Race & Humor

Berkeley Connect in Ethnic Studies students discuss why we need comedians 

At a recent small-group discussion session, Berkeley Connect Ethnic Studies students explored race and humor and the importance of comedians. I joined Berkeley Connect Fellow Wanda Alarcón and her students as they navigated the borders between funny and not-funny in a discussion that was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Wanda began by asking the students to reflect on a series of questions. “What do you consider funny?,” she asked students as they settled into their chairs. For one, it was her brother and father, commenting that their shared experience made it easy for them to make her laugh. Another noted that she liked both intellectual humor, like the Daily Show, and “stupid” humor. Wanda also asked the students about their own relationship with humor. One student believed it was integral. “It’s necessary for me. I think enough of the world is ugly, and we need lighter things sometimes.” Wanda agreed, adding that comedians have the power to remake the world through humor. She also brought up comedy as a genre of literature, and read a compelling quote from writer and activist James Baldwin, who, when asked by a white interviewer about the role of African American writers in American literature, responded: “For the first time, we get to describe you.

After they discussed their own tastes in humor, Wanda and the students began to explore the role of comedians in society today. One student pointed out that comedians have the ability to start a discourse. To help the students’ discussion, Wanda showed a few clips of different comedians, many of whom routinely explore taboo topics or sensitive issues.

The first was Louis C.K., who did a stand-up routine on being white. “I’m not saying white people are better. I’m saying being white is clearly better,” he said in the clip. “Here’s how great it is to be white. I can get into a time machine and go to any time and it would be awesome!” Louis C.K. was able to make his audience laugh while at the same time drawing their attention to the uncomfortable topic of white privilege.

“Some comedians rely on punch lines, but others tell stories based on our shared knowledge,” Wanda remarked. “Those are the ones I enjoy.” Many in the room agreed, however, that while Louis C.K.’s topic and delivery did not offend them, his choice to describe anal sex as a punishment for white people in the future was insensitive to certain communities and individuals.

Next, the class watched a stand-up routine by Margaret Cho in which she eulogized two of her best friends, who died of AIDS years ago – teenage drag queens whom she brought to life with her dramatic imitations. As Wanda pointed out, Cho “captured the spirit” of her friends. A student said she was initially expecting social commentary on trans issues, but recognized the emotional power of the remembrance piece.

“Comedy has the power to turn poison into medicine,” Wanda quoted the Native American comedian Charlie Hill. She noted that comedy is able to take something we know on an intellectual level and make it somehow healing. Recalling her childhood days listening to Dr. Demento, who aired silly songs, she brought up many other ways humor plays a role in our everyday life.

Finally, Wanda showed the class a painting the artist Yolanda Lopez did of herself as the Virgin of Guadalupe, who holds deep symbolic importance to Catholic Mexicans. As opposed to the demure and serene figure, Lopez showed herself in action, jumping out of the screen and trampling the poor angel that holds up the Virgin of Guadalupe.

As the hour closed, Wanda asked her students how comedy can create social change, other than providing relief or escape from everyday stress. Plenty of laughs were shared during the session, but links were also drawn between humor and larger ideas and questions worthy of further reflection.

race and humor
Yolanda Lopez depicts herself as the Virgin of Guadalupe in this painting.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant