Stand-Up Comedians As Advocates?

February 6th, 2012 | Categories: Stereotypes in General

Comedians are often criticized for being insensitive to cultural groups. Consider the much publicized comments from Michael Richards, the celebrity TCS used for its very first trading card. Guest blogger Maryrose Wentzel argues that comedians who communicate stereotypes in their comedic routines act as advocates for the very groups they stereotype.

“The stand-up is quintessentially an American art form and is a form of political protest. There’s a history of the underdog using standup comedy to speak truth to power. People take notice and are transformed by the experience.” – Azhar Usman, Indian American Muslim Comedian

Stand-Up Comedians As Advocates
by Maryrose Wentzel

Azhar Usman is one of the many stand-up comedians present in our society today that uses jokes on-stage in a productive way to highlight issues regarding minority groups and the stereotypes held about those groups. In this way, stand-up comedians can be viewed as advocates for marginalized group. Although negative stereotypes of marginalized groups are often the focus of many comedic performances, these performances are vehicles to start conversations about the misconceptions and miscommunication present in inter/cultural communication. There are many comedians like Azhar Usman who use their comedy routines to highlight minority group stereotypes, including Margaret Cho, Dave Chapelle, Katt Williams, and Carlos Mencia. Their jokes lead them to seek out, explore, and articulate the unspoken taboos of our society (Cohen & Richards, 2006); taboos that are often ignored otherwise. Stand-up comedians have a positive impact on inter/cultural communication through their use of jokes regarding minority stereotypes as social commentary, enabling them to act as advocates on behalf of these marginalized cultural groups.

Those belonging to marginalized groups may have a lot to say, but a relatively small amount of power to say it. Because these co-cultural group members can feel almost muted by the power difference that exists, they can benefit from those who are willing to speak out on their behalf in order to get their voices and point-of-view across to members of the dominant group. Stand-up comedians give a voice to these muted groups through the issues they address in their performances on stage; the stage essentially becomes a metaphorical as well as literal platform in which marginalized groups can be heard. As advocates, comedians share their knowledge with others and their communication, even when it includes stereotypes, can encourage dialogue and create a mutual understanding that benefits marginalized groups. Azhar Usman and Margaret Cho are two comedians that advocate for their respective marginalized groups through their comedy. Usman is an Indian American Muslim, and Cho is a bisexual American of Korean dissent.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, many Muslim-Americans have felt a heightened sense of prejudice against them, fueled by powerful resentments and fear felt by the dominant group, uninformed or misinformed about the Muslim faith (Elshinnawi, 2009). Usman uses his comedy routines in order to fight the negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in the United States. He jokes about things like airport security guards and their predictable racial profiling enacted because of his appearance. As stated in Elshinnawi’s article, “Usman says when he is on stage he is doing more than just telling jokes. He believes he is waging peace by promoting a better understanding of Muslims in the West.” According to the article, Usman hopes to not only calm fears through his comedy, but to build bridges between two cultures that have lately had a hard time understanding each other.

During a 2011 interview with Mona Elyafi of the EDGE, Margaret Cho explains how she views herself to be a political comedian, and feels that comedy is a wonderful medium and tool for change. She gives a voice to minorities and helps make visible those that are different from the dominant group. Through this visibility, Margaret is able to get her point across in a way that might not otherwise be possible. There are several benefits that arise from a comedian like Margaret using jokes regarding the inequalities and stereotypes that exist of marginalized groups like Asians and LBGT people.

First, comedians simply get the conversation going. As discussed in Roger Cohen and Ryan Richards’ article regarding the need for comedians in our society, “Mainstream culture likes to pretend that race issues don’t exist…It’s the sad reality of our culture. Unfiltered honest talking on race is rare, but comics are comfortable with race. Comics are honest.” This idea can be extended towards any type of cultural group, and demonstrates how important comedians are in bringing attention to issues that otherwise go unmentioned as a result of discomfort.

Another benefit that comes from comedians advocating for marginalized groups through their comedy is the realization of the audience members that they might not be as different from those marginalized groups as they think, causing them to question their previously held beliefs and stereotypes regarding that group. It is also possible that the audience members are being exposed to a certain type of cultural group that they have never interacted with before, also allowing for a change in perception of that cultural group, and a subsequent breakdown of pre-existing stereotypes. If a comedian knows how to make the audience laugh, then a connection is made—a cultural crossover. This can result in the original stereotype beginning to breakdown, making it harder to perpetuate (Cohen & Richards, 2006).

Lastly, humor serves as a tool to neutralize the power of stereotypes that obstruct minority groups’ path to equal participation in society (Cohen & Richards, 2006). By playing on stereotypes, comedians are essentially undermining the strength of the prejudices that exist, taking away a dominant group member’s ability to use that stereotype against the member of the marginalized group (Cohen & Richards, 2006). This doesn’t necessarily give more power to the marginalized group, but it takes power away from those of the dominant group.

Through their use of jokes regarding minority stereotypes as social commentary, stand-up comedians are advocates of marginalized cultural groups. They start the discussion, point out many underlying issues in our society regarding cultural groups, teach people about cultures different from their own, and aim to create a bridge of understanding between those of different cultures. Although change for many of these cultural groups may be far down the road, it is still critical that these comedians continue to advocate for marginalized groups through their stand-up routines ultimately having a positive impact on inter/cultural communication.

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  1. John
    February 24th, 2012 at 11:45

    Comedians are wonderful agents of generating laughter, but many whose jokes are dubbed “racist” might be something more. The best way to get someone to think about something and to comprehend it is to describe it in their own terms or in a way in which they can better understand it. I think that, in the minds of these comedians, the best way to raise awareness of sensitive issues, such as racial dilemmas, is to make such issues the center around which all of their jokes orbit. Some people may think that comedians are endorsing racist behaviors with their jokes, but I believe that they are lightening up some very sensitive topics so that they may be observed simultaneously by people of all races.

  2. cookieD.
    February 29th, 2012 at 23:39

    In the article Stand-Up Comedians As Advocates? Kurylo goes on to explain that there are many comedians out there that base their stand up material on stereotypes. The reason why nobody says anything is because at that point it seems like harmless fun. A black comedian may throw in a joke about minorities and nobody would have a problem with it. However after analyzing it we can sense the hint of racism. Kurylo argues that “Stand-up comedians have a positive impact on inter/cultural communication through their use of jokes regarding minority stereotypes as social commentary, enabling them to act as advocates on behalf of these marginalized cultural groups.” Though I concede that comedians are spreading awareness about cultural groups and are helping the audience engage in new understands about certain racial groups, I still insist that at the end of the day these comedians are being racist. Yes it is out of harmless fun and they do not mean anything about it but if we are going to say that racism is bad and we should stop it then we need to stop it at the little things because even though we may not see racism it is still there. We just do not notice it.

    • Anastacia Kurylo
      November 30th, 2012 at 22:13

      To give credit where credit is due, my former student Maryrose Wentzel is the author of this article. All the comments on this article are interesting and demonstrate the complexity of the topic Maryrose is talking about. On the one hand it’s just funny stuff that might actually have a moral value and higher purpose. on the other hand the comments are offensive and can be taken seriously by people to reinforce their own stereotypical beliefs. for example, there is a The Simpsons quote from Homer that says “It’s funny because it’s true.” Then on the third hand (or foot) as mrradz points out the decision isn’t this black and white. Instead, whether something is right or wrong nowadays gets decided by those with access to the internet and have the tech savvy-ness to get their opinion heard.

  3. mrradz
    November 29th, 2012 at 13:01

    This article and concept, I believe, is very important. Comedians are (whether they want to be or not) politicized public figures. Even if a comedian focuses on his/her own individual being, it seems impossible to not touch upon, infer, or flat out mention a social commentary. These social commentaries often graze upon grand subject matters, including sexuality, gender, race, politics, social justice, etc. But most importantly, the constant and pervasive deconstruction and questioning of those particular subjects is what makes comedy so effective. Whether a comedian intends to or not, a social norm is being questioned, debated, and referenced. And because of this, comedians do, in fact, represent marginalized individuals. Of course, one may not always assume that comedians are heroic in that sense. Some comedians do possess skewed or closed-minded perspectives on marginalized groups. For example, comedian Tracy Morgan went on a rant about homosexuality while performing stand-up. The material seemed rather shorthanded and ho-dunk. It contained no realization or commentary on homosexuality, but it rather was threatening and ill-spirited. But his stand-up boomeranged. People complained and argued and Morgan was vilified by the majority: he apologized and agreed that his comments were wrong. Of course, Morgan possesses a particular kind of fame that many and most comedians do not possess; therefore, racism and bigotry may be spewed across the globe unnnoticed. But I believe that more and more people begin to realize and determine what is “wrong” and what is “right.” And they use the power and pervasiveness of technology to play referees…as they should.

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