What Comedy Taught Me About Race And Politics

I always thought it was a gimmick.

Just joke after joke about race.  Why did standup comics find it such easy fodder?  It seemed like the jokes were as shallow as the skin they were talking about.

And it didn’t matter what race the comics were, there was always a way to work it in.  Black, white, Asian, there always seems to be some reference to race during a standup show, whether it’s the entire show or just part of it.

I guess it seemed a bit like joking about politics: it’s there, right in front of you, it seems like an easy thing to get laughs out of.

But why did they keep doing it?  If it was so gimmicky, why have these topics engaged audiences for so long?  I never understood that.

Then I decided to try out a dream I had been chasing for a while: I wanted to be one of those standup comics.

 

For more than a year, I had thought about it pretty regularly, trying to get the courage up to just sit down and write down some jokes.  But the comfort of already having a groove and audience in writing online had made it easy to ignore.  It’s so much easier to feel creative when people already enjoy what you do, when you’ve gotten into a pattern of production that makes you feel like you’re satisfying your inner voice.

But there is a reason creatives tend to want to push into other forms: soon we start to see that our voice has things it wants to say that might not be expressible in our current medium.  Not as effectively, at least.

A song says things a painting never can, and vice versa.  Fiction says things nonfiction can’t, and vice versa.  And so it is with comedy as well.

I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to say on stage, just that I knew there was something there waiting to be expressed.  I didn’t even really understand what it is that standup comics themselves found to be worth expressing on stage that couldn’t just be expressed through writing.  But I knew there was something.

Finally, two months ago I got myself to sit down and start writing.

I had tried to plan it out ahead of time before, but every time it seemed to die.  Now I was committed to just letting it flow.

“Just write what comes to your mind.  Trust yourself.”

It was advice I had given myself as a writer, and it seemed to work out.  Why not apply it to comedy?

I tried writing about farts, which will always be the most eternally funny thing to me on earth.  And it was like seeing in front of my eyes what this new form could offer me.  I could never really write about farts without feeling silly.  But being silly is kind of the point with this form, or so I hear.

But there was something more, and I was about to discover it.

Almost immediately, I veered into writing about how I think brown guys like me get unfairly blamed when people smell a fart.  They always blame us first!  Not white girls!

(Please give me a break, it was my first time okay?).

And then I proceeded to write a whole page of absolutely horrible standup comedy, but it was a full page, and that was what mattered.

And when I looked back at it, I realized that as much as I enjoyed the fact that I’d soon be standing on stage talking about farts, I was absolutely blown away by how much I had just written about race.  Almost as much as I had written in my entire time as a writer online.

What had just happened?  Was I falling for the same gimmick I thought other comics had gotten sucked into?  Was I being lazy?

But it felt so good, so real!  And I had that buzzing feeling I get after writing, that feeling that I’ve expressed a piece of my soul that has been hidden away from the world.  It couldn’t just be the fart jokes, could it?

No, there was something deep here.  Maybe not deep to the world, but deep to me.

 

I have only done five open mics since that first attempt at writing, and they were all last week.  So I ain’t no expert.  But I was immediately able to pin down why race was such a wonderful issue for me to approach through comedy.

It’s utterly absurd.  Not race itself, I guess, but the way the world looks at you and judges you based on the way you look.

I guess it has always been a bit of a confusing topic for me because I have this self-perception, and it has very little to do with the way I look.  I’m a brown dude who grew up in white areas, and my parents are Sephardi Jews who grew up in an Ashkenazi town in Israel.  Since I was young, I felt super white bread.  And yet, the world refuses to look at me that way, and even I have learned to sort of own my brownness, and my Sephardiness especially, as something to identify and be proud of.

But it’s weird, it’s bizarre, and it’s confusing to have a self-perception that the world doesn’t accept.

I imagine being a victim of serious racism is much more bizarre, alienating, and confusing.  And I imagine, for the first time in my life, that it is the very superficiality of the whole affair that is what makes it deep when expressed through comedy.

And that was the ultimate revelation of it all: that something that seems superficial, “political,” or even gimmicky is often deeper than we care to realize it.  It is so deep that we can’t even express it through logical means without boring our audience or sounding preachy and annoying.

 

Around the same time I started this whole standup thing, I got into a debate (to put it mildly) with Brad Hirschfield, the person who runs Clal, the organization I work for.  I was arguing that his choice to do a video about George Zimmerman selling his gun was not good for our site, The Wisdom Daily.

We were about rising above the news.  That was our mission.  Why on earth were we writing about this topic that seemed to only attract an audience of angry, polarized, and nonsensical people?  It made no sense, we should be reaching out to the people who aren’t embroiled in these silly arguments.

And he looked at me very seriously.  He said, “Because I refuse to give up on them.  Because they matter just as much as anyone else.  And because people like us letting go of these discussions is exactly how they get so polarized.”

At the time, I had trouble accessing the wisdom (haha) of what he was saying.  But that same week, I was confronted with the deepness of superficiality, and suddenly I found my stubborn heart wavering.

 

I’ve noticed that as our country gets more and more polarized, the “good” people (i.e. the balanced, less polarized, and angry folks) tend to avoid topics that seem superficial.  Everything from the election to Israel to race to transgender bathrooms to people freaking over a gorilla getting shot.

These are my people, I love them.  I hate the polarizing nature of the world, and it deeply disturbs me that empathy is so lacking from our national culture.

I think this is why I so often waver between writing about these larger conversations and just writing personal essays.  I so deeply want people to understand that there are deeper truths in the world, that the anger they feel is often superficial and causes needless cruelty.

But there’s this voice whispering within me, always, that I try so hard to stop listening to.  The voice says, “People freaking over gorillas matters.  Politics matters.  Racism matters.”

I thought for a long time that it essentially matters only when it affects our lives.  When racism causes societal ills, we need to speak up.  When gorillas getting shot is a sign we care more about animals than humans, we need to speak up.

But that is a superficial way of looking at it, and now I see that the voice is deeper than I cared to accept before.

Comedy opened the key to that door.  I went to two open mics on Monday, when the gorilla story was heating up.  And almost everyone had at least a few jokes about it.  It was so absurd, so crazy, so superficial, that the fact that it caused so much outrage was a sign that there was something much deeper going on.  The way we lash out about small things when there is a deep pain inside us that gives life to all that anger.

In other words, it isn’t the topics that matter, it is the people reacting to them, just as Brad said. He refused to give up on the people because he understood that their emotion was real, even if the topics they were talking about weren’t worth spending a minute on.

 

Race shouldn’t be an issue.  We should be who we are, understand that it’s a part of our identity, and just move on.  But we can’t.  We’re obsessed.  And that matters.  There’s something much larger going on, something we’re hitting our heads against but can’t put into words.

It’s the same absurdity that has caused Trump to rise in the world, has caused this very lack of empathy that so bothers people that continually avoid larger discussions, that sends our world into a tizzy when gorillas get shot.

But all of that absurdity is not something to be avoided.  It means we should, rather, delve.  That is the lesson of comedy, and it is the lesson Brad taught me.  That in reality, yes, part of it is that we want the practical effect of these absurdities to change.  But more important, that there is an inherent worth in the discussion itself.

Because people are deep.  Their emotions are deep.  And both matter more than we can imagine.  And so we can never give up in diving into them.

  • Nechama

    Let me make sure I understand you. What determines whether a topic is superficial or not?