Comedy, Context and Representation

As you probably have heard, over the weekend Saturday Night Live aired a controversial segment during Weekend Update. Leslie Jones, an African American writer making her first appearance on the show, constructed her bit around a complaint that her love life would have been better during slavery, because she looks “useful” rather than “beautiful,” like Lupita Nyong’o.

Any  statement during a major public appearance that appears to endorse an aspect of slavery is going to be controversial, but some of this controversy was compounded by the sketch’s use of and trafficking in stereotypes:

JONES: Let me ask you a question: If you walked into a club, and you saw me and Lupita standing at the bar, who would you pick?

COLIN: Well…

JONES: Yeah, I know, you would pick Lupita. Let me ask you this: If you was in the parking lot (laughter) and three Crips is about to whoop your ass, who you gonna pick then?

COLIN: I would pick you.

JONES: Y’damn right you would.

As both her manner and speech get gradually more extreme, she goes on to say that, due to her size and strength, during slavery, “master woulda hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation,” allowing her to raise a brood of “super babies” whose names include Shaq, LeBron and Sinbad.

Comedy is one of the most useful tools we have for deconstructing dominant paradigms and challenging stereotypes. In ancient Athens, comedy’s ability to send up the most ridiculous assumptions of our society was viewed as a necessary part of civilization. In order to do so, comedy must often give voice to an outrageous point of view in order to debunk it, or, at other times, find a way to tell a truth that we do not want to hear through humor. Both of these are risky moves, however, and they both rely on getting both the laughs and the context for the jokes exactly right. 

Leslie Jones’s appearance on Weekend Update was a clear attempt to send up the absurdity of beauty standards for black women, and note how they have been influenced by the needs of white society, while also reminding us of the horrible legacy of forced breeding that we would often rather forget.  It’s difficult, challenging material to cover and, if the internet’s reaction to the sketch is any gauge, SNL may have been the wrong place to try it.

 Context, in other words, matters. Just as in political issues or the media’s depiction of black men and boys, the way a joke is framed is the key to staying on the right side of the sometimes single-hair-width line that separates challenging conventional thinking and perpetuating it. 

W. Kamau Bell, who has told jokes in just about every context there is from a basement theater in San Francisco to his own show on the FX network, has a fascinating discussion of context and Leslie Jones’s SNL segment over at his blog:

IMHO, context is what made Leslie Jones’ bit seem weird to some (like me) and offensive to others. Imagine, just for a second, that instead of Chris Rock taping his classic (CLASSSSSSSSSSIC!) bit, “Niggas vs Black People”, in Washington, DC, in front of what appears to be a mostly black audience, that he had taped that bit on SNL… at the Weekend Update desk…. next to Norm MacDonald… right after another Norm joke referencing Frank Stallone. Would it have been as immediately heralded as a new high in cultural criticism and satire? Or would Norm’s awkward laughter and the studio audience’s “whiteness” have made it harder to focus on the brilliance? In fact, I vote that Rock’s bit is better on HBO because we can see through all the audience reaction shots that black people are fully (FULLY!) onboard. (I do think the bit would have killed with SNL’s audience too, but the laughter would’ve been more “REEEEEALLY?” instead of the black audience’s laughter of, “YES!!!”

You can read the whole thing here.

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