Minority Retorts

Not exactly about health issues but it is about the racial disparity in another field. It was shelved for about two months by the editor before it got published. So some information seems a bit outdated. But the basic idea is still there.

When Tracy Morgan accepted the best comedy award for the NBC series 30 Rock at the Golden Globes in January, the black Saturday Night Live star was apparently still thinking about the presidential election.

"Tina Fey [one of his co-stars] and I had an agreement that if Barack Obama won, I would speak for the show from now on," said Morgan. "Welcome to post-racial America. I am the face of post-racial America. Deal with it, Cate Blanchett."

Morgan's comment soon became a hot topic on the internet. On the popular Yahoo! Answers website, correspondents questioned why the joke was funny and why Australian actress Blanchett, who seems to have nothing to do with America's racial issues, was dragged in.

"She's white, she must be the enemy. Yeah, you're really `post-racial', Tracy. I will never watch 30 Rock again," one mocked.

"I now know for sure that ignorance and racism are alive and well in the USA. He was making a joke and was looking to get some ink/discussion, which he has achieved. It is nothing more than that," another defended Morgan, who has still not explained the remark.

The controversy may well have set the tone for comedy in the Obama era. Almost nine months into the president's first year, it is clear that an ideal "post-racial America" remains a chimera - witness the brouhaha over the arrest of black academic Henry Louis Gates in his own home in July, the increasingly vitriolic attacks from right-wing media commentators such as Glenn Beck and the lengths to which Obama had to go to assure the public that racism was not behind the yell of "You lie" by Republican politician Joe Wilson that interrupted his speech to a joint session of Congress.

In comedy clubs and television studios, the election of a black president by voters who were full of hope has made the topic of race more sensitive than ever. Comedy, especially, might be one of the best mirrors of the issue in the US.

Minority comedians, whose subordination has provided them with plenty of material to work with as well as the drive to laugh it off, have never been hard to find, but few have made it to the top. White comics have bagged all the positions of host for major late-night shows and the lion's share of roles in hit sitcoms. But there are signs of change.

Asians have long been stereotyped as the model minority - good at mathematics and running shops but having an ill-developed sense of humour. In April, though, Chinese immigrant Joe Wong showed up on the Late Show with David Letterman as a guest stand-up comedian. With his strong accent, 39-year-old Wong told the audience his bittersweet story of being a new immigrant.

"I'm an immigrant and I used to drive an old car with a lot of bumper stickers that are impossible to peel off. And one of them said, 'If you don't speak English, go home.' I didn't notice it for two years."

Wong is the only Chinese stand-up comedian to have found his way onto Letterman's show in at least the last 12 years, says Eddie Brill, the talent booker for the show. But it seems as though he's unlikely to be the last.

"I've never chosen a comedian by their colour or culture," says Brill. "But recently ... a lot of Asian comics have burst onto the scene. And there are some really good ones that we are working on putting on the show."

"Ten years ago, people had only heard of Margaret Cho and maybe a few other Asian-American comedians, not that many," says PK (which stands for Paul Kim), a Los Angeles-based Korean American who hosted Asian nights at the Laugh Factory comedy club, in Hollywood, for three years until 2007. "Now you have Henry Cho, Bobby Lee, Sheng Wang, Jo Koy. I could go on and on. They are making a living on stand up comedy, and some of them on TV, some of them in movies." And they are attracting a broader audience as well.

Kollaboration, a talent show featuring Asian and Pacific Island comedians and entertainers, had an audience of 400 when PK launched it in 2000. Last year, more than 6,300 people attended shows in six cities, including New York, Toronto and Los Angeles.

Says PK: "Ten years ago, people said there would never be a black president and now we've got a black president. It's changing rapidly. White people are accepting Asians as cool and as funny. The younger generation of Asians are starting to believe that we are not the ones that are being laughed at, we are the ones that can also tell the joke."

Minority comedians are also finding that opportunities are opening up on television. Next month, George Lopez, a Mexican-American comedian who in 2000, with the help of actress Sandra Bullock, became the star of ABC sitcom The George Lopez Show, will launch a late-night talk show on TBS. Also next month, Fox will premiere a late-night show hosted by Wanda Sykes, an Emmy Award-winning black stand-up comedian, while Showtime will present American Indian Comedy Slam, a series of special segments that will feature seven native American comics.

These shows were being discussed before Obama became president but the comedians involved agree that his election has played a big role in the launches.

"Change has come to the White House, change has come to late night," Lopez told CNN. "I believe the fact that a Mexican-American guy is hosting his own late-night talk show is appealing to advertisers."

Talking with the Television Critics Association in August, Sykes said Obama inspired her. "I don't want to do it, I don't want do it," was her initial response, Sykes said. "And then we have Barack Obama running for president. This past campaign, I was like, `Wow, I wish I had an outlet where I could go out and just speak on this on a week-to-week basis and be current.' And so I'm like, `This is the time to jump into it.'"

"I've been waiting 30 years for this," says Larry Omaha, a stand-up comedy veteran who is spotlighted in the Showtime show.

"Native stand-up comedians are on the bottom of the totem pole," says JR Redwater, another funny man featured in American Indian Comedy Slam. "You see every other race on television with a comedy special, but no native comedians have had that exposure on the highest level. And Obama has made our comedy more acceptable in the mainstream."

However, Obama's election has not been a boon to all of America's comedians. Obama is no stranger to laughter; his appearance on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show in March made him the first sitting president to try to promote his policies through a comedy talk show. But industry observers have noticed that many comedians are not embracing the president with the same enthusiasm as Leno.

According to the Centre for Media and Public Affairs, in the first half of the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was the subject of only 169 jokes by late-night talk-show hosts, compared with 322 about Republican candidate John McCain and 382 about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Perhaps not surprisingly, gaffe-prone George W Bush, who was still president, topped everyone, with 428 jokes.

Things have begun to change in the studios since his election - in the first four months of the year, Obama was the subject of 408 jokes by late-night show hosts, becoming the most joked-about politician - but on stage, Obama routines are few and far between.

"In the clubs, nobody has touched him. I notice now, even when you say the name Obama, the audience are like, `Don't you dare'," says Linda Smith, a teacher at the New York-based Carolines School of Comedy, who's been performing stand-up routines for 20 years.

Those Obama jokes that are made are designed carefully, leaving the barbs to be stuck into someone else. This one from Letterman: "I was checking my presidential history. [Obama] was not the first candidate to use the phrase, `Yes we can.' Bill Clinton often used that on interns." And from Leno: "When he was asked why he waited three days to speak out against the AIG bonuses, President Obama said he likes to know what he's talking about before he speaks. So, yet another reversal of the Bush policies."

Comedians who have dared to cross the line have paid a price. Jewish comedian Jackie Mason was caught referring to Obama as a schwartzer, a controversial Yiddish word for black people, in a performance in March in New York and was bashed by critics. Political satirist Bill Maher was booed by the audience in the studio of HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher when talking about how superstitious the Republicans are: "They say the country is having bad luck because there's a black cat in the White House." And actor Jay Mohr was lambasted by supporters of Michelle Obama when, on an ESPN show, he compared the first lady to basketball player Elton Brand and called her "big dude".

James Buffington, a stay-at-home father who self-published the 160-page Politically Incorrect Liberal Obama Jokes last year and launched the website dailyobamajokes.com (which comes with a healthy dose of anti-Obama politics, too) in April, sees this as a good business opportunity.

"My main interest is making money," says Buffington. "Comedians don't want to mention Obama. There is a vacuum in the market." But he also noted that not all his jokes are suitable to be told to a live audience. "There is a difference between a live audience and mine. My book only attracts people who want to read it. It's not like I was going to a club and had to consider whether 90 per cent of the audience were liberal," he says.

The reason Obama has been largely spared by comedians thus far can be partly explained by his performance. Unlike Clinton, who fumbled with interns, or Bush, who fumbled his words, Obama hasn't offered much to have a dig at, yet. And despite the increasingly heated debate over healthcare reform, he is still a generally well-liked president representing hope and positive change for most Americans.

"Obama is such a beautiful orator, and he is a smart guy," says Smith. "He is our first at least half-black president. He hasn't made any faux pas yet. There is so much about him that is great and there is not much to make fun of."

He is also, of course, the first black president in a country where racial issues are a serious matter. It is probably no coincidence that most comedians who have been grilled for their Obama jokes are white.

"Obama jokes are a monopoly for black comedians," says Edwin Okong'o, a Kenyan-born, San Francisco-based comic and writer. Okong'o offers this line in his routine: "We won't know [whether Obama is really a Kenyan] until after his second term. If he changes the constitution and runs for the third term, he is a Kenyan."

W Kamau Bell agrees that Obama is a gift for black comedians. In 2005, Bell became the first to joke about Obama. He quipped on Comedy Central: "... That's why I hope we get a black leader like Barack Obama, the black senator from Illinois. That dude is cool. People say he's gonna be president someday. My question is, president of what?"

"I've heard a lot of white comics say they are afraid of making jokes on Obama 'cause they are afraid they'll look racist," says Bell, now. "For me, I've told far more Obama jokes than I ever told about George W Bush. I'm black and he is black. I feel I have a different connection to Obama's presidency than white comedians."

Few white comics are prepared to bring race into a public conversation but when he was questioned about the "schwartzer" incident by entertainment website TMZ.com, Mason didn't pull any punches: "Chris Rock [a black comedy star] has told a lot more jokes about whites than I have against blacks ... if it's a racist society, the white people are the ones being persecuted because they have to defend themselves."

Mason's rant may have been a bit extreme but, according to Steve Roye, a comedian coach known as the "Professor of Funny for Money" by followers, he does have a point. "Because of the racial issues in history, Caucasian comedians have more difficulty talking about minorities than minority comedians talking about Caucasians. I guess there is a little bit of a double standard."

"Of course it's fair," retorts PK. "Minorities were suppressed by white people for 400 years. Now we are only making a few jokes. I mean, come on."

Often mistaken as a security guard when he arrives to perform, Okong'o says he does not expect the double standard in clubs to change any time soon. "Yes, there is this stereotype that white people are racist. [Black peoples'] minds are programmed to screen discrimination. But as long as the economic inequality exists, it won't change," he says.

Minority comedians may be able to crack more racial jokes than their white colleagues, but that does not mean their jokes never draw flak. Okong'o learned that the hard way. One of his jokes runs: "My girlfriend wanted me to buy her a candle-lit dinner. I said, baby, I am from Kenya, I've had candle-lit dinner every day for 20 years. Can we go somewhere with electricity?"

It works well when he plays it to a general audience but, when he did a performance at a black community ceremony, Okong'o was confronted by an irate woman. "You were playing to stereotype, and you shouldn't," she told him. "There are many cities in Africa that are more modernised than American cities."

Many ethnic comedians have had similar experiences, which leaves them in a dilemma - self-mocking may be one of the easiest ways to break through but to what extent should you make fun of your own racial group?

"I grew up in a white family; I don't have the funny accent jokes," says Tommy Hudson, a Korean-American comedian who was adopted and brought to the US by a Caucasian family. "And I refuse to make fun of being an Asian because when you make stereotype jokes, aren't you reinforcing the stereotypes?

"If you are a minority comedian, the audience expects you to have racial material. Sometimes, I find they look at me in a way that I know they are thinking, 'Doesn't he know he is Asian?'" says Hudson, who co-founded Jammin'asian, a monthly Asian comedy night at the Laugh Lounge in New York.

Although laughing about stereotypes proves problematic for some, others find solutions in the joking. When Obama invited Gates and James Crowley, the white police officer who arrested him, to the White House for a beer and reconciliation in July, he hit the right notes. Gates joked to Crowley that if he didn't arrest him again, the professor would help get the policeman's children into Harvard. The tension began to dissolve in the smiles.

Tired of the hypocrisy and sensitivity surrounding the topic of race, Bell launched his one-man show "The W Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour" in 2007. With a ticket policy of buy-one-get-one-free for those who bring a friend from a different racial group, the show, which tours the country and is staged about three times a week, probably has the most diverse audience in the country.

"The best way to end racism is to talk about it openly with other people," says Bell, who pokes fun at everybody. "In my show, I tell one joke and get different reactions. It's like half of the audience laugh and the other half boo. But after the show, they walk out of the theatre talking about the issues with one another. This is the best thing I've ever done."

Perhaps Bobby Johnson should be seen as the embodiment of comedy in an Obama-led, "post-racial" America. With a Japanese grandmother, a native American grandfather, an Italian step-grandfather, a Caucasian father and two black half-sisters, Johnson was confused as a child. "When I was a kid, my home was like the immigration office," says Johnson. "Wherever I went, people looked at me in a weird way. I was always struggling with the question of who I am." But the struggle has become history. When he stood on stage at a recent Jammin'asian show, Johnson told the audience: "It's beautiful more and more people are starting being multicultural. And genetically speaking, it's important, because if you stay in the same race for too long, the retard gene will kick in. If you don't believe me, look at the last president."

"[A multicultural background] is no longer a setback," says Johnson. "My comedy involves different cultures. Because I have real experiences, the audience feel a connection with me. Variety is the spice of life. I've never felt so good."

Even those who are not biologically mixed try to find diversity inside themselves. Wong is booked for the Radio and TV Correspondents' Dinner next March, which Obama is expected to attend. Wong says he is working on the jokes but has already decided on one line: "This country is getting more diverse. We have a president who's half black and half white. This gives me a lot of hope because I am half not black and half not white. I figure two negatives make a positive."

Deal with that, Cate Blanchett.