Originally created 09/22/03

Recent controversies highlight debate about race's role in comedy



Aki Aleong's stomach churned as he watched the Fox comedy game show, the one with the nerdy Asian businessman wearing thick glasses and the karate-chopping martial arts master screaming "Banzai!"

Paul Noble watched the same show but saw something else. To him, it was a fresh, funny program with great stunts, like two men jousting while riding shopping carts. The Asian characters were just part of the backdrop.

Once, minorities like Aleong, a Chinese-American, might have silently winced about being the butt of jokes on a network program - in this case, the Fox summer show "Banzai!"

Not anymore.

As minorities' numbers have grown, so has their ability to make their voices heard when they feel humor slips into insult. But that doesn't mean comedians will stop treading the line between the two.

Race in comedy "is just like race in everyday situations," said comedian D.L. Hughley. "It's always a component."

Hughley, who is black, has often joked about the differences between blacks and whites. For instance, he once observed that blacks, unlike whites, don't enjoy bungee jumping because "that's too much like lynching for us."

"There's always the chance that somebody is going to be offended," Hughley said. But "I want people to see what I'm seeing. They don't have to agree with me, or like it, or understand it ... but if they see what I'm seeing, then chances are I'll get a laugh."

"Banzai" was only the latest in a series of recent incidents in which comedians looking for laughs got criticism instead.

In February, some Hispanics were outraged after a satirical Vanity Fair advice column counseled against learning Spanish, asking, "Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are at least a few books worth reading, or, if you're American, try English."

Sikh groups demanded Miramax remove a scene in the movie "Dysfunktional Family" in which a man wearing a turban is called Osama bin Laden. And some blacks said a character who poked fun at civil rights icons in the movie "Barbershop" last year was disrespectful.

The Vanity Fair column provoked a scathing letter from Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek, who was on the magazine's cover. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists warned that "humor and satire are not safe hiding places for ignorance and bigotry."

The magazine apologized, saying the remarks of entertainer Barry Humphries, in the guise of Dame Edna, "were meant to satirize stereotypes, not reinforce them."

But for some, the issue went beyond advice dispensed by a guy in drag.

"Lots of times, Latinos are invisible in the pages of magazines," said Joseph Torres, the association's spokesman. "I think there's extra sensitivity to how we're portrayed in a magazine or in a situation comedy because there's such a void there."

Aleong, an actor and president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, feels the same way about "Banzai." Aleong watched the show with Fox officials before it aired and voiced his complaints to them.

"We can take a joke," Aleong said. But "all I saw were geeky Asian guys, nerdy guys. I'm saying, 'Where is the balance?' You can poke fun at people, you can ridicule them, but please show some balance."

Fox says the show, which originally aired in Britain, was a parody of Japanese game shows. It "shouldn't be viewed as anything more than what it is - a very different kind of game show," Fox said in a statement, adding that it has been a leader in promoting Asian-American talent.

"I like the challenges, the innovation of it all," said Noble, a white man who lives in Ashburn, Va. "I certainly don't base my opinion on Asia down to this one show. I'm obviously open-minded enough to realize it's not like that. It's just a funny show."

Racial scrutiny can also extend to what comedians say about their own ethnic groups.

Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, whose nationally syndicated "La Cucaracha" strip provides a biting view of the world through the eyes of its Hispanic characters, said that in humor, "anything goes."

But some Hispanics have told him they don't like the title of the strip, or the way the characters dress in flannel shirts and baggy pants, Alcaraz said.

Alcaraz said his goal is to puncture stereotypes. "It's either we have thick accents or we're Jimmy Smits, detective," he said, "and there's no in-between." But Alcaraz says his characters are regular people "in their mid 20s, and they're just working and doing their thing."

Vietnamese-American comedian Dat Phan has turned painful experiences into comic material with a racial undercurrent. He's joked about introducing himself to a Vietnam veteran as "Charlie" and used his own name as fodder, quipping "It's pretty hot in here. Can you turn on dat fan over there?"

Phan figures that, by poking fun at himself, he turns the table on people like the classmates who picked on him in school. "I got to the punch line before they could," he said.

Phil Yu, author of a Weblog titled Angry Asian Man, said he supports Phan's work because Phan is Asian, "in a profession where there are very few Asians." But some also fear Phan may be seen as "just this funny guy who does this accent," he said.

In the end, every group seems to take its lumps from some comedian. But these days an almost universal target seems to be white people.

"It's almost OK to say something about your own race and whites, but you can't cross over to a different race," said Pam Geroianni, a "Banzai" fan who is Hispanic. "White seems to be a free for all."

Political satirist Bill Maher agrees there is a double standard when it comes to race and comedy - but he says it's easy to see why.

"Obviously black people can get away with saying things about white people that white people couldn't be saying about black people," Maher said. "Black people should be able to do things we don't get to do, because of all the things we did to them that they didn't do to us."

Whites are "the majority. We're the culture that has run the show," Maher said. So of course whites "are going to be a big target."