One way of viewing humor is it’s rooted in pain. In fact, an old saying goes: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” It’s a way for us silly humans to laugh at things which in every other context are treated as serious business, but become absurd to the point of a giggle when you analyze it at any length because they are absurd. And we’d rather find a way to laugh about it than cry about all the wasted time and suffering. However, another perspective of comedy is that it’s based in mockery and making a mockery of its subjects. Whether someone is laughing with or laughing at someone or some thing can make all the difference in the world.
There is nothing more absurd than judging someone’s worth based on their skin color, where they come from or the way they talk. So the absurdities of race and ethnicity have a long history of being sources for comedy in both smart satires and hurtful mockeries.
For those who view it as being more of the latter, there are some topics where the determination of whether or not jokes are appropriate become an equation based on the background of the teller, whether the background is one of privilege, and whether there are unfortunate implications notwithstanding the comedian’s intent. Following this line of thinking out to its logical conclusion, the result is a $64,000 question which posits that if we as a society have decided something like white people doing blackface is just not something that can be appropriate under any context anymore, shouldn’t we treat jokes rooted in humor about minorities the same way?
About a week ago, The Simpsons responded to a controversy that’s been brewing for some time, and it seemed to throw gasoline on a fire. Last fall, comedian Hari Kondablu released a documentary entitled The Problem with Apu. Kondablu, who grew up in Queens, New York as the son of Indian imigrants, has described Apu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father,” referencing the fact Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria — a white guy. Thus, according to Kondablu, Apu is arguably an animated version of a minstrel show, where a white man in brown (or in The Simpsons case yellowish-brown) face paint imitates a stereotype to make other white people laugh. And the documentary assembles many notable people of South Asian heritage who speak about how their lives and careers have been affected by people mocking them or their family based on the characterization of Apu.
Azaria declined to be interviewed for The Problem with Apu, only stating when pressed by TMZ last December that the documentary made some “interesting points” for the people behind The Simpsons to “think about,” and he found the entire situation “upsetting.” Defenses of The Simpsons usually point to the series being a satire of American life, and the fact Apu is not the only stereotype present. Beyond that, Apu has been depicted as a three-dimensional character who is more than just an accent and the guy at the Kwik-E-Mart.The Simspons, now in its 29th season and the longest-running sitcom in television history, decided to address the controversy about Apu but responded to the criticism by dismissing it.
And that seemed to only make things worse, with many reacting negatively to the show’s take, leading to arguments about political correctness, social justice and whether those terms apply to the situation. The online commentaries have run the gamut. Some argue The Simpsons is a satire filled with many stereotypes that analyze American culture, and Apu is just as legitimate a place for humor as any other. Others feel a near 30-year-old TV series may be showing its age, and an older mindset of its creative team by not realizing times may have changed. A show where no one ever ages, and nothing ever changes much in Springfield, is still stuck in it’s own mindset and unable to change.
So this got me to thinking about controversial characters, old material that’s become controversial, and where the line is between offensive and satire? And do some thing get to be “grandfathered” in because they have a foundation of good will going for them?
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