Cue laughter

21 Jun

The Gawker recently ran a column, “Is It Possible To Make A Successful Black Joke About Obama?”  (, in which Drew Magary offers his opinion: yes.

Magary argues:

You can get away with making fun of anyone so long as A) You’re funny, and B) You’re willing to also make fun of yourself… When most people attempt such a tricky endeavor, they fail. This is because many people who make black jokes about the President really ARE racist… If you’re some smug redneck asshole who thinks it’s HIGH-larious to read a joke [like this:] you’re not gonna be able to pull off such delicate comedic feats because everyone knows you have malicious intent.

This is where he lost me. See, I imagine racist jokes are funny… to people who are racist.

While Magary signs off, “YOU SHALL OVERCOME [emphasis his]” regarding the right to crack black president jokes, it seems to me that he’s really arguing about and for his desire, as a person who wants us to know that he’s not racist, to make black jokes about Obama and rest assured that we’ll laugh with him. He expresses his irritation at not being able to flex his racial funny bone, noting, “I’m not going to try to make a decent [black joke about Obama] right now, because I don’t want to get fired.” As someone who declares that he’s not “one of those people who subscribes to the idea that certain groups of people can’t make jokes about other groups of people,” Magary seems to chafe under the pressure to subscribe.

And I find myself simply disagreeing that there is a formula for making an identity joke that is “successful.” That is to say, for which the joker is irreproachable and laughter is guaranteed. Because no one gets to play the “I’m not racist” immunity card and then dictate what’s not racist–and therefore, funny–to other people. Freedom of speech includes accepting the consequences–the good, bad and unexpected–for the things we choose to say.

* In his column, Magary links to Lindy West’s “A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’” (, which I may have linked to in a previous post. On identity jokes, West writes,

Here’s the thing about jokes. They only work when they’re aiming up. I wrote this in another piece recently, but I’m just going to plagiarize myself: People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That’s why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor (“Isn’t it funny how Steve can barely feed his family? This guy knows what I’m talking about!” [points to other janitor]).

While her argument about “aiming up” is compelling, I think she makes the same mistake that Magary does, in focusing too much on who is telling the joke. It seems to me that what’s not funny is powerlessness, whether the CEO or Steve the janitor is trying to get a laugh.

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