The discussions around race in comedy have equally intrigued and tired us all from the surge of black comics in the 70’s and 80’s till today. Why do black people always seem to get certain roles? Are the BBC employing a “one in, one out” policy? We need diversity on television, what can we do? Why is there a black circuit and what is it like? The same debates arise constantly under different frames but the big picture is always the same. Essentially what we ask as a society is “How much do I need to get to know you, considering I already know you’re black”? As I take my first solo hour to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, how much of my review is already written?
Stereotypes exist as a form of societal (and comedic) laziness. It’s exhausting to get to know each person as an individual, so if you can fit them into preconceived boxes and labels, you skip a lot of the leg work. If you’re a woman, I don’t need to ask you if you like shoes. If you’re Jewish, I don’t need to find out about your financial generosity. If you’re an old white man with gold-rimmed glasses and thinning hair, I don’t need to ask what you served time for. Neither do I need to ask how close you’re allowed to be to children during your probation. Right? Too much? OK.
Not every demographic’s struggle is the same but there are similarities in the running threads. Essentially, you only need to establish a narrow “norm” and everything else can be marginalised. So what the West has done very well, is to convince the world that white men are the norm and other people are minority/special interest/niche groups. Funnily enough this article isn’t intended to be some kind of expose on White Male Privilege. I wouldn’t be so stupid as to make the white men feel uncomfortable, so…you know, it’s OK to post this Steve. It’s simply meant to challenge some of the ways we look at people, in particular comics.
My only real challenge as a comic is to become one of the greatest comics who ever lived. Unfortunately, due to the way the world is set up, that journey is prefaced by the struggle to simply become a comic. Sure, I have a slight head-start on becoming one of the greatest black/urban/Stand-UpXtra! comedians who ever lived but that is not the aim. Herein lies the identity struggle that plagues me. I was recently watching TV with my wife and the advert for Channel 4’s Comedy Gala came on. They proudly boasted that the lineup had “basically every comedian on the planet”, then they showed a montage of white men and I simply looked at my wife. She was up in arms. Within 5 minutes she had loaded up the Channel 4 Complaints site for the first time and written of her disgust at the implicit message of that advert. I slowly wept a tear and fell in love again that day as I contemplated how much she had become like me. It’s not that we don’t understand hyperbole, but simply that we do understand the belief systems that inform humour. Those men, were baptised comedians, giving them the head-start on the female/black/disabled comics who were still trying to shake their prefixes.
The initial instinct of the black performer is to go one of two ways. The first is to refer to the comedy circuit as the “white circuit” and avoid it in favour of the “black circuit”. There, one can bathe in all the stereotypes and bring up blackness at will. The second is to join the comedy circuit and be race conscious. Even some of the most enlightened black performers on the mainstream circuit will tell you they don’t really mention being black or only do so, to highlight a safe stereotype. Rule number 1 is always “Don’t scare the white people”. This creates a vortex in the middle where black performers seeking to be taken as individuals aren’t black enough for the black circuit and don’t “have what it takes” for the mainstream circuit. If the journey of stand-up comedy is one of self-discovery, then the first step is to admit you neither fall completely into a stereotype, neither can you discard aspects of your truth.
Now I’ve pointed it out in society, what’s the solution? There is no immediate solution. What is normal is dictated by who is in power. In wider human civilisation those in power have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. So as long as white men hold a disproportionate amount of power in the world, white men will be normal. This then filters down through innocent subconscious decisions in every strata of society, including the entertainment industry. Very rarely do we see those who work hard to acquire power, do so, only to relinquish it for the sake of fairness; so I don’t think tomorrow it will suddenly change. However, I am disappointed in us, the comedy industry. If anyone should understand and lead the way it’s us. We’re supposed to be the ones who understand the beauty of idiosyncrasy. If you claim Richard Pryor is a comedy hero and a huge influence on you, but you don’t see the beauty in his depiction of black America balanced with his individual experiences as simply a person, then you’ve missed the entire point.
Once we can shake this notion of normal and “special interest” we will no longer need diversity quotas. Most attempts at diversity involve some form of giving a disenfranchised group an etch-a-sketch to play with so they don’t touch the National iPad. Every broadcaster/production company/comedy competition organiser who has crunched the numbers can come to the same crippling underlying conclusion. This is the belief that female comedians only really appeal to women. Black comedians only really appeal to black people. However, magically, white men have universal appeal. This simply isn’t true, that’s just how things are marketed. The reason Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor both proved popular across demographics in their own way is because they were exalted in their idiosyncrasies. Neither one of them falls completely into a stereotype. They are individuals with individual experiences. That way they are simultaneously allowed to speak of those experiences, as individual, black, American and most importantly, human experiences. This luxury, today, only seems to be afforded to those “normal” people appointed to speak on behalf of humanity, voiding the rich tapestry of the human experience and invalidating the existence of those who come from smaller ( and sometimes larger) demographics.
I’ve entered a Channel 4 Diversity Competition, reached the final and competed against two other black guys, a blind guy and a lesbian in a wheelchair (I’m still not sure if being blind or a wheelchair user is a new race or if being black is a disability). I’ve entered a newcomer competition and been told I could not perform back to back with another black act so as not to confuse the audience (This was for my own good). I have been told that my TV taster tape needs a white female face so white viewers wouldn’t switch off upon seeing my face for too long (Sometimes you gotta break it up you know? See Rule Number 1). However, regardless of the numbers, I have done my own research. Almost every week for the past few years, audiences up and down this country have shown me that white audiences can enjoy black acts. I have seen comedy club owners book an entirely black bill on a weekend without realising/thinking it’s a problem/calling it “Black Fridays”. It just doesn’t seem to translate past a certain glass ceiling, wherein lies national acclaim and incessant TV work.
So this year, I’m taking my first solo hour Edinburgh Show to the Fringe Festival. What I truly hope is that people enjoy the show, I enjoy the experience, and that I can get reviewed without my race being referenced for no good reason. This does include the race derivative comments. I know it’s hard to really listen to a black comic’s set without wondering if he’s the UK’s answer to Chris Rock. However, race has it’s time and it’s place but it never fully defines a person. As much as I’m a suburban private school educated, graduate of the London School of Economics, born to what some may call a black middle class family, even I’ve had a reputable comedy review site refer to me as having a “young, urban spirit”. So clearly there are templates for looking at comics that need to be broken. I’m just saying let’s get the laziness out of the comedy industry. This year I know of at least two other black acts performing their debut hour. You could watch my show, Dane Baptiste or Jason Patterson and even see the diversity amongst three Black British men. I would love to win Best Show or Best Newcomer, but if I can leave Edinburgh a comedian, I’ll be able to join the start of the race, as opposed to being forced to deal with race from the start.