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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Defending comedians, stereotypes are meant to be comical

Published: February 28, 2014
Section: Opinions

Along with a capella, improv comedy is hugely popular on college campuses. Brandeis is no exception, boasting multiple improv groups. The problem with performing at a school, however, especially one that puts such an emphasis on diversity, is the fact that there are people from many different backgrounds who may take offense. If anyone is going to offend a group of people, it will most likely be an improv comedy troupe. Imitating and making fun of someone is a great way to secure a lot of laughs, but where is the line between innocent humor and hurtful remarks?

If anything else, comedians may make racist jokes. These jokes are just too easy. The Southern black, the Jewish mother, the Indian doctor, the poor Mexican—the stereotypes are already there for the taking. Crowd Control, a long-form improv group on campus, has been accused of being racist, and as a regular attendant of their performances, I can attest that they do not single out one particular group. They make fun of all races equally. On this campus in particular there are large Jewish and Asian presences, so these groups may tend to notice these jokes more, but they definitely include other races as well. However, is it wrong to make these jokes at all?

In his famous essay, “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” Henri Bergson picks up on the comedy involved in stereotypes. His main point is that people laugh at rigidity, at any instance that combines the automatic, motorized machine with living, breathing beings. This can take the form of a funny face or can expand to an instance where a human acts as a machine. For instance, if someone is walking down the street and trips over a banana peel he did not see, Bergson would claim this is funny because the person was acting like a machine and could not perceive and adapt to the change in the environment. Similarly, these stereotypes represent the rigidity of categorizing people, confining them within a specific grouping.

In this sense, racist jokes are no different than making fun of any group since the main point is not to make racist jokes, but to identify stereotypes. Would people feel offended if a comedy troupe made a “dumb blonde” joke? They probably would not, as people do not identify with hair color groups as closely as they do with their race. The members of the troupe are not making these jokes because they are racist or want to make fun of their audience members. They are assuming the role of a specific kind of person. Sometimes the identifier is race, but that doesn’t mean that the race is the main point.

Moreover, the nature of comedy is actually quite an abysmal art in itself taking root in absurd existentialism. Existentialist Albert Camus describes how something is absurd if the truth does not live up to one’s expectation, and life is absurd because we believe that the world has meaning when we are actually just bumbling bundles of flesh running around on this planet. Camus believes that one should accept this truth but revolt against it anyway by enjoying life. In the Greek myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus knows that the rock will always roll down the hill, but he continually pushes it back up anyway. However, another common response to absurdity is not revolt, but rather laughter. That is, people laugh when someone tries to give meaning to a meaningless world.

Crowd Control, as well as other groups, points out these stereotypes not to show that there is something wrong with a race or other group, but because rigidly confining people into groups is an absurd, purposeless practice that actually highlights human failure. Some groups also like to reverse stereotypes by, for instance, having an African family adopt a white baby from America to rescue them from poverty and gun violence in this backward country. This further highlights why labels are so ludicrous.

Pointing out stereotypes, even racist ones, is a product of the inherent nature of humor. We laugh at human failure because we expect more from ourselves. Crowd Control is not trying to hurt anyone, they are just following the rules of comedy and trying to get the most laughs and be entertaining. I don’t know if I am complimenting or insulting Crowd Control here, but ultimately, they are not making fun of particular people at all—they are making fun of the hopeless, irremediable condition of the human race that ironically likes to think of itself as significant and meaningful.