Topic: Sports & Entertainment

More Cartoon Ethics

Aaron McGruder is a bold, acerbic and often angry young black cartoonist. His strip, “Boondocks,” leads the field in provoking offended letters to the editor, as well as in being given unscheduled hiatuses from the comic pages when his humor bites too deep.

In a recent strip, an elderly African American man gave the following review of “King Kong”:

“A giant black jungle monkey put in chains, brought to America, and killed for lovin’ a white woman!”

Is this social commentary? A joke? Satire? Or just an example of racist stereotyping? Some readers thought it was the latter. One outraged reader wrote, “Racist remarks are funny if written by a person of color but are despicable if used by a white comic. What hypocrisy!”

Hypocrisy is not the issue. In humor, who delivers the joke is always relevant, and sometimes crucial. When Ray Charles hosted “Saturday Night Live,” he had the audience laughing at blind jokes that derived all of their humor from the fact that a blind man was making them. Richard Pryor’s dead-on dissections of the differing mannerisms of black and white teens on the street would not have been palatable from a white comedian. Humor, satire, and parody all involve a degree of criticism, often benign, but sharp and with purpose. It has always been true that the rich will not get many laughs by criticizing the poor, the fit will have difficulty creating humor by satirizing the disabled, and the powerful risk the sound of chirping crickets when they attempt to lampoon the powerless, no matter how good their timing and delivery may be. On the other side of the spectrum, historically mistreated or disadvantaged groups have always had the broadest range of targets for their humor. They may ridicule those who have power, fame, or wealth, and they can make fun of themselves as well. This license to use anyone and anything as a source of humor has helped make Jews the masters of American comedy for more than a century. The Seinfeld show wielded extremely cruel and “politically incorrect” humor that worked because the main characters, including Seinfeld himself, were all made to look at least as ridiculous than the various ethnic and minority groups, especially seniors, that the show skewered regularly.

Self-criticism is different in kind from the criticism of others. White America’s historic use of racism, stereotypes and ridicule to discriminate against African-Americans has left a rich field of humor to black comedians and humorists alone. When a white comic can get guiltless laughs from a mixed race audience with the kinds of comments that McGruder supplies daily in “Boondocks,” it will mean that the great rift between the races has finally healed.

McGruder, Pryor, the Wayans brothers, Eddie Murphy and other brilliant black humorists perform a crucial service by moving our society closer to that day. Martin Luther King urged black Americans “to rise to the level of self-criticism,” and humor, even harsh humor, advances this goal. In his “King Kong” strip, McGruder was attempting something far more complex than milking racial stereotypes for cheap laughs; maybe he succeeded, and maybe not. But he is right to use his freedom as a black humorist to employ methods and venture into territory that will be closed to white Americans for some time to come, if not forever.

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