Like it or not, it's comedy's turn to contend with its role in perpetuating systemic racism

Examining the part cop shows play in normalizing injustice is one thing. Looking at comedy's role will be tougher

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 23, 2020 7:49PM (EDT)

Tina Fey is seen on the set of the TV show "30 Rock" on location | Jimmy Kimmel from "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"  (ABC/Randy Holmes/Marcel Thomas/FilmMagic)
Tina Fey is seen on the set of the TV show "30 Rock" on location | Jimmy Kimmel from "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" (ABC/Randy Holmes/Marcel Thomas/FilmMagic)

It was only a matter of time before people remembered that when it comes to race, popular comedy is awash in problematic favorites.

This latest reckoning kicked off with a relatively soft target named Jimmy Fallon. I characterize Fallon as a "soft" target because "The Tonight Show" host already spent much of the past four years down in the dirt for his role in playfully normalizing Donald Trump. Fallon's show still hasn't regained its longtime top spot in the ratings, but his quarantine-era episodes, filmed in his Sagaponack, N.Y., farmhouse, have changed him into some mellow, friendly blend of late night suit and Mister Rogers.

Then a "Saturday Night Live" clip featuring Fallon wearing blackface popped up. Fallon used his June 1 broadcast of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" to admit he'd screwed up, to apologize and affirm his commitment to scrutinizing himself and to do better.

Cut to last week, when comedy writer Megan Amram, who most recently served as an executive producer on "The Good Place," was confronted with a series of her racist, ableist, and anti-Semitic tweets dating back to 2011, several of which specifically target Asians. Amram issued an apology, and "The Good Place" series co-stars Manny Jacinto and William Jackson Harper made their own statements – Jacinto urging forgiveness, Harper less conciliatory.

Also last week, the Internet discovered the existence of ABC host Jimmy Kimmel's work on Comedy Central's "The Man Show," which had aired between 1999 to 2003. On that series he painted himself brown a number of times, imitating Karl Malone and Oprah Winfrey, among many others. It's unclear whether those crimes are more egregious than the exhumed sample of his usage of the n-word multiple times as part of his Snoop Dogg impression on a holiday comedy album titled "A Family Christmas in Your Ass" that came out in 1996. And it also bears pointing out that this audio bit was exhumed by Fox News, who are neither longtime fans of Kimmel's nor first time callers.

This week additionally yielded a pre-emptive strike on the part of "30 Rock" co-creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who reached out to NBC Universal and asked that four episodes of "30 Rock" be taken out of circulation from streaming and syndication. "I understand now that 'intent' is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologize for pain they have caused," Fey said in a note partially published in Variety. "Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness."

This comes after Netflix removed four other comedy series from circulation due to their usage of blackface, including "Little Britain" and its follow-up "Come Fly With Me," "The Mighty Boosh," and "The League of Gentlemen."

But as several people have pointed out, the "30 Rock" episodes in question are of a larger pattern of stereotyping in Fey's work, with the most controversial being her portrayals of Asians in Netflix's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," a show that also includes a dubiously rendered subplot in which Jane Krakowski's socialite Jacqueline Voorhees is revealed to be Native American, passing as white.

In the direct wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests this year, there arose a critical focus upon the worldwide proliferation of the crime procedural, and its decades-long role in normalizing the image of equal justice and cops as noble, efficient crime fighters. That incident that sparked these demonstrations was a video of a cop asphyxiating an unarmed Black man by kneeling on his neck, one video in a string of them dating back years, necessitated this examination; it is yet another real-world contradiction to the "Law & Order" operational mythology.

Now that the majority of the public is expressing support for the movement, or even finally making some effort to understand it, examining the extent of popular culture's contributions to the conditions that made years of disbelieving systemic racism's existence is a necessary task, and on the comedy front it's going to bruise.

But this conversation was bound to come to comedy's door for the simple idea of how the culture that yielded "The Man Show" and made Fallon's blackface impersonation of Chris Rock acceptable shaped the comedy world we have today. The political correctness revolution of the early to mid-'90s led to the late '90s backlash that resulted in comedy that was and is decidedly and proudly un-P.C. Comics engaged in the language of equal opportunity offense, and the boundaries kept moving further away from what was once considered to be the center.

The rules of this arena and the location of its goalposts were and always have been determined by white men, leaving the rest of us to decide whether we wanted to play along or be labeled humorless prigs who just don't get it.

It strikes me that as the dialogue around this chapter of Black Lives Matter's journey evolves, the comedy wing of the entertainment industry is one of many intersectional spaces where its aims larger bisect with that of #MeToo in terms of Hollywood's role in mainstreaming that cause.

Women who work in comedy and spoke up about the widespread culture of misogyny and harassment have been making this argument since one of comedy's giants was felled in 2017 – tossed out the window, but far from cancelled. Why? Because at the end of the day, lots of people like the guy.

This is the wall against which such efforts slammed in the years following the outings of various popular artists generally and comedians specifically. They occupy a different space in our heads than the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves, nothing more than the names of powerful men for the average person. Audiences fairly easily let go of Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer because newscasters and interviewers are plentiful and replaceable, and because their currency was trust. Once that was violated, we more or agreed en masse that we wouldn't miss them.

But an entertainer's career flourishes or flounders on the basis on how well liked they are, on the loyalty of their fans. This is why people who reach a certain level of fame can more or less behave as if they are bulletproof. And it is going to make these conversations surrounding imagery and intent uncomfortable, as we may be starting to witness with the burgeoning conversations surrounding Amram, Fey, Kimmel, and Fallon before him.

Really considering this requires us to confront the means by which so much of our own internalized racism is impacted and molded by comedy created by people we really enjoy.

All of us subject to this hellish bargain from the moment we take in a few "Tom and Jerry" cartoons and absorb the presence of Mammy Two-Shoes or scenes of soot on Tom's face taking on a racist shape. Those cartoons ran for many years without comment or question. In 2014, they streamed on iTunes and Amazon with a warning that the cartoon's content "may depict ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today."

With or without such disclaimers, those images embed themselves in our psyche at a very young age and soften up the ground to absorb future indignities. Typically, people are taught at an early age that racism is a relic of the past. Therefore when racist tropes pop up in the here and now, they're presented as harmless fun that nobody actually believes. 

When writer Ira Madison III discussed "Kimmy Schmidt" for Buzzfeed in 2015, he summarized up this perfidious approach concisely. "In my life, I've experienced maybe 30% outright I-hate-Black-people racism," he said. "But what I have grown up with is people making jokes about Black culture, slavery, or random hip-hop songs they heard on MTV and couching them as: See? I'm commenting on race and it's funny, so I'm not racist."

So if we're going to thoroughly examine all the means by which prejudice and bigotry seep into our societal systems, we must to take a hard look at the ways that comedy facilitates that seepage in addition to what the people who make it are doing about it. As part of that, we who have defended that work should examine where those defenses are really coming from.

For example, a few years ago on this very site I included the "30 Rock" episode "Christmas Attack Zone!" on a long list of great holiday episodes, and it truly is a marvel of vicious humor showcasing the late, great Elaine Stritch. It's nearly perfect . . . right up to the room-silencing image that is the reason the episode has been yanked. The closing montage includes Krakowski's Jenna Maroney dressed as former NFL quarterback Lynn Swann and the character's boyfriend, played by Will Forte, dressing up as Natalie Portman's character from "Black Swan" to create a visual portmanteau of "Two Black Swans" for a couple's costume party.

The best way I could describe that splash was to call it jaw-dropping which, of course, is woefully insufficient. "30 Rock" used blackface at least four times during its run. Others have called out its transphobic jokes and other tone-deaf shortcomings largely overlooked by critics – myself included – because we like Fey, and as she mentions in that note, we trust her intent.

So what is the remedy here? This is where the discussion needs to be and will most definitely grow uncomfortable and angry and likely, at times, unproductive. Censorship, that old slippery slope, is anathema to comedy fans. Crying it out also happens to be the classic knee-jerk response to anyone who takes an unpopular but valid stance to a comedian's flawed work.

Nobody wants toothless comedy. But there are comics who make skillful jokes about race and racism who do so without punching down, and there are outstanding comedians who avoid wading into that minefield completely.

There's also the far more crucial matter of taking a hard look at the people within the corporations that granted these images their seal of approval before allowing them to air. Are they still in those positions? And are they hiring writers, showrunners and producers from underrepresented communities in Hollywood who have been typically marginalized onscreen?

Are they committed to bringing culturally informed perspectives to their work and, yes, creating funny material with edge and bite that makes jaws drop without being racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic?

In the way of Amram's old tweets resurfacing, "Saturday Night Live" star Bowen Yang was called upon to make a statement – which quite rightly irritated the man, since the request for reaction was based on the fact that he's one of very few Asian American comedy series regulars on TV right now.

"Since this is not the first time I've been contextualized against someone else's racist jokes, I've had time to develop thoughts around this," Yang said in a series of tweets that have since been deleted. "It's objectively bad, painful, and traumatizing when someone's racist behavior is publicly on display, and in doing the important antiracist work of holding them to account, I hope we can be wary of letting this neoliberal idea slip through that the individual is the fundamental unit of society, whose responsibility it is to fight unjust systems by their own gumption. To me it's similar to the f***ed up mentality around bootstrap theory that seeks to undermine solidarity at a time we need it most.

"I hope Megan has committed herself to fighting racist power," Yang adds. "We all know people who have doubled down instead of self-examining. In either case, while someone else's individual accountability is important, it's not enough for me to dwell on very long unless they are in a position of power."

The calls to "cancel" Kimmel coming from the right-wing of the condemned house that is our current democracy are disingenuous; they've always been gunning for Kimmel, and they always will. The man is unlikely to lose his job over the resurfacing of these "Man Show" clips which, again, have been readily available for public consumption for the last two decades. (For similar reasons nobody's cancelling past blackface offender Howard Stern because doing so would require us to cancel Ted Danson, and who doesn't love Sam Malone?)

Fey and her work will remain with us, Fallon isn't going anywhere, and I suspect Amram will recover from this. Provided they and other powerful players yet to be confronted by past racist regrets are genuine about their stated mission to take a tough look at themselves and to do better in measurable ways, then that should be seen as a positive outcome. And maybe future comedy writers and late night hosts will look back on this era and acknowledge, without question, that the comedy of alleged equal opportunity offenders were pushing us into a game where the terms of play were never truly equal.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Blackface Comedy Commentary Jimmy Fallon Jimmy Kimmy Megan Amram Racism Tina Fey Tv