“What I Discovered about My Own View of Race by Researching Stand-up Comedy”

Well, race seems like a pretty popular topic to discuss today, as if the phenomenon of black and white people coexisting in America is still so nascent and novel, so I guess I’ll join in myself. No doubt, the condition has provided endless entertainment for us white people in the way of sports and music (the former of which even being something Chris Rock discusses in one of his bits, something about the black man being trained as a sort of inhuman crowd-pleaser, or something), and endless frustration for our darker brothers. If you scroll down a little bit on my site here, you’ll see a transcription of a Michael Che routine. The reason why I chose just to list his rhetoric and not comment at all on it is basically just out of respect for his words (they do speak for themselves). Also, it’s not really something I’m capable of commenting on, being of the Caucasian race. Sure, I agree with what he says. It is ridiculous that “black lives matter” is a controversial statement (and also that it’s classified as a “radical” political thought or group to belong to… if I were president it would not only be commonplace but mandatory).
But I’m on the outside looking in on the issue of black arts and as such, really, of America too.
I’d remembered that Original Kings of Comedy movie that came out probably when I was about in high school or so (slightly predating what I consider the significant wave of developmental “slacker comedy,” which followed slackerdom in music by one decade, of Mitch Hedberg and Dane Cook). Now, stand-up is a funny thing just like anything else, especially like music: your best work is the stuff that puts you on the map early on, the continuing ideal then to match that early firepower usually almost impossible to approach without some outside help. Yet, as a celebrity gains a following his profile balloons out, and so his work is more notarized and public. With this being the case, I think, it’s necessary to do a little looking, and really dig back in time to when the particular artist was, if not “starving,” at least hungry in the proverbial sense — desperate, or at least driven, to transcend the way we view the world and thereby alter his or her own life, bestowing it success in such a case.
And in a stage of ignorance, no doubt, I’d considered religion a “theme” in discussion matter, in the sense of something to be handled in favor of something else and then discarded in something else’s favor, all in terse time. I thought eh I’ll go ahead with this “Judgment Day” bit by Steve Harvey, one of the “original kings of comedy,” so the movie professes (although unlike Bernie Mac he’s not listed in Rolling Stone’s 50 best of all time). I’d expected it to be lighthearted, like maybe have him presenting God as some ornery bald little white dude really railing on someone, but he started out by just asking for people to respond, by applause, if they thought they were going to go to Heaven someday. Now, obviously nobody’s going to sit there not applauding — that would make for very awkward fare at the dinner table later, unless of course a couple is both atheists.
Anyway, when everybody did applaud, Harvey just replied, “That’s a damn shame.”
You see, it was such a black thing to do — such a black thing to ask. It was cutting to the chase, it was honest, it was what so many African-Americans have probably wondered to themselves over the years while dwelling in this violent, pernicious, lecherous and wild country. It was such a black thing to ask and yet he employed such particularly white mechanisms to do so, some of his own choice, some by outside ordainment. I’m talking here about the language of American English in which he spoke and the tenets of Christianity, the most Anglo religion on the planet, as a backdrop for such “judgment” of people, respectively.
Now, in a certain way, what Harvey did in “Judgment Day” was funny — basically just making light of the misconduct or just cussing and bit**iness that most people engage in every day, although it was certainly light-hearted enough to allow for some assumption that he was joking. But what it allowed for also was agreement with him. This is the dark, haunting aspect of what he was doing — in actuality, all the while cloaked in the format of comedy, he was deconstructing the very foundation of Christianity sort of like Curtis Mayfield did when he commented that “If there’s He** below / We’re all gonna go”.
Harvey speaks with a loud, booming voice and casts a tall, imposing and intimidating figure on stage. In short, he almost seems like somebody who would be capable of “judging” people — it’s hard to imagine really getting on an equal plane with him, even harder to imagine looking deeply into his eyes and actually internalizing each thing he’s seen as a person in his own time. In looking at Harvey up on stage there (or through the Youtube video, to be exact), I felt in a way like I were looking at America itself, a place where I’m often implicitly at fault just for being white and privileged. Harvey, almost like a god on that stage who would ask something so simple but command such a response and wealth of meaning, seemed to encapsulate the entirety of reality, with a mischievous, askance glint planted deeply within his eyes.
Usually we watch comedy to escape reality. With Harvey, when I got more reality than I’d bargained for, I had no use for it.


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