In the mid-1800s, American theater introduced a new genre of performances that were saturated in bigoted bad taste. White Americans donned black makeup to portray themselves as African Americans for the purpose of comedic ridicule at the featured minority’s expense. This tradition escalated into the birth of the minstrel shows and to an exclusively white audience that reveled in the mockery of the African American culture during a time when segregation was still commonplace and racist sketches lucrative. Luckily, we have matured as a nation—more or less—and feverishly pave the road of acceptance on the spectrum of all diversity, sometimes even to an overly sensitive fault. As the generations of tomorrow wield the technological sword, the elders have tried so hard to shelter eyes from the grueling past that any sign of cultural treading is immediately disciplined. This can at times seem excessive but given the dreary historical alternative, is arguably a good direction to place mannerisms in perspective until we can learn to be more compliant. With religion, gender, race, nationality, and financial status tightly woven to a nationally taught degree of acceptance, comedy seems to be at a neutral ground. When nobody owns the spotlight for discrimination, then everybody is fair game for the receipt of jokes. In a society that has political correctness itself as a target to rebel against, it makes sense that humor is going to break bounds wherever it can and especially in the areas deemed most at taboo. When specifically pertaining to modern racially themed comedy, it has been marketed as all inclusive, with the majority of American spectators of any race generally having adopted the philosophy of “It’s cool now because everybody can laugh about it together.” To a high degree, this seems reasonably acceptable in my mind. I once heard an African American woman’s interviewed opinion about a racially insensitive skit on The Chappelle Show, where she in summary had said that it shouldn’t be a comedy show’s responsibility to teach cultural acceptance. I agree with her on that. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it right either. There can be funny and there can be morally irresponsible. The question to inspect is to which side of the scale do we tilt more on, is it necessary to toil with the comedic possibilities of racial stereotypes, and more importantly, is it emotionally harmful to?
I am not trying to pick on anybody in particular, but I have one show I want to be the focus of examination. I think Seth MacFarlane is an extremely funny guy. Say what you will about the lack of quality in his story telling, but the guy is a genius at setting up puns. MacFarlane is best known for his syndicated animated show Family Guy that had a troublesome start during its 1998 inception on Fox television and since that time has charmed its way to mega cult status. Not surprisingly, McFarlane has expanded his influence to more hit animated shows. One of which is the self-aware spinoff called The Cleveland Show, based on Family Guy’s token black neighbor named Cleveland Brown. With Cleveland now the focus, he is rearmed with a new family, relocated to his childhood city, and surrounded by a fresh template of humorous situations. Seth’s fingerprint is evident on this show, as like his others, there is a loveable, bumbling idiot of a husband who marks his territory as the head of the household, a son that disappoints his father’s expectations, an attractive wife that endures an abusive amount of stupid antics, a daughter who is (with the exception of Family Guy’s Meg who only gradually becomes extroverted) uncontrollably headstrong, a wise cracking baby (or American Dad’s Roger the alien), and the inclusion of at least one talking animal whose “no questions asked” existence is a page of the ongoing joke in itself.
As The Cleveland Show displays its ensembles of gags and low blows, it also plays strongly on racial stereotypes. With Cleveland and his family being portrayed as African American and the stars of the show, they obviously are the brunt of most of the stereotypically charged humor. Granted, Seth doesn’t discriminate, with Caucasian targeted jokes aplenty (being relevant to mention because Seth MacFarlane is white) in all of his shows (more so in Family Guy and American Dad, as the families themselves are drawn as white), he ensures that everybody gets a slap in the face and white people the most. Forgive the analogy, yet does being wet in a pool grant that person the acceptance to splash water on those standing out of the pool? I guess from a comedy standpoint, the answer is yes, since you decided to stand near the pool (yes, I’m still stuck on this same damn analogy) and knew the risk involved by doing such, whether you choose to stand in it or not. It doesn’t matter if you are different or identical to the host comedian, chances are there is something about you that the comedian can take out of context to make a targeted audience laugh. I think laughter is one of the greatest things, and perhaps personal jokes are acceptable in that older-brother-punching-you-in-the-arm sort of way. As a member of the armed forces, when I am amongst compatriot friends, we respect each other enough to not take offense to anything said because we have already proven that our lives are ready to be given to defend one another. The jokes we say about each other mean nothing more than the giggle or shock factor they were designed to invoke. Nothing personal is taken. For myself, racist or stereotypical jokes, if told sincerely in jest, do not bother me. However, when this sort of behavior emanates from mass produced media, I can’t help but be a bit protective for a fragile and easily influenced young America.
People pass around the derogative inspired term “nigga” while simultaneously debating who, when, and where it can be said. It seems simple enough to me, as you only call good friends who are comfortable with you the titles that the group finds socially acceptable. Would you greet a stranger or unfamiliar acquaintance by saying, “What’s up fucker?” If you do, then you are socially inept. Not a judgment, just a fact. It helps to understand that exercise before calling someone of Italian descent a “guido” no matter how many times you have heard it uttered uncensored on Jersey Shore. This is a sign of the way that mostly the Gen-Y folks act that has the Gen-X and Baby Boomers scratching their Rogaine lathered noggins. It is embarrassing, but so weren’t they to the generations before them? Now I wonder, do we have a responsibility to the Millenials to be more protective of potentially misunderstood racial humor? When we pass around racial epithets to each other as titles of endearment and publicly broadcast programs like The Cleveland Show, is America proving that it is mature enough to openly make fun of racism or are we just secretly remarketing our racism? I’d like to believe it is the former option. It can be difficult to tell.
As a bonus, I requested assistance from Cinematic Impact founder and extended family member, Travlis Hallingquest, to let me interview him on the topic of this article. I found his insight invaluable as he is an African American man with a beautiful family and is the target (by race, not necessarily by reinforcement of stereotypes) of programs like The Cleveland Show. Furthermore, he is an educated and talented historian of America’s past and cinema as an art form. Here is what Mr Hallingquest had to say...
1) Do you think The Cleveland Show is funny?
There have been a few spin-offs that have been successful. All in the Family featured the Bunkers having next-door neighbors whom were known as The Jeffersons. The Jeffersons lasted for 11 seasons as All In The Family (albeit still a great show) lasted 9 seasons. I am surprised that The Cleveland Show has survived on the airways this long. The show’s antics are predictable because everything is solely based off of the Family Guy formula. Still, I get a few laughs out of The Cleveland Show, mostly from the “Tim the Bear” character.
2) Do you feel that The Cleveland Show parodies racial stereotypes or reinforces them?
I think that it simultaneously parodies racial stereotypes and reinforces them. I know that this seems like a cop-out answer but it all depends on who is viewing this television show. I appreciate that Seth MacFalane has quality voice actors and some of the characters are quite educated. However some may feel that the main character (Cleveland) is the butt of too many racial jokes. But Seth Macfarlane does something that made 1980s Eddie Murphy and 1990s Chris Rock popular: Macfarlane pokes fun at ALL races and ethnic groups.
3) Is it inappropriate for white Americans to make comedy shows about dominantly African American families whether live acted or animated and whether wholesome or a parody?
It is not inappropriate for white Americans, or any white nationality for that matter to make show about African American families. Although The Color Purple was not a comedy, Steven Spielberg had the full support of Alice Walker to adapt her beloved novel. Family Matters had occasional white directors and Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop had white writers and directors. As long as diverse characters, exposition, and dialogue are on screen, then it is totally acceptable.
4) If a comedian made jokes exclusively about other races without including their own race, do you think this is okay so long as the jokes are not hate oriented?
One night while watching BET Comic view (back in my high school days) I heard a black comedian say the following: “White people, yall change colors too damn much. Your neck is red in the south, you are red when you are mad, blue when you can’t breathe, black, when you have been beaten-up and purple when you die”. The mostly black audience laughed but some of the audience had white friends with them and they had a look of annoyance on their face. I think that the reason many black comedians make these jokes is due to the minstrel shows of the early 1900s and “its pay-back time”. Not in a hostile sense, but now it’s our turn to make fun of your cultural differences. I would have no problem with a white comedian making jokes at my race, if it were tastefully done. Tastefully done is defined as follows: Make fun of all aspects of an ethnic group, show their complexity not supposedly simplicity. Make fun of the same things that you would make fun of your own race, and put a slight spin on it for the other race. A good example is George Carlin, whom was notorious to talk shot more shit about his own race rather than Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. A safe zone is a black comedian making fun of Lindsay Lohan’s dumbass and a white comedian making fun of Kanye West’s dumbass. That would be acceptable by all standards because race is involved, but only as a back-drop. Anyone of any race can be a drunkard or an idiot whom interrupts someone’s acceptance speech.
5) Do you think that programs like The Cleveland Show can be misleading or damaging to ignorant people of any race?
Yes, but that is not entirely the fault of studios and producers. I am writing a graduate paper for The University Of Oklahoma and I am finding out that the reason pigeonhole and stereotypes exist is due to education lapses in the U.S. Ignorance stems from both education problems and environmental problems. I rich white person may think that most black males are unemployed, wore baggy clothes, and would rather rob someone than find a job. A poor white person may believe that poorer black people are using up “their” welfare, or they might be able to relate to that poor black person. What I am getting at is that stereotypes in entertainment can make people laugh, but the question is are they laughing at that situation on screen due to the comedic prowess of the show, or are they also laughing at that situation because that is how they think the real world is. In regards to the Cleveland Show, which is about a middle class family, the characters are so exaggerated that the pranks are not associated with a particular race.
6) Is there a better way that you feel that racial comedy should be handled? Is it okay for it to become more controversial?
I think that racial comedy is being handled in the best way possible. Think about the days of Richard Pryor when he released a comedy album entitled “The Nigger Is Crazy”. Now even the most audacious comedians are a bit reserved compared to that. I do not think that people should try to make racial comedy more controversial because it simply becomes more offensive. There is no reason to get engaged in a degradation competition. There are cultural differences in this world and its okay (at least in Democratic societies) to poke fun sometimes. But I think that people should focus much more on situational comedy than ethnic.
7) Why do you think America is so focused on race as opposed to other countries?
America is more focused on race because our Constitution was flawed from the beginning. No one included non-whites as being “created equal”. If non-whites were initially considered equals, then comedy and drama would have been based off of regional mannerisms and social class. But in America’s defense most European countries are not as diverse, but England has been praised for making sitcoms and movies that features interracial couples. If America makes a movie about an interracial couple, then their race is the plot of the movie. For some imprudent reason studios have to remind “us” that it is supposedly strange for people of two different races to marry in the 21st century. In England or France that couple would most likely be involved in a plot that had nothing to do with their race.