Stand-up Comedy: A Scene of Paradoxes

By | 31 October 2021

However, taking racial stereotypes too far can have the negative effect of providing audiences a comforting justification of their prejudices (DeCamp, 2017, 328). How then can comics express their personal lives authentically within the limits of a comedy room? In a study of American audiences from various comedy clubs in the Midwest, Elise DeCamp found that audiences responded best when comics joking about race, spoke from their authentic experience (2017, 328). Similarly in Melbourne, it is a general rule, especially now, that comics should only joke about ethno-racial groups of which they are a part. Furthermore, the best comics speaking about race, still adhere to the principles of comedy writing and performance outlined earlier in this essay, to deliver nuanced performances. DeCamp found that audiences in her study responded well when comics shared detailed personal accounts beyond any stereotypical details they had used to set-up and contextualise the joke. She notes that audiences found comedy about race most palatable and moving when it was delivered without hostility (2017, 337). Chinese Australian American comedian Ronny Chieng jokes about race in a way that dissects underlying racist concepts to uncover ridiculous assumptions made by all cultures of which he is a part.

At the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala he opens with:

One of the most common questions I get asked is: ‘Hey Ronny, what do your parents think about this? Are your parents OK with you doing stand-up comedy? Hey Ronny, Ronny, what do your parents think about you doing Stand-up comedy?’

He repeats these phrases until the audience start laughing at the absurdity and then follows with:

Innocuous enough question but the insinuation behind it is downright racist. You’re only asking me that because I’m Asian. You’d never ask these other white comedians this question because you know their parents don’t give a fuck about them.

The cartoonish voice he uses to mimic ‘white people’ and his use of repetition actualises for the audience, how it feels to be racially profiled and asked the same question, over and over again. Chieng’s direct delivery, verging on annoyance, makes the audience laugh even harder as he diffuses the tension with his punchline which matches the ‘innocuous’ attacks, with a stereotype about Caucasian parents.

In his critically acclaimed Netflix special Asian Comedian Destroys America! Chieng speaks at length about stereotypical beliefs commonly assumed about Chinese culture. Rather than negating them, his method of revealing unexpected and creative explanations, works to humanise and empower the minorities who are usually at the butt of the joke.

It’s a weird stereotype to have associated with your ethnicity; that stereotype of Asian parents wanting their kids to be doctors. I thought it was a good thing but it turns out it’s worthy of mockery.

The stereotype is true because my parents were the same way, it was like an obsession they had, they just wanted us to be doctors. And it’s insidious as well, because when Asian parents want their kids to be doctors, helping people, is on the bottom of the list of reasons.

If it even makes the list of reasons to go into medicine, helping people is like the unfortunate by-product of being a healthcare professional. When they see it they can’t even believe it, it’s like ‘what the fuck? You gotta help people? Well whatever, get it out of the way, but don’t let it get in the way of what it’s really about. It’s about the money and prestige.’

After making the audience laugh about the ridiculous assumptions made by both races, Chieng is able to offer a more heartfelt explanation, which, by the time it comes, speaks honestly to the struggles and aspirations of parents who migrate in the hope of a better future for their children.

Because if you’re a first-generation immigrant, your children becoming doctors is the quickest way you can turn it around in one generation. Instant credibility, instant respect, instant money. You flip the clan narrative around. Boom! Started from the bottom and now we’re here. We’re doctors!

Racial stereotypes in successful comedy, are often springboards off which further dissection and social commentary can occur, to uncover illogical arguments and incongruities that make us laugh, when revealed through a comedic lens.

Apart from the comedian’s written material and performative strategies, the racial composition of each audience and their previous experiences, greatly shape each comic event. When researching American audiences’ responses to comedy exploring race, DeCamp (2017) and Green and Linders (2016) observe that audiences who are multicultural themselves, or have had close experience with multicultural groups, are most receptive. If audiences are all from the same racial background, comedians exploring race and dissecting stereotypes, run the risk of feeling alienated or furthering negative stereotypical understandings because the audience can’t relate. However, amongst multicultural audiences, there is a greater chance of cross-racial understanding.

This then, brings us to another binary separation that the form of stand-up comedy evades – that of audience and performer as each comic event is a nuanced and unique dialogue between both parties. Brodie (2020) refers to an act of stand-up comedy as a ‘text’ that is produced by audiences and comics in collaboration (2020, 407). Unlike other art forms, comedy is created with and punctuated by laughter. Entering the space with an expectation to laugh, if the audience is silent, the act isn’t categorised as comedy. Furthermore, each audience member is also the audience for others watching, as within a group of people watching an act, ‘reactions build on each other, contrast and further shape the text in increasingly complex ways’ (Brodie, 2020, 407). Quoting the famous comic George Carlin, Brodie aptly identifies that the comedian is the creative artist while the audience is the interpretive artist (2020, 408) and together they co-create the comic event (Wilkie and Diddums, 2021, 93).

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