Race Consciousness and Class Invisibility in American Comedy

A few months ago, I went with some friends to a sketch comedy show titled The Taming of the Flu at Chicago’s beloved Second City Improv Theater. Second City has long been an incubator for cutting edge comedy. As many of you may know, some of America’s most brilliant and over-exposed comedians (Tina Fey, Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert to name a few) began their careers there.

The power of good comedy rests in its ability to expose human foibles and to reveal the silliness of cultural norms that we seldom question. The show I attended that night mastered both of these objectives. For example, the audience erupted into laughter during a skit that featured a conceited Mayor Daley trying to woo the Olympic Committee into choosing Chicago as the host city for the next summer games. Later, the audience giggled in amusement during a sketch that portrayed a husband too distracted by his Iphone to converse with his wife. From start to finish, the show was peppered with jokes that ridiculed arrogant public figures (such as Daley and Blageovich), and mocked America’s infatuation with technology or other cultural absurdities.

A number of the skits also focused on another pervasive aspect of American culture: unconscious racism. For example, in one skit a teacher and her students talk about the new president Barack Obama—but whisper every time they say the word “black”. The one black child in the classroom is confused, never gets called on, and is finally shouted at for not raising his hand. The skit makes fun of whites for their discomfort with talking about race and their misguided attempts to seem politically correct. This kind of humor, which jibes at the subtler aspects of racism, is popping up all over American comedy. It was perhaps first popularized on The Office where main character Michael Scott refers to collard greens as “colored greens” and plans a “Diversity Day” where he forces all of his employees to act out ethnic stereotypes.

After watching the show at Second City, I reflected that discussions of race in popular comedy have evolved quite a bit over the past decade or so. As I remember, mainstream white comedians and sitcoms during the late 90s and early 2000s (such as Seinfeld and Friends) tended to ignore the subject of race altogether. Only irreverent black comedians such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle were brazen enough to talk about racism and to make fun of white America. Both comedians were masters of transforming some of the most serious, controversial and taboo topics into something funny. For example, one sketch on the Chappelle Show included a mock documentary of the first black man to poop in a “white’s only” toilet.

It seems that Rock and Chapelle’s brand of defiant comedy has now faded. The new trend in race comedy is much subtler and gentler. Racial stereotypes are reversed, and racism is portrayed in the form of misplaced comments and Freudian slips. For example, in one classic moment on The Office, Michael Scott offends his employee Oscar by suggesting that the term Mexican is an offensive ethnic slur rather than a nationality. Characters with unintentional racial bias (such as The Office’s Michael Scott) are portrayed as ignorant, silly, obnoxious—but also harmless and ultimately forgivable. It strikes me as interesting that modern comedy chooses to portray racism so often as a deeply embarrassing and unintentional social faux pas.

However, this new kind of race-conscious comedy does reflect an evolving awareness that racism is a nuanced, complex, and intractable phenomenon. We find it funny precisely because it exposes reality. We live in a society deeply confused about race. (Should one say Black or African-American? Hispanic or Latino? White or Caucasian?) As a culture, we fumble to bridge our differences, struggle to disguise our prejudices, and worry secretly that we might “say the wrong thing”. It is no surprise that today’s comedians have begun poking fun at our generation’s discomfort with the topic of race.

It is striking to me that while American comedy and pop culture remain obsessed with the topic of race, the subject of class-based prejudice is largely invisible in both these mediums. Class-based bias (unconscious or deliberate) also permeates many aspects of our culture and everyday lives—and yet this phenomenon is rarely recognized.

The Second City Show I attended clearly conveyed the message that racism is distasteful. However, the show was much less sensitive to the subject of class. A number of the short sketches unashamedly ridiculed lower class or ethnic whites. One skit captured a conversation between two white, Chicago bike cops with exaggerated blue-collar accents. The theater rippled with laughter when one of the cops describes his recent “commuter vacation” where he and his wife took a week off from work and commuted to the casinos in Hammond, Indiana—because they could not afford to travel to Las Vegas. Later, the audience roared when a hairy-chested, mafia-esque Italian character delivered a monologue that advertised his low-cost health insurance (an obvious scam). In another sketch, the audience snickered at an ambiguously foreign cab driver who, refuses to change the ethnic radio station in his car for passengers.

When I left that show that night, I agreed with my friends that much of what we had seen was funny. Yet, I felt uncomfortable with the degrading depiction of lower-class people in many of the jokes. I also felt uncomfortable with the writers’ implicit assumption that its audience members were all a part of the upper middle class. The show’s depiction of lower-class whites seemed so incongruous with its commentary about race. The show’s insinuation that lower class whites are somehow silly, stupid, trashy, and un-American left me very uneasy.

However, it would be wrong to blame Second City for my uneasiness. Comedy only mirrors the attitudes of larger society. And while making racist jokes is rightfully taboo in today’s society—making fun of poor or ethnic whites is culturally permissible and seems to go largely unnoticed.

Our socioeconomic status can in many ways unfairly shape our educational and career opportunities—but Americans seldom acknowledge this fact. I’m not sure whether America’s absence of class-consciousness is a triumph of capitalism or a consequence of long-standing racial and ethnic rivalries. Perhaps our belief in the concept (or myth) of American meritocracy makes it difficult for Americans to acknowledge that class divisions do exist in our society, and that socioeconomic status is a barrier to equal opportunity for many. At a time where a college education is both prohibitively expensive and essential for entry into a middle-class profession—the “rags to riches” American dream is far less common. As many of you are probably aware, the past twenty years has seen the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class get smaller. The Second City Show I attended suggests that we live in a divided society, where the upper-middle class has little compassion, understanding or interest in the lives of the poor and uneducated. The worst part of all of this is that Americans use our belief in meritocracy and individualism to deny that we make judgments about people based on class.

The fact that class prejudices are not discussed in mainstream American comedy (which is perhaps the medium where controversial issues can be discussed with the most honesty) does not mean that these prejudices do not exist. It only means that Americans are largely oblivious to our prevailing attitudes about class and the damage these attitudes might cause.

We live in a highly materialistic and consumerist society where the cars we drive, the shoes we wear, and the houses we live in are often mistaken for badges of our self-worth. And now we are in the midst of the Great Recession, where more and more middle-class people are slipping into poverty. I hope that more artists, songwriters, writers, comedians and others who help form American culture will take this time to reconsider America’s obsession with wealth, disdain for poverty, and discreet class prejudices. It is time that Americans begin to approach the topic of class with some of the same seriousness, interest and insightfulness with which we have begun to think about race.

Kathryn Rice is a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Read other articles by Kathryn, or visit Kathryn's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. mary said on September 4th, 2010 at 7:52am #

    I hope that you Americans did not have to endure anything so excrutiatingly bad as the Black and White Minstrel Show which ran for 20 years until 1978 on the main TV channel in the days before cable and satellite. The male singers were blacked up whites and the dancers were called the Television Toppers. Audiences were supposed to be 18 million weekly.

    An example here brought all the bad memories back.


  2. beverly said on September 4th, 2010 at 10:15am #

    The absence of class consciousness is used by the ruling and political classes – and by extension their media stenos – as a smokescreen. It obscures the looting, cronyism, and corruption used by the power classes to enrich themselves at the expense of the “lesser lights” in society.

    This is similar to all the talk about “We need a national dialogue on race.” While commissions are formed and town meetings ensue to knosh about race and end with a rousing rendition of We Are the World, the powers that be are busy robbing us blind, finding more wars to send soldiers of all hues to be used as roadside bomb fodder, and shipping even more jobs to the lowest waged/least human, labor, and environmental rights-concerned countries on the planet.

    Mainstream comedy shares some similarities with mainstream media. There are certain lines they won’t cross lest the power players who own the media outlets on which they earn their pay disapprove and kick them to curb. This class thing hits too close to exposing powers that be’s role in the economic issues that keep far too many (and these days return far too many to) in dire straits. In addition, limiting the conversation about poverty and other social ills to just when talking about blacks and latinos – instead of including lower class and poor whites of which there are a crapload out here – allows the power classes and media another smokescreen, racial tensions, to divide the masses and prevent them from realizing who the real enemy is.

  3. Don Hawkins said on September 4th, 2010 at 10:50am #

    We must not discriminate between things. Where things are concerned there are no class distinctions. We must pick out what is good for us where we can find it.
    Pablo Picasso

    Things you know things.

  4. teafoe2 said on September 4th, 2010 at 11:15am #

    Comedy on TV is as much part of the ZioImperialist Ideological State Apparatus as news on TV. At times it may take some effort to deconstruct some of it, but anything that seems “anti-establishment” is there to provide cover & credibility to the message the bigshots want delivered.

    Second City is more interesting because it is not obviously part of the Zioconned MSM/”second stream” media confuguration. I’ve only visited Chicago briefly, but long ago did know and frequently watch Second City-incubated performers at “The Committee” in SF’s North Beach. For a few weeks I participated in a workshop run by Del Close who taught us the 2nd City Improv method, e.g. the “Yes, And Adjustment” etc.

    The Committee was a CPUSA project; founding director Alan Myerson was the older brother of longtime CP ideological enforcer Mike Myerson. Of course it is Now Defunct, all the talent having long ago made aliyeh to LA;)

    I recount all this because I wonder if Second City had or has a similar provenance?

    Which might tend to account for the similar rightward trajectory traced by both Party and stage group in recent decades?


  5. MylesH said on September 4th, 2010 at 11:40am #

    teafoe2: Thank you, thank you, thank you. What you said was even funnier than what the author intended in her article.
    I don’t think there’s a single article on DV that you don’t respond to and in every case Zionism (which I agree is racism) is the cause of all evils.
    Your obsession with every thing Jewish makes me wonder if you secretly had a bris and it’s really all about your mother.
    LOL, what a great joke you are.

  6. MylesH said on September 4th, 2010 at 11:44am #

    To Kathryn,
    Thank you for the article. You are right that class is often ignored and if not, definitely the wc are often the scapegoats. I would think that part of this problem has been diffused by such shows as Roseanne but unfortunately, that was a minority.

  7. teafoe2 said on September 4th, 2010 at 12:14pm #

    Myles H: are you the same as Myles Hoenig? for the record? What is a “bris”? And thank you for your innovative re-cycling of the hoary “anti-Semitism” charge without explicitly using the ancient epithet itself:)

    I’m afraid your paranoia is showing. As Del Close responded to the question “are you Jewish?”, “anybody who has been in Showbiz fifteen years is Jewish”. And the article was about the entertainment field, “Showbiz” to those who make their living in it.

    I knew personally most of the Committee cast; the only one I can think of who wasn’t Jewish was Morgan Upton.

    Hollywood was invented by and is still run by Jews. Earlier, more ideological diversity may have been tolerated but for several decades now Izreal-Worship has been de rigeur as a condition of employment for all but the most menial jobs.

    One reason why it may seem to you that I’m “obsessed with Jews” is that the parameters of possibility in today’s Amurica are set by Zionist Jews, who either own, control, or have veto power over damn near everything of significance in this country nowadays.

    I know, as far as you’re concerned my friend Jeff Blankfort is just a “self-hating Jew”, like Philip Weiss. Hohum.

  8. Charlie said on September 4th, 2010 at 12:39pm #

    What I find interesting as I read this article are the generational differences between the author and me. To many people in my older generation, for instance, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are tedious, uninteresting performers, not comics. They are the younger generation’s Motown stable–black people packaged and made acceptable for white media consumption, the difference being that many Motown artists actually had talent, where Rock and Chappelle simply rely over and over and over and over on their one-trick pony of trying to shock people. They ridicule rather than enlighten and amuse. Any fool can do that. Comedy should ultimately make us question why we are laughing, not invite us to laugh at the expense of others.

    Class differences have also become the basis of comedy that relies on elitist condescension, not anything actually funny. Many comics are, in essence, inviting us to be members of their smugly superior, country-club crowd in which only those who “get it” about the unwashed masses can be full members. Again, it isn’t amusing; it’s shallow, predictable, and annoying.

    As the author notes, comedy today reflects the larger society in which we live. By that metric, we’re all in trouble and shouldn’t be laughing.

  9. BartFargo said on September 6th, 2010 at 6:48am #

    1st off: Lighten up.

    2nd off: For class- and race-conscious comedy/commentary you can really sink your teeth into, read The Assassinated Press: