The Joke's on Us

Comedians who get laughs from ethnic humor walk a fine line between funny and offensive.

December 1, 2008

A FEW YEARS AGO, white country boys dominated the airwaves and Comedy Central's big money maker was Jeff Foxworthy's Redneck Comedy Roundup.

Not so today. We have entered the early 21st century, an era In which a Vietnamese American man has reigned supreme on NBC's Lasf Comic Standing and a Muslim comedy tour goes by the name Allah Made Me Funny.

With a growing number of Asian Americans on comedy circuits, it's not uncommon to hear jokes about penny-pinching Chinese or irate Indian parents who give their kids the beat down. Many Asian American comedians will boldly poke fun at their own cultures, and everyone from friends to mothers is fair game.

But this brand of humor makes some people squirm, especially when it's unclear whether a comedian is being self-deprecating or just plain self-loathing. It is a challenge to toe the line between funny and offensive, and the discerning comedians who can do it well are the ones who get the most laughs.

Comedian Dat Phan, winner of Last Comic Standing Season 1, will open his shows by speaking with a Vietnamese accent as he bursts onstage. After a few lines of material, he trips out his audience by reverting abruptly to his natural Californian "accent." In this way, he bucks the subconscious stereotypes that are invoked upon encountering a man who looks and sounds Asian.

The comedic casualties of Phan's acts include Vietnamese bikini waxers, gay Thai waiters and Phan's own mother. One extended joke, which initially drew objections from friends and family, makes light of his mother's tendency to call his decorous, gainfully employed, non-Vietnamese girlfriends "whores." Phan turns the joke on its head by musing, "I think I'll bring a Vietnamese girl home sometime - who is actually a whore with an IV needle in her arm and my mom will say, 'She's a nice girl - going to be a nurse!'"

Phan acknowledges that he can get away with more Asian and Vietnamese jokes because he's literally in the middle of the culture. "I can talk about how you trip over the Buddha shrine and all the shoes in a Vietnamese house," he says, because he actually grew up doing that.

Margaret Cho, an acclaimed pioneer of racy Asian-girl stand-up, exemplifies how "shocking" humor can serve to expose and challenge racism. In one routine, she recounts the sinking feeling she got when the media identified the Virginia Tech shooter as Asian American: "Please don't let him be Korean, please don't let him be Korean ... Oh fuck, he's Korean. And he's a Cho."

The bit is meant to point out a double standard, as Cho says in a phone interview: "When American kids shoot other kids, it's because they are insane," Cho says. "When Asian kids do, it's different. This [discrepancy] is racist. This is how racism works in this country."

From the outset of her career as a comedian, Cho has fought to create a niche for her humor - and much of her fight has been against fellow Asian Americans. "I was never accepted by the [Asian] community - I was never what they wanted," she says.

On the first episode of The Cho Show, her new autobiographical reality show, Cho exposed still-raw emotional wounds Inflicted by a scathingly critical Korean American community. She deliberated over whether to accept a "Korean of the Year" award from the same community who belittled and ostracized her early in her career.

Asked whether her comedie use of accents is ever criticized as insulting, Cho says, "If I'm using my mother's Asian accent, white liberals get offended and think it's racist. It's only white people [who get offended]!" She adds, "Asian people think it's funny because that is actually what she sounds like."

Which brings us to the point: Why is it that when we see a comedian of color on stage, we are very likely to hear a cultural joke?

Christie Davies, British scholar on humor and author of The Mirth of Nations, offers an explanation: "All immigrant comedians [send up their culture], not just Asians. Look at the older Jewish humor. They live in two worlds - that of their ancestors and that of their neighbors. Hence the potential for amusement."

Some comedians push this potential to extremes, though, and authences may push back. Esther Ku, a Last Comic Standing finalist last season, hit practically every known Asian stereotype in her routine. In one anecdote, she joked that she got into the wrong car when visiting relatives in Korea because, as she put it, "you [non-Asians] think you can't tell us apart - well we can't tell us apart either, you know?" She also claimed that Asians with non-almondshaped eyes look "normal."

Ku's routine elicited laughs, but some YouTube viewers blasted an uploaded video of her performance. One viewer commented: "It's fine to poke fun at stereotypes, but she gets it all wrong [so] that it comes off very very racist. Jokes are only funny if you kind of mean it but I think she means it a little too much . . . There are tons of comedians that make a laugh out of well-executed racist jokes, [but] she is not one of them." Another viewer wrote: "Would anyone have laughed if a black comedian came up there and made Uncle Tom jokes? Why did nobody have the conscience to boo her? Racism is racism, even if it's self-directed."

That's why Canadian comic Russell Peters prides himself on humor that is authentically enriched by his life experience as an ethnic Indian.

"I think if you're going to do something, it has to be right," says Peters, who is famous for his lampooning of all races - but especially for his skewering of Indian parents, which has made him a favorite among first-generation Indian Americans.

"People know when you're bullshitting," he adds. "I won't talk about a group of people unless I really spent some time getting to know them and understand them."

His authences respond well. At a recent show, Peters elicited knowing nods and laughter when he discussed the effortless cool of Jamaicans and the manipulative tactics of Indian parents.

Phan agrees that authenticity is the key. Accents and lampooning have to be done right, he says, whether your target is a Chinese parent or a cheerleader.

"A lot of comics do bad Asian accents," he says. "When I try to [impersonate] white girls, I try to do a decent job . . . [as in] 'Oh, I'm rich and live in Santa Monica, and I'm so depressed, I just want to do Pilates and die.'"

Some comedians use Asian jokes as a means to distinguish themselves, though not as the focus of their acts. Comedian Henry Cho, for one, says he's gotten a lot of mileage out of his Asian jokes, but he takes care not to overuse them.

"At the Montreal Comedy Festival, I opened [both nights] with an Asian joke, and it totally separated me from the hundreds of comedians at the festival, and we got great feedback from some network folks who have never seen me live," he says. "My last two appearances on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, I didn't do one Asian joke."

As Davies notes, comedians often tailor their acts to the authence. For example, Phan cuts out cursing when he performs at churches, and he changes his act based on where he is geographically (i.e., he knows that his jokes about boba tea would garner blank stares in the Deep South).

Peters agrees: "You do have to adjust your material to suit your authence - you have to connect with them. All authences are different. Some guys just do the same bits that they've written down on laminated cards because they don't know how to connect or be spontaneous."

Not one of the comedians interviewed for this story expressed an inclination to self-censor - whether in deference to taste or to mitigate offense - when addressing race relations or secular cultural behaviors.

Peters recalls how a fellow comedian berated him for swearing in front of elderly "aunties and uncles" in the authence.

"Screw him," Peters says of the comedian. "They [the elderly authence members] were laughing. If you come to a comedy show, that's how it is. But if you're going to stop to censor yourself, you can't really be yourself. I'm up there talking about my observations and what I think, so I express myself that way."

Monya De is a freelance feature writer in Los Angeles. She graduated with honors from Stanford University and specializes in science, medical and arts writing.

MONYA DE, a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for the Los Angeles Vmes, East Bay Express and Stanford Magazine, discovered that the Asian American comedians in this issue's Redux story on ethnic humor had bigger goals than just laughs: "Asian American comedians want their jokes to reveal the racism in our society and foster cultural understanding." Other surprises: how abusive some members of the Korean community have been to Margaret Cho, and Russell Peters pointing out that only an Indian reporter would ask, 'What profession did your father want you to go into?'"

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