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Thursday, April 2, 2015

April 2, 2015: April Fools: Minstrel Shows

[A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing an April Fools series. Foolishly, I haven’t done so since, but this year have decided I won’t get fooled again. So this week I’ll be highlighting and AmericanStudying a series of funny figures and texts. Share your own funny favorites in comments and I’ll add ‘em to the crowd-sourced weekend post—no foolin’!]
On what we do with comic art that’s just not funny any more.
Tastes vary, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that, and it’s likely that no two people will find precisely the same works or comedians funny. But I think it’s fair to say that even if we don’t all find the subjects of my prior posts this week equally hilarious (besides my professed lukewarm take on The Interview, I’ll also admit to being left mostly cold by the Three Stooges and their non-stop violence), we can all recognize the humorous qualities of their works, their successful uses of various comic styles, techniques, and appeals that have endured across the decades (and in Mark Twain’s case more than a century) since their initial release. While researching the Keaton and Chaplin post, for example, I found myself laughing at numerous moments—and recognizing the wit and inventiveness in many others that didn’t make me laugh. Many of the fundamental qualities of humor, that is, seem to me to be consistent, universal, and enduring.
But not all of them, which brings me to one of the most popular and successful forms of American comic art throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries: the minstrel show. Minstrel shows certainly used many of the comic styles and techniques I’ve traced throughout the week’s posts: physical and screwball comedy, wordplay, satires of historical issues and popular current trends, and more. Yet they did so through one overarching and (to say the least) troubling element: the creation and deployment of exaggerated, ridiculous, bigoted and awful stereotypes of African American identities and communities. Most of the minstrel shows’ performers were white comedians and performers in “blackface,” taking the parody to another level still; but even with those few prominent African American performers, the central use and abuse of racial stereotypes for comic purposes remained the same. And again, despite our collective association of such shows with 19th century America, they continued and evolved well into the 20th century, such as in the hugely popular Amos ‘n’ Andy radio and television programs.
So what do we do with such comic works, ones that depend for their humor on choices and elements we no longer (I hope and believe) find the slightest bit amusing? By “we” there, I’m thinking not about scholars (who can of course always study and analyze such past works) but about a more collective community, American audiences more broadly. For one thing, we can consider how some elements of these works might have come down to our own moment: I’ve seen arguments that both the Martin Lawrence Show and Tyler Perry's hugely popular character Madea (among other contemporary works and artists) have minstrel elements to them, for example; while I don’t know either of those well enough to opine on them, the question is always worth asking and engaging. And for another thing, it’s equally worth considering what stereotypes or bigotries remain more mainstream or acceptable in our own comic works: earlier this year I read a provocative piece that argues that Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing from Friends was fundamentally homophobic (and, more exactly, depended on such homophobia for much of his humor); and whether we agree or disagree with that argument, it’d be important to think about which 21st century comic works might look as dated and un-funny to future audiences as do the minstrel shows to us.
Last fools tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Funny favorites you’d share?

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