Political correctness is often portrayed as a shackle that censors any form of self-expression. In this current political landscape, comedy is one of the last safe houses where people feel that they can escape these constraints. However, this paradigm faces an attack as there is a growing question as to whether it is acceptable that comedy should be based on stereotypes and slurs, even if the comedians themselves are minorities.
The Challenges Facing Minority Comedians
As with many areas in society, often minorities can be disadvantaged due to the existence of either structural or subconscious racism. As a result, minority comedians sometimes face a difficulty in attracting audiences as large as those of comedians from majority backgrounds. This can happen either because the audiences themselves hold some biases against minority comedians, or the people who own clubs hire fewer minority comedians. This is especially an issue in less accepting societies where this kind of discrimination is especially commonplace.
This is even more important in the current context of a digitalised world where comedy is becoming increasingly saturated. If a minority comedian wants to do a bit, there will often be tens or hundreds of comedians from majority backgrounds doing the same thing. The saturation only gets worse due to the fact that there is now a low barrier of entry to comedy as we now have platforms like YouTube and social media which provide far more competition (although, this can also benefit minorities by giving them easier access to an audience). This is important as it means that comedians need to be able to really differentiate themselves from other comedians by finding some sort of niche. In a society where biases exist, this is especially a problem for those who face those biases.
Unsurprisingly, a niche has often been found through making jokes based on stereotypes and slurs. In a world with increasing awareness about political correctness and the growing presence of cancel culture on social media, it is very risky for comedians from majority backgrounds to make these jokes using stereotypes and slurs about other groups. Even though there is some protection against this as the world of comedy is usually more in favour of free speech, the political landscape is changing and society is becoming more conscious about racism and discrimination. This means that this stereotype-based comedy provides a unique type of comedy that these minorities can use to differentiate themselves in this competitive market.
On the flipside, some people are worried however about minorities in the audience feeling offended or uncomfortable by this comedy, because they feel offended by the stereotypes. This might be an issue in a couple of cases, but there are usually checks and balances. Comedians probably don’t want to be called a race traitor, or make fellow minorities feel so uncomfortable. But also, often minorities are able to laugh along because it is a comedy skit after all. Often, they know what to expect when watching these bits because that is often how the comedian is advertised and so people who would be offended by these comedians often don’t go to these shows.
The Psychology of Humour and Challenging Pernicious Stereotypes
The biggest concern that people have is that these comedians will just reinforce stereotypes because now these minority comedians themselves are using these stereotypes and therefore legitimising them as acceptable. Some might even see this as an admission to these stereotypes or an excuse to use these stereotypes to make fun of people all in the name of a joke. However, the issue is so rarely black and white and instead, the impact of this stereotype-based humour largely rests on the way it is delivered.
On the one hand, these comedy bits can be used to actively deconstruct stereotypes by weaponizing the psychology of humour. These jokes about stereotypes can be actively flipped into a good thing by pointing out how ridiculous these stereotypes are. This lends itself nicely to the formula for laughter. When we examine the reasons why people laugh, one of the major reasons we find something funny is because it causes some kind of confusion which our brains respond to with laughter. This kind of confusion can be created through these jokes where minority comedians try to subtly hint at the fact that these stereotypes are ridiculous. This is why stereotype-based comedy is even funny in the first place, because it is often so ridiculous. It is this flagging up of the ridiculousness of these stereotypes which helps to point out their absurdity as opposed to reinforce them.
The very nature of something like stand-up comedy is also very useful in challenging certain stereotypes. Often comedy involves some sort of punchline and this is important in the context of stereotype-based comedy. Laughing at these jokes means you understood the punchline and signals that you are actively aware of these stereotypes as well as how stupid they are. One of the most pernicious things about stereotypes is that it is often subconscious, but this comedy ensures you are aware it exists. So there are largely two benefits from this comedy: firstly, it is extremely funny and so minority comedians don’t only have a niche, but a niche that will be successful and give them a greater platform. Secondly, this comedy can then be actively useful to take down stereotypes.
However, there is another direction you can go which isn’t necessarily so beneficial. Often the people who hire comedians, as well as their audiences, are comprised of far more people from majority backgrounds because there are just more of them in society. Your first incentive as a comedian is to try and appeal to these people as that is how you get shows, reputation and money. Especially in less liberal countries, challenging stereotypes can often put off these audiences who don’t want to be told that these stereotypes are bad, or they might think the minority comedian is being ‘too left-wing’. This means you don’t always craft your comedy in a way that tries to take down stereotypes.
This is especially apparent with things like shock humour, where the point isn’t necessarily to show how ridiculous something is or to subconsciously raise awareness through punchlines. Instead, the comedians can just crassly use slurs and stereotypes in slightly pernicious ways to create darker jokes just to elicit a reaction. In this case, the audience does not interpret these jokes in a way that deconstructs stereotypes, but instead they laugh and still continue to buy into stereotypes. If these jokes aren’t constructed in a certain way, this can equally be an outcome of stereotype-based comedy.
Providing a Greater Platform to Minorities in Comedy and Beyond
At the end of the day, regardless of which road minorities chose to go down, the end result is that a lot of them become famous. No matter how they managed to get famous, there are a lot of benefits to being in the public sphere and being able to break the proverbial glass ceiling.
The main benefit you get is that minorities gain a significant amount of media visibility and they are often given TV roles or shows on mainstream media. This is probably very useful in getting more minority representation and it allows people who watch this to feel more represented. Furthermore, this is a tried and proven model – comedians such as Lily Singh and Trevor Noah who based their comedy on stereotypes now have comedy shows and a lot more influence in the public space. This is important because as these minorities have more influence, it allows them to have more control over how stereotypes are perceived and they are able to reclaim things like slurs also.
Furthermore, this increasing influence can be used actively to benefit minorities. Once you have an established audience, it is easier to branch out into other issues. Comedy is becoming increasingly political where comedians like Hasan Minaj often incorporate political activism into their comedy. Crucially, minority comedians can now use their platform to actively push for better minority rights and awareness when they now have this platform they can use. This is particularly powerful since comedians massively impact pop culture which is one of the most powerful ways of shaping societal narratives and norms. This is immensely beneficial as just the simple end result of having far more minority influencers means that this power can be used greatly to provide opportunities for other minorities and to provide role models for those who feel disenfranchised.
Crucially, the benefits are only amplified when minority comedians have this niche through stereotype-based comedy that allows more of them to become popular. Even though many minority comedians will be successful without this type of humour, for those who feel like they have no alternative when they face barriers to sucess, this niche is important.
There are clear benefits when minorities use humour based on stereotypes and slurs about their own group. Not only can they actively change the narrative about stereotypes either through their comedy or political activism to deconstruct more harmful stereotypes, but it also gives minorities more of a platform. Just the simple end result of providing more opportunities for those who feel left out in society can be so reassuring. As long as this comedy is done right, it provides a niche – a niche that can be used to greatly further the plight of minorities.