All our favorite comedy stars were doing it, and we laughed along
When Spike Lee’s Bamboozled came out in 2000, it didn’t exactly get the same enthusiastic response as his current movies do from white liberal audiences. The show’s central premise, that frustrated Black TV creators would make a modern Blackface minstrel show, and that it would become a huge hit, just seemed preposterous. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, the literary linchpin of proper white liberal opinion, wrote, “Enough has changed for audiences to know that blackface is ugly and unfunny.” Audiences found Bamboozled’s central montage of Blackface in pop culture history, with its watermelon-eating contests, big-lipped cartoon characters, mammies, and other insulting fool stereotypes, painful to watch. But they didn’t see themselves in it. Blackface was something Al Jolson did in The Jazz Singer while singing “Mammy”, not something that happened now.
As it turns out, our favorite white liberal comedians were doing Blackface the whole time. And we didn’t notice. Or at least we didn’t notice if we were white. This was the week the bill came due.
In an extraordinary house-cleaning, some of comedy’s biggest names have spent the past few days delivering mea culpas and pulling Blackface-themed episodes of their shows from streaming services. The list sounds like people appearing on some kind of Jon Stewart-hosted televised charity show. Tina Fey, David Cross, Kaitlin Olson, Jenny Slate and Jimmy Kimmel have all had their Blackface reckonings. Apparently, Blackface has been entertaining me for years. And I didn’t notice. Most of us didn’t. Or if we did, we didn’t care.
Part of the reason is that, though Blackface is still shockingly pervasive in our culture, it’s taken a different form. In the days of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled montage, Blackface was an entire genre of entertainment, one of America’s major sources of amusement. For all the shame of this modern spate of Blackface, that’s not the case anymore. The comedians currently apologizing, for the most part, didn’t do it with the intent to stereotype and demean. Many of them deployed Blackface as an attempted form of social critique. In classic Gen-X form, they were doing it ironically. It was a kind of Hipster Blackface.
Now we’ve canceled the Hipster Blackface Show at last. Let’s go to the videotape.
The era of Hipster Blackface began in 1993 when beloved sitcom star Ted Danson, of Cheers and later The Good Place, appeared at a Friar’s Club roast for Whoopi Goldberg, who he was dating at the time. In front of prominent black celebrities like Halle Berry, RuPaul, Mr. T, and New York Mayor David Dinkins, Danson said the n-word several times, made a bunch of jokes, and even ate watermelon. In a sure sign that was a different era, Goldberg defended Danson by saying “Let’s get these words all out in the open. It took a whole lot of courage to come out in blackface in front of 3,000 people. I don’t care if you didn’t like it. I did.” If it happened today, Danson would definitely go to The Bad Place.
Comedians don’t get much more progressive than David Cross. He’s married to a prominent #metoo activist, the actress and writer Amber Tamblyn, and has been talking about police brutality in his standup act for years. His program Mr. Show was the first through the gate to pull an episode from streaming. The rebooted version, which airs on Netflix, contains this sketch:
Cross plays a know-it-all dipshit who hosts a show called “Know Your Rights,” trying to prove that cops are assholes. But he can’t get a Black cop, played by Keegan-Michael Key, to play along. So Cross puts on Blackface and ends up getting pepper-sprayed. His point, of course, was that cops abuse Black people, and he’s making fun of dumb white liberal allies. That said, he still finishes the sketch in Blackface. So that episode is gone forever.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
One of the longest running shows in TV history, IASIP deploys outrageousness as its satirical stock-in-trade. Its characters are white North Philadelphia morons who find themselves getting into schemes with all kinds of criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, and general low lifes, but none are lower than themselves. The show’s creators and stars are clearly liberal, and the show is usually hilarious. It’s also extremely self-aware. In the Blackface episode that they’ve recently pulled from all streaming platforms, the gang decides it’s time to finally make good on their dream of filming Lethal Weapon 6. Mac, played by Rob McElhenney, plays the Danny Glover character, Roger Murtaugh, in Blackface. In typical meta IASIP style, the guys sit around the bar debating whether or not it’s a good idea. They are aware that it’s racist, the defining characteristic of Hipster Blackface. And then they do it anyway.
I’m not sure anyone had “Tina Fey, racist,” on their 2020 bingo card. You’d still be hard-pressed to make that claim. And yet, nonetheless, 30 Rock, a popular and award-winning sitcom, featured four separate episodes containing Blackface. One was a Jon Hamm-starring parody of the original televised Blackface entertainment, Amos and Andy, and two featured Jane Krakowski in Blackface, one where she role-switches with Tracy Morgan for a day, and one where she dresses as football star Lynn Swann for a costume party. Those episodes are now wiped off our streams.
“I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images,” Fey said in a statement. “I apologize for pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness.”
Jimmy Kimmel has been one of the most Woke comedians of the Trump Era, and has championed numerous progressive causes, most notably single-payer health care. Last week, Kimmel announced that he was going to take a couple months off of hosting his quarantine talk show to spend more time with his family. We all know what that means. This week, a video of his imitation of NBA star Karl Malone resurfaced. He might have gotten away with it two decades ago or whenever on The Man Show, but it sure doesn’t play in 2020. Kimmel’s Man Show co-star Adam Carolla defended him, saying the Malone bit is just a celebrity impersonation, like the one Kimmel used to do of Oprah.
Well, it’s definitely a celebrity impersonation. But it’s also obviously Blackface. Watching it is kind of shocking. The intent doesn’t appear to be ironic or satirical. It’s like something that escaped from the vaudeville halls 100 years ago.
More of this will probably surface in the days and weeks to come. There are plenty of other examples. Billy Crystal and Jimmy Fallon both did Blackface on Saturday Night Live. Crystal even portrayed Sammy Davis Jr. at the Oscars. Zach Braff appeared in Blackface in two separate episodes of Scrubs. And, of course, there was Robert Downey Jr.’s film-length Hipster Blackface turn in Tropic Thunder. It was ironic and funny. Or was it?
The creators are doing their apologies, but maybe we should all give this a little thought. Why did we find this stuff amusing? Did we think we were being smart and self-aware? Or were we just being a little bit racist? When it comes to Hipster Blackface, we all have some reckoning ahead.
Unless, apparently, we’re the Governor of Virginia or the Prime Minister of Canada.