Aspen Ideas Fest: Finding equal-opportunity laughs in post-racial America
July 2, 2009
ASPEN – I counted five and a half black people in the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival presentation, Race and Humor, Wednesday at the Hotel Jerome Ballroom. Though I suppose it would be more accurate to say five black, and one who appeared to be of mixed race. Either way, that’s two and a half more blacks than watch “The Daily Show,” according to comedy writer Larry Wilmore, whose title on the nightly fake-news show is “senior black correspondent.”
“I’m unknown in the black world,” Wilmore mock-complained. “I go to a black barber shop, they don’t know I’m in show business. They say, ‘What do you do?'”
Wilmore is black – though, as he notes, a light-skinned one. (“If I was a beer, I’d be Negro Lite. I’m a third less angry,” he quipped.) And while he now plays for what he says is a predominantly white audience, he has spent time in the world of comedy aimed more for black viewers. Wilmore’s first big job – after years of studying acting and then doing stand-up – was with “In Living Color,” the show that marked something of a television breakthrough.
“I felt the biggest thing about ‘In Living Color’ was it wasn’t just a black thing,” said Wilmore, who followed the presentation by singing copies of his new book, “I’d Rather We Got Casinos (And Other Black Thoughts).” “It was this new culture – dress, dance, the hip-hop braggadocio. It really brought that energy, so it wasn’t much of a niche thing.”
“In Living Color” was only the start of Wilmore’s involvement in black-oriented entertainment. He earned an Emmy for his contributions to the pilot of “The Bernie Mac Show,” and he co-created, with Eddie Murphy, “The PJs,” a stop-motion series that took a satirical look at ghetto life.
But the 42-year-old Wilmore – whose brother Marc is a writer on “The Simpsons” – set out to do something outside of the black-comedy mainstream. He was raised (as were numerous comedians of all races) on Richard Pryor. But as a kid, he snuck into Los Angeles’ Comedy Store to see such little-known white comedians as Jay Leno and David Letterman. As he tried to break into the entertainment field doing satire and political humor, he found himself looking in on black comedy from the outside.
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“Hollywood wasn’t quite hiring what I was doing,” he said. “They went for the urban comedy, this fast-talking, ex-con thing.” Wilmore said he wasn’t doing “the Def Comedy Jam-type jokes.”
Straddling the comedy worlds, Wilmore probably makes for an ideal figure to raise the topic of Race and Humor. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black (medium-skinned) blogger for The Atlantic (predominantly white), was probably the ideal moderator. Still, serious issues about Race and Humor played second fiddle at the event to just plain humor. Elsewhere, while Ideas Festival speakers were trying to save the world – or at least figuring out how to raise a kid with fewer addictions than his parents – attendees at the Hotel Jerome were mostly laughing.
The first topic raised by Coates was the obvious one – the comedian’s take on the Punch-Line-in-Chief, Barack Obama. But Wilmore said it was probably too soon to make serious fun of Obama, who, Wilmore noted, lacks the “apparent flaws” of his predecessors. “Let the president have some time to screw up,” he advised. Wilmore then moved into richer presidential territory, running through impressions of various presidents and candidates, and how they would have responded to the question of whether they chopped down the cherry tree.
When “The PJs” came up, Wilmore couldn’t resist bringing up one of his favorite bits. He told about the character Smokey, a crackhead who is a latter-day version of Otis, the dipsomaniac on “The Andy Griffith Show.” But where a town drunk could be an endearing character, the idea of “the lovable crackhead” drew big laughs.
“I gotta go. That crack don’t smoke itself,” said Wilmore, repeating a favorite line of his from the show.
Wilmore said he was put off by Martin Luther King Day – not the fact that a national holiday had been devoted to the civil rights pioneer, but the expectations behind the day. “Why do we have to learn something? Can’t we just barbecue?” he said.
Regarding the “N”-word – and resurrecting a sketch he has done on “The Daily Show” – Wilmore defended the word on the grounds that it was an absolute necessity for hip-hop lyrics. What better word, he asked, would finish the rap, “I’m not saying she’s a gold-digger/ But she ain’t messing with no broke … ?”
Saying that he was essentially a “contrarian,” Wilmore said that, in response to the CNN series “Black in America,” he had created the sketch, “White in America.” “It’s the only fair thing.”
If Wilmore had some big idea to contribute to the topic of Race and Humor, it was that in this era, everything should be on the table. If we’re moving toward a post-racial society, comedy might be one of the things to lead the way.
“True equality to me is when you can make fun of everybody,” he said. “Everybody gets a jab.”