In recent years, comedy has become a breeding ground for rage rather than laughter, as the landscape shifts around stereotypes and the line between satire and blatant insults blurs.
Stereotypes have long been a part of American comedy. From the minstrel shows of the 1830s to the portrayals of people of colour on screen and modern-day jabs at the LGBTQ community, the jokes are frequently aimed at marginalised communities.
Some people’s attempts to unite people have now divided audiences across generations on whether a stereotype is relatable or harmful.
According to comedian Mo Amer, what one person finds “repulsive” may be considered “hysterical” by another.
“Isn’t it true that standup is highly subjective? That is what is lost in this discussion, how subjective it truly is “Amer states.
“Rowan Atkinson, the star of “Mr. Bean,” recently spoke to the Irish Times about comedians facing backlash, saying the craft “is to offend, or have the potential to offend… Every joke has a target. That is the essence of a joke.”
“How you talk about (stereotypes), how you push forward, who is keeping the dialogue open to have those conversations and push forward and be better as a society and artistically… that’s what I think about it,” Amer, who is gearing up for his Netflix series “Mo,” says.
Still, creators and audiences are divided on whether stereotypes are necessary for comedy.
Isn’t it true that standup is highly subjective? That is what is lost in this entire discussion: how subjective it is.
“Of course, (comedy) has to be updated to keep up with the times and celebrate more voices,” author and comedian Phoebe Robinson says, adding that it’s important to “not rely on what worked before and push the genre further.”
Robinson, whose 2018 book “Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay” has been adapted into a Freeform comedy series, says she tries “to come from a place of truth” and writes specific scenarios to which people can relate.
“I tend to go that route in my comedy as opposed to being very ‘first thought,’ aka stereotypical,” says Robinson, a “2 Dope Queens” alum.
When done correctly, stereotyping specific communities creates a catch-all for people to connect over a shared experience. They can make you feel seen: Issa Rae’s “Insecure” fueled Black Twitter every Sunday; “Gentefied” depicted various Mexican-American experiences; “Grace and Frankie” provided a different take on ageing; and “Pose” depicted the reality of the LGBTQ ballroom scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
Stereotypes also divide comedy fans, according to comedians, as debates over what makes something funny and who is allowed to be behind the joke arise.
How comedians deal with stereotypes
According to a 2021 study led by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, between 9% and 35% of movie characters upheld stereotypes ranging from “martial artist” to “exotic women,” which examined representation in the highest-grossing films between 2010 and 2019.
The study ranked roles written about people of colour based on how frequently racial stereotypes were depicted, concluding that Native American characters ranked first, with 34.6% of characters perpetuating stereotypes, followed by Asian and Pacific Islander characters (19%), Latinx (14.2%), Middle Eastern (12%), and Black (9%).
The disparity between the true experiences of various Native communities and the caricatured version seen on screen is due to stereotypes established in everything from Westerns to Disney’s “Pocahontas.”
Indigenous creators such as Sierra Teller Ornelas are changing the game.
“Native Americans will be in on the joke, but they will not be the jokes,” says Ornelas, co-creator of “Rutherford Falls.”
While many stereotypes about Native Americans have been widely rejected, Ornelas discovered “a sort of overcorrection where we became these sort of mythical perfected creatures who liked to talk to trees.” One Season 2 episode depicts opposing viewpoints on a topic that Native Americans debate every year: Halloween and cultural appropriation.
“The presence of multiple Native characters in the show is extremely beneficial.
You can have a subject on which not every Native person agrees because that is how the world is “She continues.
Actor Yanic Truesdale concurs that authenticity is where there is strength in addressing stereotypes. The actor of “The God’s Favorite Idiot” believes that making fun of yourself allows others to relate to you. In his case, Truesdale has leaned into his identity as a middle-aged man who is rediscovering himself and his purpose.
Comics today may be going through the same arc of self-discovery, with comedians saying that playing into stereotypes ultimately depends on the generation a comedian is attempting to reach.
“I enjoy comedies that are grounded in pain and reality. It makes it funnier to me “According to Truesdale.
In Season 2’s second episode, Sam Jay’s HBO Max series “Pause with Sam Jay” takes an open approach to stereotypes, examining the relationship between Black and white people in America through a discussion with a therapist and pure comedy.
Some comedians object to speaking directly to the audience they may offend, but Jay says she prefers to engage.
Getting uncomfortable about divisive topics, in her experience, allows her to “move the conversations that we’ve been having in a circular way and push them forward.”
As the political and social landscapes become more polarised – and as Americans grow tired of the divisiveness – the online conversation about comedy becomes more raucous.
On Joe Budden’s podcast in June 2021, Katt Williams addressed the debate over a comedian’s responsibility, telling the host, “(People) weren’t all that extremely funny back when they could say whatever they wanted to say.”
He also claimed that comedy is all about pleasing “the greatest number of people with your art” and that sensitivity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“If these are the constraints that keep you from doing the craft that God has given you, it probably isn’t for you.”
There may be an assumption that comedians in the past said whatever they wanted without regard for the consequences. Richard Pryor’s NBC talk show was cancelled after four episodes for frequently using the n-word and criticising white institutions. Throughout their careers, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce were also arrested for obscenity in their material. They were not well liked by the establishment, but they were later decorated for their efforts to combat censorship.
Are the Dave Chappelles and Ricky Gervaises of the world doing us a favour by pushing back in their own unique ways? Is it just a matter of time before people appreciate the no-holds-barred approach to marginalised groups?
The jury is still out on stereotyping, according to comedians, with some advocating for a proper way to incorporate it into the genre and others saying it’s an unfortunate part of the development process.
Alison Lieby, the off-Broadway star of “Oh God, A Show About Abortion,” says that “part of the learning curve” for many comedians occurs when they “end up getting cancelled for stuff they said a long time ago.” (Despite the threat of being “cancelled,” comedians who have faced widespread criticism, such as Chappelle and Gervais, have flourishing careers and devoted fan bases.)
Lieby believes that stereotypes are used in comedy to some extent. Some comics may end up with a “insensitive” joke, but it’s all part of the “process of learning how to write jokes that aren’t,” she explains.
Comic Shane Gillis was hired and fired from “Saturday Night Live” before his first appearance in 2019 after racist and homophobic jokes on his podcast surfaced again. Lorne Michaels, executive producer, called Gillis’s language “offensive, hurtful, and unacceptable.”
Gillis brags about being “a comedian who was funny enough” to get the job in the first place. He also wrote in another tweet: “I’m a boundary-pushing comedian. I occasionally forget. If you look back over my ten years of bad comedy, you’ll find a lot of bad misses. My intention is never to hurt anyone, but I strive to be the best comedian I can be, which sometimes necessitates taking risks.”
Some comedians will endorse stereotypes because the jokes do not offend them, while others will respond negatively.
Ornelas is observing the shift toward including Native Americans in comedy in real time. The “Rutherford Falls” co-creator said she reflected with FX’s “Reservation Dogs” executive producer Sterlin Harjo on what it’s like having two comedy series with Native American storytelling airing at the same time. “Our children will only know a world where Native Americans can be funny on television,” she says.