By Rocio Isabel Prado
I purchased two tickets for two different shows in the span of two months: Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy Festival and comedian Hari Kondabolu’s show at the Troubadour. In the same period of time that I decided to attend these events, I began seeking psychological help for race-related stress that had caused panic attacks, sleeplessness, irritability and hopelessness in my daily life. My therapist noticed that I laughed when I told her about microaggressions that had been committed against me. She asked me about this and I realized that every time someone said something racist to me, I took on the submissive personality of the underdog in a sitcom. I saw myself as Jerry Gergich from Parks and Recreation. The entire series depended on the fact that I was the punch line.
At the Oddball Comedy Festival, it was clear that I was not the intended audience. Hannibal Burress performed early in the show, but white audiences did not seem to find him funny and none of the white people seated around us laughed during his routine. However, when comedy legends like Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman took the stage, the people seated around me were more receptive. Even more noticeable was that every comedian began their set with a joke about Mexicans. It was clear that they were meant to connect with the white audience’s racism towards Mexicans in Southern California.
The guffaws from the white people seated around us made it no secret that they were entertained. It is a terrible feeling to be sitting in a stadium full of drunk white people and realize that the introduction to every set depended upon making fun of me.
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This was not an isolated incident; this is mainstream comedy. These were well-known comedians who have shaped this field for years, if not decades. Their subtle displays of racism made it clear that people of color were not part of this community. Their medium ensured that they were able to say whatever they wanted without repercussions. Mainstream comedians like Louis C.K. are well known for acknowledging their white privilege, but they continue to use racism in their routines. Because people of color are not the intended audience, we are the targets for jokes.
These acts of racism are not limited to stand-up comedy. We have become accustomed to exclusion. White people ensure we are not invited or present because they need to say things they cannot say when we are around. We are kept out of meetings in conference rooms and our history is kept out of classrooms. Our novels and poetry are simply not read. And in return we get an apology and a promise for diversity in the future. Thanks for trying.
Similarly, white comedians’ refusal to acknowledge audiences of color has been painfully consistent. I’m tired of waiting for the Mexican joke to be over so that I can go back to listening to the rest of the show. Instead of hoping for white comedians to validate my experience, I have since begun to actively seek out comedians of color.
Comedy provides people of color with a way to come to terms with the pressures of existing in a white supremacist society. In discussing affirmative action, Chris Rock proves that the structures of oppression designed for colonization and slavery still affect communities of color today. Similarly, when Dave Chappelle designs jokes about his white friend Chip, who asks a cop for directions when clearly high and leaves unscathed, he demonstrates that police specifically target black communities. As comedians, they defy traditions (such as blackface, shucking and jiving, or coonery) that silenced black voices. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are mainstream comedians who have managed to be honest about race in America. Unfortunately, they are no strangers to microaggressions and race-related stress. Chris Rock produced the show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which was cancelled due to low ratings. And cultural appropriation caused Dave Chappelle to take a hiatus from comedy because of the resulting stress and paranoia. Comedians of color do not receive the same attention and support as white comedians.
Fortunately, Totally Biased’s new generation of comedians of color have still been able to work towards redefining mainstream comedy, even without a stable television show. Already a success by any definition of the word, Hari Kondabolu has been on Conan, Letterman, and @Midnight. He is well known for his stand up and was a correspondent on Totally Biased. He makes fun of Nazis, homophobes, and even lectures himself onstage for excluding the experiences of trans people. His comedy is complex and intelligent.It would be wrong to say that Hari performs only for audiences of color, as he has specifically stated that he wants to perform for diverse audiences. But, for once, our experiences are the center of his comedy and perhaps he is stating that white audiences need to hear us too.
The few routines I was able to see online were enough to convince me to buy tickets to his show at the Troubador. My enthusiasm was justified: every comedian’s pain from the consistent homophobia, sexism, transphobia, classism and racism they experienced mirrored my own. And, for once, my experiences were the focus of a routine. I felt validated. I’m not saying that Hari’s comedy cured my race-related stress, but it did help me feel better. I was able to attend a comedy show and not have to laugh at myself. It was almost as though I was on-stage, venting my frustration at micro aggressions as well, asking: “It’s 2014, why are we still talking about tolerance?” Being in that audience allowed me to re-position myself in relation to everything I had been feeling. I wasn’t the punch line anymore.
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Rocio Isabel Prado is a Xicana lesbian nerd from Santa Ana, California. She is currently working towards her MA in English at California State University, Fullerton. She enjoys eating vegan food and listening to comedians of color. She hopes to someday teach and publish a funny but heart-warming book.