Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Anatomy of a Joke

Humor is a funny thing.

I used to read The Boondocks comic strip and I loved its special brand of humor. Aaron McGruder did a great job of blending activism and wit with some good old black power to create something completely new on the comics page.

I never really got into McGruder's animated version of the comic strip on Cartoon Network, mainly because the first few episodes I watched really weren't that funny to me. But, the other night I saw one that was just hilarious, but for a very weird reason.

It was apparently one of the show's Christmas episodes, and the main plot was Huey Freeman's massive production of an atypical Christmas play that featured a black Jesus and several martial arts scenes. However, one of the subplots was the repeated attempts by Riley Freeman, Huey's thuggish little brother, to get revenge on Santa Claus for failing to come through with good Christmas gifts. Or, as Riley put it, "Paying what he owe."

It was a pretty entertaining episode, but one part stood out for me. Near the end of the show, after Riley has beaten one mall Santa with a golf club and shot another with a pellet gun, he and the show's tragic mulatto (I think her name is Janet DuBois) finally lose faith in Santa Claus. Riley proclaims that believing in Santa is for suckas, and DuBois, previously a staunch Santa supporter, tearfully agrees with him.

Until Uncle Ruckus appears.

Uncle Ruckus, for those not familiar with the character, is the epitome of an Uncle Tom. Actually, the term "Uncle Tom" doesn't even fully encompass the breadth of Ruckus' self hatred. Simply put, the only thing Ruckus loves more than white people is despising Negroes.

When Ruckus stumbles upon DuBois crying over Santa, he gently admonishes her for falling for Riley's cynical spiel. Ruckus tells her he's a secret agent working for Santa and that Santa couldn't make an appearance at the mall because of Riley's plan to kill him.

But, the funniest thing about the whole exchange, at least to me, was how Ruckus first approached DuBois. Just as Riley is walking away from DuBois and she is bawling her eyes out in disillusionment, Ruckus sidles up behind her and says something like, "I would expect this sort of thing from a heathen niglet like Riley, but not from a good mulatto like you."

That's right, he said "heathen niglet."

I couldn't stop laughing at that phrase. Because anybody who has watched The Boondocks or read the comic strip knows that it's a very accurate description of Riley's character. If anybody has ever been a heathen niglet, it's Riley Freeman.

I know the scene was meant to illustrate the simple-minded nature of Ruckus, but I still found his words ridiculously funny. I even shared the phrase "heathen niglet" with one of my friends, who also got a kick out of it. And then, for some strange reason, I decided to put the phrase "heathen niglet" into a Google search.

I'm not laughing anymore.

My God. I soon discovered that what I thought was a funny joke is a common term among white bigots for black children. I honestly was oblivious to this, in fact, I'd never even heard the term before watching the show. Yet "niglet," "negress," and a whole host of other hateful terms are apparently fairly common monikers for black people on certain websites.

It really made me think.

Dave Chappelle said he left his show on Comedy Central because he could no longer tell whether the people who watched his show were laughing with him or laughing at him. Chris Rock changed up his own style recently because he was worried that some of his jokes (particularly the one about the differences between black people and niggers) were being used by white people as cover for their own racist beliefs.

The truth is, when dealing with racial humor there's a fine line between heaven and the abyss. Black folks know that there are certain jokes we would never tell in mixed company because we don't trust our white friends or associates to handle their humor in the correct manner. Some truths can only be shared with those you trust explicitly.

One of the toughest things to explain to the average white person is that black humor is not something they should be experimenting with. It's hard for them to grasp the idea that their "politically incorrect" and marginally funny diatribes will not be received in the same manner as the jokes of a black comedian. Call it willful ignorace, arrogance, or just plain confusion, but it's a fact of life that white people struggle to grasp that distinction.

To be honest, I'm not sure whether "heathen niglet" is an acceptable or unacceptable term, but there is one thing I do know.

My laughter sure feels different.


WNG said...

Wow. I never would have known. I doubt I would have done the google search. Thanks for sharing the knowledge.
Powerful post.

Timi said...

Daps for this post big man.

I've never really been a fan of The Boondocks, but I recall watching an episode in which Uncle Ruckus busts out with a tune called, "Don't Trust Them Niggas Over There".

As offensive as the song sounded, it was completely hilarious to me. My little brother took to singing it and that made it all the more funny to me.

However, I heard some white co-workers attempting to joke about it and it pissed me off. It went something like this:

"Hey Timi do you watch the Boondocks? Uncle Ruckus is SOOOO hilarious."


Now I'm sure there was no malicious intent in my co-worker mentioning Uncle Ruckus, but it still bothered the hell out of me. Especially considering that I have some deep seeded angry black woman rage within me that is screaming to be released.

Big Man said...


Hold it in check girl! You need that job.


Yeah, your experience relates exactly to what I'm talking about in this post.

I cannot accurately explain how funny I found Uncle Ruckus' comments. Something about his tone and the self-hatred that caused those words just tickled my funny bone. I understood how sad of a man Ruckus really was, but I also got that grain of truth embedded in his comments. My laughter took in the totality of the situation.

I worry that many white brothers and sisters just catch the surface aspect of the humor and giggle at McGruder's willingness to used "bad" words to make a joke.

Danielle said...

So much of "racial humor" is social context and most white folks don't ge the "context".

That's why Chris Rock and Chappelle had to shut somethings down because they understood that premise.

Lolo said...

There are times, like NOW, that I wish I could pay Paul Mooney a million dollars a week so he could go to every town hall in our oountry and just rip. Now that would be funny, on sooo many levels.

The Christian Progressive Liberal said...

Big Man:

It takes a "Big Man" to own up to some things that aren't worth laughing at. I'm proud to see Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock see that it's not worth their dignity if their comedy is going to be used as a cover for bigots.

You try to tell your white colleagues why they can't use the term "Nigger" or why they shouldn't tell ethnic jokes, ever (but if they must, do it amongst themselves), and just like kids near a stove, they still have to put their little hands on it and get burned (ala Michael "Seinfeld" Richards).

Richards never recovered from that rant of his (shoot, if Jerry Seinfeld was going to do a reunion show, he's slung "Kramer" so far under the bus for the Nigger rant, he'd have to kill off the character in a reunion episode).

Personally, I liked the Boondocks episode where Dr. King woke up from his coma, found that Blacks had done nothing to advance themselves and told the audience that he didn't take all those ass whippings for "Niggers".

Now, where's my Visa, so I can go online and purchase the Boondocks DVDs? See, what you started...? LOL ;-)

The Christian Progressive Liberal said...

Lolo, the white man is afraid of Paul Mooney, and they should be.

Rent "Jesus was Black; so was Cleopatra - Know Your History" and you'll see what I mean. White people had to leave his show, he was smoking people like a pack of Kools.

Ferocious Kitty said...

Big Man:

I struggle with the word "nignore" which I first read somewhere on these Internets. As in, "Where is my nignore button?" or "I'm nignoring you", in response to someone saying something ignorant.

Now, I don't use the word "nigger", but I found "nignore" to be hilarious. (Ask my boyfriend; he gets nignored quite a bit!). But I certainly wouldn't like hearing it out of a white person's mouth, and I don't use it around my kids.

As has been observed, racial humor is a tricky thing.

vicdamonejr said...

Please watch the banned episode on BET. It's on YouTube ...

As for "niglet," I laughed too when I first heard it. I think Ruckus' purpose in the show has flown right over most of our heads, as did Clayton Bigsby's purpose in Chapelle Show.

We just laughed at the characters, and really haven't taken in what they've said and analyzed it like this.

Good Look, big man. it makes you look at this from a different perspective.

Big Man said...

I really appreciate how many of y'all read my post and enjoyed it. Thanks a lot.

MODI said...

Big Man, I also loved the Boondocks comic strip, but only watched a few shows of the cartoon before I stopped. The ending of the MLK episode was inexcusable, and was the last episode that i watched. It is hard for me to reconcile MacGruder the cartoonist with MacGruder the Boondocks creator.

Your points are exactly right. That Boondocks cartoon, SOME of Chapelle's episodes and that infamous Chris Rock skit have done incredible damage by giving white bigots cover. I know this to be fact.

I've had that Chris Rock discussion many times. Funny o9r not, that particular skit did incredible damage. Period. Conservative reporters have even referenced it. And Chapelle is right that not everybody is laughing the same way.

From my white perspective, I believe that too many black comedians underestimate white audiences and how many take in racial humor. For others, they know that enough "self-race deprecation" is the pathway to material success and exposure. It has almost become a rite of passage in comedy. ...also worked well for Carlos Mencia...

Anonymous said...

The reason you never knew that racists use terms like "niglet" is because none of them have the courage to say something like that in the company of Black people. Some of them will humor themselves and say it's because of things like the politically correct mainstream not allowing them to be racist in public, but if you're true to something, you never hide it. It's all cowardice.

Very simple really.

They can be really "brave" behind a computer screen though.

Raving Black Lunatic