Poll-Fest: Is This Ethnic Humor Offensive?

I was going to include these in the previous post, but decided to let it stand alone.

Please review these comedy clips, and vote on whether or not each is potentially and legitimately offensive to the ethnic group portrayed, parodied, or stereotyped.

1.  Danny Kaye: “Anatole of Paris”


2. Cleavon Little: “Blazing Saddles”


3. Monty Python: Upper Class Twits



4. Peter Sellers : “Dr. Strangelove”



5.  Frank DeKova: “F Troop”



29 thoughts on “Poll-Fest: Is This Ethnic Humor Offensive?

    • Love that show, and that song. I think what it gets right is that we are all raised in a society where racist stereotypes exist, thus we all are racist in a way, even if we don’t want to admit it.

      I think the song’s limitation is that it really is only about that first step: recognizing that one has racist beliefs. That is necessary, but not sufficient, to dealing with the problem of racism. The next step would be doing something about those beliefs and trying to move beyond them rather than reinforcing them. The song seems to say “Everyone’s a little bit racist, so don’t worry about it too much,” when a better message might be “Everyone’s a little bit racist, so let’s all work on that together.” But that message might not fit the spirit of the show.

      Similarly, I have no real qualms with the specific Apu joke under discussion. The Simpsons acknowledged that the previous treatment of Apu was a problem, and suggested that they don’t have a solution for it right now. I think that’s a good step (and they’ve taken others in the past to make Apu less of a stereotype and more of a rounded character). I still think Apu is problematic, but ‘m not having a cow, man.

  1. I’m chewing on a couple thoughts right now, I think I’ll sleep on them and post tomorrow…but the thoughts rattling around in my head have to do with the way that we separate culture and race for white people, but aren’t able to for black people.

    It’s like… How people say “You’re racist” when you say something like “Islam has a really shitty track record on women’s rights” and you reply “Islam isn’t a race”. It’s obvious that culture and race are separate, and it seems obvious that you should be able to criticize cultures, because some cultural artifacts are, frankly, objectively better than others.

    But when you have a culture that is deeply tied to race, can you make a meaningful distinction between race and culture? Or is the race the culture?

    • Yes, you can make the distinction, but you have to be polite in messaging if you are going to disparage the culture for having, say, some sort of backwards approach to women or something else we deem a negative cultural attribute.

    • Because, at the end of the day, culture is NOT genetically derived. It is often derived from years of adapting to a particular geography and climate while in the context of neighboring competitor cultures.

    • I don’t think “Islam has a really shitty track record on women’s rights” is racist. It’s a true statement about the culture of Islam. (It’s a true statement about many cultures, but Islam’s treatment of women, historically speaking, has been especially awful.) It isn’t a stereotype.

      A stereotype would be saying about an individual Muslim woman, “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to speak,” when her husband gets on stage with her and criticizes you. I’m still not sure that would be racism, though, and I’ve tried to move away from using the term “racist” to describe bigotry against Muslims, even though the two are sometimes related.

      I think banning all residents of specific countries from coming to the U.S. due to the actions of a small group of radical Muslims within those countries comes pretty close to racism, but is still based more on bigotry toward those nations and that religion than on race.

      I think critiques of black culture in the U.S. would be the closest thing to what you’re talking about, H.T. It isn’t impossible to critique black culture without being racist, but it is very, very difficult to do so, given that so much of the critiques we see of black culture are based off of racial stereotypes. The culture and race are almost inextricable at this point.

  2. They’re all pretty funny to me. However, this is making me think.

    The term “offensive” is more meaningfully understood as being about the offendee, not about the offending material.

    There are some things that are so universally experienced as offensive, across most cultures and most history, that we can easily lapse into using “offensive” as an adjective to describe the subject matter.

    But that’s a mistake.

    “Offensive” means offensive TO someone. Which means it’s inevitably pretty subjective. In particular, and these examples are great cases of it – the measure of what’s offensive is simply going to change over time. To pick your favorite example, Apu is probably seen as more offensive by more people in 2018 than he was back in the dark ages or whenever the character was first introduced.

    Sorry, “offensive” isn’t fixed, immutable: it changes with culture, and over time.

    This principle was famously recognized in Jorge Luis Borges’ story about the man who set out to write the world’s greatest novel. After thought, he decided that the world’s greatest novel was Don Quixote. So he set out to write Don Quixote.

    Having finished writing it, he waited for the adulation of the world – but it didn’t come to him. On which he realized that the Don Quixote he had written, in the 1970s, was simply not the same Don Quixote that Cervantes had written centuries before – the cultural and historical meaning of all the words, concepts and phrases had changed.

    Which meant, of course, that he had failed, because he had NOT written the world’s greatest novel. Whereupon he feel into a deep depression and ultimately killed himself.

    The same is true in humor, maybe especially so. You can’t watch 1980s Eddie Murphy talk about faggots and not cringe a little; I’m sure he does. Comedians’ job is to walk right up to the line, and cross it just a little bit. Too much and you end up in Michael Richard’ or Kathy Griffin’s situation.

    So the survey of whether this or that ethnic joke is funny is really just a sociological survey. It will vary depends on who fills it out, but more importantly it will change over time. It’s just a survey at a point in timne.

    The ultimate judge of whether it’s offensive or not has very little to do with the actual content. You can’t find great humor in content, you’ve got to find it in context, and context always changes.

    (Oh and it is simply impossible to imagine the Sheriff’s role being played by any other than a black man. Context is everything. It’s not only not funny, it’s inconceivable to have that role played by a white guy. Cleavon Little didn’t just happen to be black, he HAD to be for that role to work).

    • On (the) Offensive:

      “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.” ~Stephen Fry

      My preferences in humor are irony and wordplay … and wicked surprises. For example, I purposely removed the title reference from this one so I could use it when called for — and it’s long past due on the PC/SJWs.

      It came from the keyboard of one dry guy (c. 2012):

      If (this) were a Lifetime Network movie, I would regard it as proof positive that LMN was running out of plausible plots. Since it appears to be real, I regard it as proof positive that life is running out of plausible plots. ~ Jack Marshall

  3. The real problem is that people in general have been dumbed down and lost the intellectual fortitude to be able to laugh at themselves and/or their own ethical or identity group(s). Extreme social justice warriors like those in BLM and #MeToo have made it nationally “fashionable” to be offended these days, in fact if you’re not in the offended group then you are offensive to the offended groups.

    • I will add to Zoltar’s excellent comment with this: many have weaponized this for political reasons, to strike at their perceived enemies and thereby take the moral high ground. This is virtue signalling, yes, but also a cold calculation designed to destroy conversation and debate, in the name of suppression of non approved speech. This is tyranny.

      It is also backfiring in much of America, who have gotten overexposed to the outrage, and are tuning it out (or, horrors! making fun of it)

      Ironic but there it is

      • I agree with you and Zoltar.
        Today’s PC is just a re-packaged holier-than-thou religion – false idolatry.
        All rise, and worship the holiest “identity characteristics.”

        • Lucky et al, let me take this thread as an opportunity to say that while I am probably to the left of the vast majority of the contributors to this blog readership on gun control, abortion, health care, deficit spending, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Paul Krugman, and Krugerrands (just trying to extend the thread…), there is one issue I am in strong agreement on with all of you:

          The threat to free speech posed by the Left, predominantly emanating from college campuses and California in particular. It is a threat to humor, to free speech, to intellectual rigor, and it encourages a culture of victimhood.

          Two brief vignettes: I was recently visiting a potential client in San Francisco, a fairly typical web-based culture. Along with the usual organic latte and skateboards was the signage on the bathroom: rather than M or W, it said, “We here at X recognize that gender is a fluid concept; you are safe here.”

          At another Bay area client, a similar issue arose: in talking about a statistic that women score more highly on a trustworthiness scale, and that nursing is consistently rated as the most trustworthy profession, I featured a cartoon image of a (female) nurse. Pushback came quickly: I was contributing to gender stereotypes, and should have used an image of a male nurse. Never mind that the whole point was about women.

          In each of these cases, their offices are mere blocks from some major-league, serious homeless communities, overflowing on the streets. In my day, a good liberal would have been all up in arms talking about the plight of the homeless, the heartlessness of “da man,” and so forth. But today, the obsession with semiotics, symbols, intersectionality, unconscious bias, and victimhood has taken over all the passion of this particular part of the Left.

          On that one issue, I assure you I find it every bit as horrific as you do – maybe moreso, because I came from that sort of culture, and it feels like a betrayal of what used to be some fairly aggressive, humanistic goals.

          Just sayin’…

  4. I didn’t vote on the last one–I would have liked an “I don’t know option.” I find the jokey tribal name joke really played out, and it was probably played out even then. “Pilgrims ruin neighborhood” was hilarious, though, and struck me as a joke that would play well on a modern sitcom.

    I certainly don’t think that “any comic representation of Native American characters is offensive”–Kimmy Schmidt has a lot of funny moments with its Native American characters, though even that show has its detractors as the most significant NA character is played by a white woman pretending to be a Native American pretending to be a white woman…but that, and the whole show really, is so absurd that it just barely works for me.

    • I too wanted an “I don’t know” option for the French and the Germans. The French like (or liked) Jerry Lewis; the Germans are fond of Werner, a comic working class dork who is plagued at night by dreams of a teasing giant blonde with seriously overgrown tits ‘n ass, and in daylight by really ugly violent women a la 1930s American comics (wife, in-law, nurse, etc.). Talking about different tastes in humor, though, the Netherlands may have hit the bottom of the barrel with a fondness for comic books featuring Bre’r Rabbit and all the other old bros, including a coal black blob who may or may not be named Sambo (network diagnostics couldn’t get the link to play: hmmm!). The kicker is that Disney – our Disney, bless its mousy heart – publishes these comics, and a whole bunch of others, strictly for European consumption. Looks like American humor is pretty tame by comparison while exporting the worst of it. Or is it just . . . different?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.