[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. No really, I’m serious!]
On the fine line between satire and stereotypes.
First and foremost, it’d be April Foolish of me not to link to this piece by my dad Stephen Railton, part of his award-winning website Mark Twain in His Times, on Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s play Ah Sin, a Play in Four Acts (1877). Dad has far more in-depth knowledge of the play than I, and a great deal to say in that piece about the play’s complex relationship to the era’s anti-Chinese prejudices (on which I focused a good bit of my third bookand am continuing to think about in my current project), as well as both the two authors’ public roles and reputations as prominent humorists and the often razor-sharp line between the satirical and the stereotypical (or, to quote one of the funniest works of all time, between clever and stupid) when it comes to humorous engagements with social issues.
That line is a seemingly eternal element within humor, and one not limited to ethnic or racial comedy. Take Amy Schumer’s sketches about gender, sexuality, and rape—is she satirizing our culture’s problems with those issues, or using stereotypes to gain laughs and ratings (or, as always, some combination of the two, one dependent in no small measure on the knowledge and perspective an audience member brings with her or him)? But at the same time, ethnic and racial humorists seem particularly prone to walking the fine line between satire and stereotype, and to prompting passionate debate about where on that spectrum they fall. From Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, and up to contemporary works like Key & Peele and Black-ish, African American humorists have been at the center of many of those debates in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But the same questions apply to any and all cultures and identities, and Asian American comics and performers such as Margaret Cho and Ken Jeong have faced the same responses and critiques.
Of course, Ah Sin represents another side to the issue—a satirical yet stereotypical work about Asian American identities created by two white artists, if ones who (as my Dad’s piece notes) were already on the record in support of Chinese Americans (especially relative to their very xenophobic moment). Yet while there’s no doubt that outsiders to a culture or community have to tread the line even more carefully if they choose to create humorous works about that group (and have to recognize that they’re opening themselves up to justified critiques in the process, regardless of their specific choices and work), I would argue not only that they have the right to do so, but that doing so represents an important part of humor’s role in a society and culture. Indeed, no other artistic genre can highlight in the same ways the absurdities and myths that surround us—and humorous works can do so whether they satirize those elements, deploy them as stereotypes, or, as is so often the case and was for Twain and Harte’s play, do both at the same time.
March Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?