates Aisha Tyler for like five episodes of Friends. Or let’s put Eriq La Salle on ER.
CHE: If you made Cheers today, it would have to have a black person. That’s dumb. Why can’t it be part of the story that here are six or seven white people in Boston who have no black friends? That’s a lot of Boston. That’s real, y’know? Like, when Friends was criticized for not having any black people. Ross is a paleontologist. You think he meets other black paleontologists? Rachel works at Bloomingdale’s. You think lots of black people are in charge at Bloomingdale’s? It’s fine.
JACKSON: Some shows that do that do it understandably. I mean, Girls. Tons of criticism. But young twentysomethings living in Greenpoint; that’s real. That’s how it is. Let it be. Everything doesn’t have to be a kaleidoscope.
BURESS: People get mad at Girls. That’s such a weird thing to get mad about. It can be funny without black friends. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia doesn’t have black friends, but I enjoy that. Getting hate in your heart over something is stupid.
[Editor’s note: Girls addressed its lack of diversity by booking none other than “Donald Glover-ness” from The Donald Glover Himself.]
LAMARR: There’s no black guy on Modern Family or Everyone Loves Raymond. People didn’t care then. People care when they want to. And nobody wants to care all the time. Have you met those people? They’re horrible.
THURSTON: Of course nobody cares all the time. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect nation. I grew up in Washington D.C. in the 80s. It was like The Wire. We had gangs, we had corrupt officials, we had drugs and guns and murders. We had everything The Wire had except the attention of White America.
LAMARR: Although two great exceptions to all this race-in-a-box stuff are Happy Endings and New Girl.
JACKSON: And it’s not like I long to play black characters. My gut says it would feel — I dunno. I don’t want to play black. I am black. I don’t think white performers are on a stage thinking ‘I want to make some of my whiteness come out on stage.’ The best comedy is grounded in truth. And the range is now larger than ever. It’s not just one thing. It can be bolder. It’s not one-dimensional anymore. Donald Glover is a great example.
MORGAN: Donald Glover! Love him!
CHE: Donald Glover can be a black hipster nerd. He doesn’t have to play the Def Jam circuit or the Chitlin Circuit. And Katt Williams can be Katt Williams even without a white audience.
JACKSON: Katt Williams doesn’t give a fuck.
CROSS: Katt has beef with 50 comedians. I mean, these are people who could be helping him make money, make movies.
CHE: The difference between Katt Williams and Tracy Morgan is that Tracy Morgan has a job. What sponsors are going to pull away from Katt Williams if he says some outrageous inflammatory shit? People won’t go to see him? His audience loves that stuff. It’s like a highly successful metal band. You don’t have to be on the radio.
HAZLETT: When I was growing up, it was Martin Lawrence. It was black but it was clearly targeted to the black audience.
CROSS: Martin Lawrence made great art. Think of all the things he brought into the lexicon: Wazzup! You so crazy! You go, girl! All of that. It was the opposite of, y’know, Good Times, black characters with white writers, lying to America about how happy life can be in the projects. I grew up in Chicago. Nobody likes the projects.
PEELE: To me, Martin was huge because I grew up during that time when, for African-Americans, you were either a Huxtable or part of 2 Live Crew. And here was Martin Payne, Martin Lawrence’s character, kinda reminiscent of a Ralph Cramden, a black lead who suffered through his flaws and was allowed to lose sometimes.
HAZLETT: I envy Louis CK not because of his popularity or his creative control, but because he gets to be vulnerable. And I feel like I can’t do that because there are all these macho expectations.
MORGAN: We get to be vulnerable when cops pull us over. Pretty damn vulnerable then.
W. KAMAU BELL: Louis CK gets to do that because Louis CK is just representing himself. But every black comedian represents all black people. Literally, I was walking through a hotel lobby with Chris [Rock] yesterday and someone yelled ‘We loved Rush Hour!’ and Chris just smiled and said thanks and kept walking.
LAMARR: When I was coming up in the late 80s and early 90s, it was amazing. It really was an amazing, beautiful time. We had so much.
BRADY: It’s a harder question to answer than is there more stuff for us or less stuff for us.
LAMARR: We had The Cosby Show and A Different World. We had Martin and Arsenio and RuPaul and In Living Color and even Urkel. We had Whitney Houston with the biggest movie soundtrack of all time. We had MC Hammer. We had movies like Boyz in the Hood and Malcolm X.
CROSS: I loved that time because it was all Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson and Bo Knows Sports and LL Cool J. It was the first time I saw twists on TV. It was like Soul Train. He made his own damn show. We had paved our own road and we were dancing in the street.
PEELE: Society was all of a sudden allowing black people to win. Homey D. Clown hit white kids on the head and there was a brilliant comeuppance about that.
LAMARR: Here’s how good we had it: We felt like, fine, let’s make Homeboys In Outer Space. Starring a dude named Flex — that was the actor’s name, not the character’s. It was icing. We were having fun with the icing. And now what? Now Tyler Perry is trying to make an empire out of Homeboys In Outer Space. The Homeboys In Outer Space Network. The low-water mark has become the high-water mark.
BRADY: On my TV Land special, That’s What I’m Talking About, we had people like Harry Belafonte, almost from the beginning of the modern black experience, but who comported themselves with such class. And there were things he pointed out where he’d say ‘Oh my God! That’s what I fought for?’
HAZLETT: The radicalness is done. Remember that Richard Pryor/Chevy Chase sketch? That would never even be brought up in the writers’ room at SNL now. They wouldn’t even approach it.
MORGAN: SNL now? They’d never ever do that Richard Pryor/Chevy Chase shit. Never. NEH-VAH. Show business in general is geared to children now. They don’t make anything for adults anymore.
BURESS: There’s more of a sensitive culture now. And a culture of being taped, analyzed, reposted, all that. There’s an entitlement of people that they should like everything you do and say. But I would never waste my time tweeting to some musician, my favorite musician, and say, man, what the fuck was up with Track 9 on your new album?
BRADY: It sucks to say ‘in the good old days’ because you want the story to be about non-stop progress. But with the high-water mark becoming the low-water mark, you have to remember there’s no accounting for taste. There’s always going to be a lowest common denominator whether it’s BET or Jersey Shore. What upsets me is that we get so starved for our own presence on TV that we’ll take ourselves in whatever incarnation, even caricatures.
HAZLETT: That’s why I like Key & Peele. They did a slave sketch and it wasn’t just slaves at an auction wanting to be slaves; it was the deeper realism of: you will even be a slave if it means someone chooses you, someone likes you.
LAMARR: It’s the entertainment industry’s golden handcuffs: they’ll always pay you well to do the things that hold you back.
HAZLETT: I’ve never embodied a stereotype and not gotten laughs. People love love love to see me as a slave.
CHE: And where has this way of thinking gotten black music? We used to have Stevie Wonder. We used to have Prince and Michael Jackson. Now everything sounds like The Black-Eyed Peas. I preferred black music when white people didn’t understand it.
MORGAN: People don’t understand. I’m 44. Not too many of the folks I grew up with are still around. We were teenagers in the 80s, man, when it was going down. Like, going down. We are the last of the marvelous, magnificent motherfuckers. We survived Reagan, guns, crack, AIDS, all that shit. The only time it was good was that little window, maybe ’78 to ’81, maybe just ’78 to ’80, when New Edition came out.
LAMARR: I have some friends where we’re good friends but the only place we hang out is at casting calls. For 20 years, we’ve been going for the same roles. And you know what? We don’t hang out so much anymore. The roles aren’t there anymore. We applaud that it’s almost gotten past tokenism. Talk about some sad applause, man.
LEMON: People say there’s a lot of blacks on television now. There are not a lot. There’s, like, three. In the last — I dunno — five years, Matthew Perry has had more of his own shows than all of Black America.
HAZLETT: The alt/improv domain forces you to come up through the white system. That’s the difference between Tracy Morgan, who was such a force in the black community that Lorne Michaels had to pay attention to him, and Kenan Thompson, who came up through Nickelodeon. The crucible is different. We handed over our crucible.
KEY: There’s an absurdist type out there now. Reggie Watts is such an artist. Reggie did our theme song. I can’t categorize him at all and I love it. I love it. I absolutely love it.
CHE: Today you can be as absurd as you want, but not as real as you want.
MORGAN: If we put the really real on TV, people wouldn’t laugh.
CHE: I wish it could be that way but they won’t let it. Richard Pryor made jokes about sucking dicks. We’re stuck being too macho. All rap stars. They allow absurdity because you can’t be offended by absurdity. It means nothing. But it keeps you from being real. Eddie Murphy brought the real shit to Delirious. It was on HBO and it was fine. It was more than fine. It was one of the biggest comedy hits of all time. Everything was realer 30 years ago. I mean, Bad News Bears, in the original, dude is hitting kids, straight-up smacking the shit out of them. They made it again with Billy Bob Thornton and it was just a bunch of fart and dick jokes.
LEMON: With black comedians, big ones, it’s like we only get one in office at a time: the Chris Rock Administration, the Dave Chappelle Administration, the Patrice O’Neal Administration. I remember always reading about how Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are the funniest men in America, but never at the same time, never in the same article. But every Stephen Colbert story mentions Jon Stewart too.
BELL: History has taught us we get one every 10 years: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle. One and only one. That’s what we’ve taught ourselves. So we look ahead and ask ‘Who’s the next one?’ instead of ‘Is this the decade we get more than one?’ It’s like how it’s an automatic rule that Spider-Man and Batman can’t exist in the same universe.
BURESS: When people tell me ‘You’re the next big one,’ it’s nice but I just have to do my work. Kevin Hart is the dude now. Maybe Katt Williams. Kevin Hart is doing shows at The Garden.
BRADY: You see white superhero team-ups all the time: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Adam Sandler and his crew, Christopher Guest and his crew, Judd Apatow and his guys. Meanwhile, you’ve got Dave Chappelle doing his own thing, Chris Rock doing his own thing, and Will Smith sitting on his private pile of money, probably naked, laughing his naked ass off. We’re so afraid of the lack of opportunity that we hold on to whatever we get for ourselves.
BURESS: If I do this right, this could be something my grandkids live off.
KEY: Every human does this — and please be sure to include that I said every human does this so that black people don’t say I’m a traitor to my race for what I’m about to say — but what we’d do in Africa is say, look, I don’t know who these Portuguese are, but if they’ll give me horses or guns or spices or whatever and all I have to do is give them these prisoners of war I’ve captured from my rival tribe, that’s win-win.
BRADY: We need more black superhero team-ups. Don’t be the best black comedian. Beat Adam Sandler at his own game. We can write Superbad. We can make Funny or Die videos. We need our own Will Ferrells.
PEELE: Right now, for a lot of America, all we have is Tyler Perry.
BRADY: Tyler said, look, you feel unserved and I have this that I’m serving just for you.
JACKSON: I remember going from church to church in choir in Virginia and I was no older than 12, I think, but we’d stop and see plays — plays Tyler Perry had designed for black churches. That’s an incredible thing.
CHE: Tyler Perry is huge to me. Not because I enjoy his movies. I don’t. I don’t at all. But he makes it totally for his audience and that’s show business.
CROSS: Tyler Perry isn’t rich because he’s good. I mean, he is. But he’s also the man in the office. Not just in front of the camera.
BRADY: I’ve talked about Tyler Perry at length with my sister in Texas, with my friends. You have to. He owns half of TBS now. But I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry film. And I’m sure this is where someone reading this will say ‘See! He doesn’t like the black community!’ But it didn’t really seem like it would make me laugh.
LAMARR: That’s what they do with black audiences, didn’t you know that? That’s what UPN did, that’s what the CW did. That’s what all these Tyler Perry shows on TBS do. If you have black actors, you can build a black audience quickly and easily without quality. Once you have the numbers, you press the numbers and let your black base wither — abandon it.
JACKSON: Those Tyler Perry shows don’t resonate with me. But I could see that, for a family, even those shows on UPN, the fact that they had an audience means there must’ve been something redeeming about it, right?
LAMARR: You don’t have to have crossover, though. It doesn’t need to be for everyone. It’s like if Woody Allen made movies about everyone who lived in Manhattan. You don’t get a belly laugh from people agreeing with you. You get a belly laugh from people realizing something new.
CROSS: After I did Playgirl, my audience became 95 percent white women. I sold out shows easy. Crossover appeal can be weird. This one time, I had this white girl in Florida hit on me, telling me, oh, if only her granddaddy could see her now, talking to me — because her granddaddy was a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan! I mean, what the fuck?! That was her game, I guess: that I was the luckiest nigger on the planet that I got to fuck someone related to the KKK. But it’s the same, to be honest, as some liberal cougar who wants to tell her NPR friends that she likes black guys so much that she let one put his dick in her. Sometimes it’s not even a racial or a cultural thing; it’s an ego thing. Comedians know a lot about ego.
KEY: My wife is a dialect coach. It made Eugene Struthers interesting, because he barely speaks English. But academics use these words: the normal, the norm, the standard. The standard is mathematical. It’s not racial; it’s mathematical. I try to use statistical words. A lot of people get caught up in the ego of it instead. But, look, if only 11 to 16 percent of the American population is African-American, then it is not the standard.
PEELE: As a child I would choose ‘Other’ on forms asking if I was white or black because I wanted to be correct. Not politically correct, factually correct. There’ll be more Others in the next 10 years. There’s so much to be explained in the truth of our identities. There’s plenty of fertile ground to explore. It’s a new kind of black character coming around.
Richard Morgan used to write op-ed columns for Henry Louis Gates’ Africana.com until they found out he isn’t black. For the millionth time, he is not related to Tracy Morgan.