Sunday, September 24, 2006

Minstrelsy and the other

Intriguing post from Matt_C whilst in his Fisking Central mode regarding the return of black face and the too-consistent-to-be-healthy amount of black artists making themselves 'other'.

We caught a bit of Mitchell and Webb the other week, with a sketch that had an 'ironic' use of black-face.

It wasn't, I would have to note, very funny. Even in that post-everything kinda way that a lot of recent humour likes to use. Sorry folks.

But Matt_c has a point about the wider issue of identity shifting: why do actors/comedians resort to unfunny fat suits, baby suits, men as women outfits?

I mean, how often has that actually been funny?

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

For me the Mitchell and Webb sketch is the only one that stands up to scrutiny. If i remember correctly it was a deliberately not funny sketch where the punchline was a woman in full Islamic garb. when 'she' removed the veil it was David Mitchell in blackface, making a joke of his cultural ignorance which, combined with the misfiring Islamic joke, made them look like people who were deliberately using race to pretend to be 'edgy'. The target of their joke as I saw it was comedians who cross those boundaries to make a cheap and unnecessary joke. i.e the same point you're making.

it may not have been funny (their new series is hit and miss at best) but don't confuse the subject of a joke with the target.

if someone dresses as the KKK for example, is it automatically a racist joke? what if the target of the joke *is* the KKK, still racist? Is 'Allo 'Allo glorifying Nazis, or does it just feature them?

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

I fully accept that Mitchell and Webb may have intended the target to be those who would find use of blackface still funny, those comedians as you say "who cross boundaries to make a cheap and unnecessary joke".

But my problem is the same one that ultimately made Warren Mitchell despair at the creation of Alf Garnett - not everyone laughing may be really 'getting the joke' but instead finding it funny on the very terms the joke is trying to critique.

And for me I wasn't sure that Mitchell and Webb can keep that degree of control over who laughs at their work.

stu_n said...

The M&W sketch was so ironic that I think it's Alf Garnett-proof. Compare that to Sasha Baron-Cohen, who is entirely a blackface comedian, in that he disguises himself as someone of a different ethnicity and takes the piss out of that stereotype. Of course, he's being clever and ironic, because what he's really doing is taking the piss out of people who believe in that stereotype and forcing them to reveal ugly truths about themselves. Oh so subversive. Oh so clever.

And he's very successful at that. It can't be entirely comfortable for an educated Jewish actor to elicit anti-Semitic reactions from people by acting the anti-Semitic clown. So we aren't supposed to be laughing at Ali G and Borat, we're laughing at how people react to them. But is that why people laugh at Borat? No, I think a large number of people laugh at him because he's an anti-Semitic clown. Hello, Mr Garnett.

(What's worse is that I think Baron-Cohen panders to that. If Ali G was supposed to be a joke about people's reactions to him, how do you explain the film? Unless the joke was completely supposed to be on the audience. Naah, he wouldn't be that cynical. Would he?)

Anyway, I can't see the M&W blackface joke being laughed at in that way.

Matt_c said...

My main problem with discussing black face is that I just don't get it.
The only explanation I read was that (in relation to The Jazz Singer) black face 'allowed' white performers to perform black music without compromising their white fans.

By comparing it to any racial costuming I think that M&Ws short sketch actually raises the bigger issue quite well. The (not funny) buraq joke generates laughter because its a white man pretending to be an Other. What could be more ridiculous! (the joke runs) than a man in a burqa! Because burqas are inherently ridiculous! [Opinions on burqas aside you could swap it for turbans, beards, black skin...]

By then saying the burqa gag is a shit joke and comparing it black face - the sketch is actually quite clever and almost profound...

It wasn't however very funny - which was a shame.

stu_n said...

OK, just watched the sketch again. Ah, the wonders of YouTube...

There are several jokes there — the supershiny makeover presenters' reaction to a woman in a burqa 'which stays'; the fact that it's David Mitchell under the burqa, which is a comment on the whole 'otherness' idea that Matt_c was talking about; the 'what some people find offensive is just good clean fun to others' followed by Mitchell taking off the burqa to reveal blackface underneath; and the rather strange bit about why Mitchell's in blackface ('I just feel it's more me... I don't care what people think!')

Lots of jokes on lots of levels, and all of them clever, yet very few of them funny. I only laughed at two of them.

FWIW, I don't think that any of the jokes said that burqas were ridiculous — the closest one to that was saying that it's ridiculous to have someone in a burqa on a makeover show. You can't swap that for a turban (unless the makeover show was only about hairstyles), a beard (unless it was about shaving) or having black skin (and I can't think of a proviso for this one).

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

I'm happy to put my hands up and say M&W was 'clever' - VERY clever, perhaps too clever. But it wasn't funny. Or at least not funny enough to get me to laugh.

And perhaps that was my other problem. The context presumably IS intended to ellicit laughter (it is a comedy show, right?), so if it doesn't does its cleverness still work. Is the intellectual level enough for comedy or should it actually make us laugh?

And Matt, on the topic of blackface there's a load of really good intellectual/cultural history work on the layers of meaning for blackface, including the obvious issues around Jewish performers establishing themselves in the entertainment world via blackface (which cues us back to S B-C again...).

Additionally, a friend of mine did a PhD called "That phoney race thing" : class, race, cultural borrowing, and popular music in the United States, 1920-1940 which dealt with minstrelsy (amongst other things).

George Walks said...

On a new front, what about morris dancers? No, really.

Rob said...

Indeed, much blacking up in Morris, and in mummers' plays. Though in the latter at least it's more like boys playing female roles in school plays at all-male schools (which was still the case in the first couple of years of my secondary education). I.e. one of non-availability of real black people. Actually, IIRC in most mummers' plays the bad guys are caricature Moslems rather than African blacks. How much more enlightened we are nowadays.

A thought - does this mean that only dance companies with black (or Asian) dancers can do Petrouchka nowadays? And where are we left with Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin"? There is such a thing as suspension of disbelief.

Which is to say, I think, that bringing Morris etc in is a step too far.

Incidentally, I think it was in the Guardian that I read someone pointing out that the Luddites and other machine-breakers had blacked up to avoid recognition, and that the entertainment use of blackface had post-dated that. Not sure I totally buy the argument as to causation, but it provides another strand to the discussion.

stu-n said...

There was a Welsh blackface morris group (team? troupe?) at the Big Chill festival a couple of years ago — no end of fuss about it afterwards, despite people explaining why they blacked up (I think it was to disguise identity, like the luddites Rob mentioned). They haven't been invited back.

There is such a thing as suspension of disbelief, but you'll still never see a white actor playing Othello, at least in the UK or US. The closest I've seen was Ben Kingsley, playing him as an Arab (with some fake tan but no blacking-up). And there was a fuss about that, too.

Paul Fuzz said...

Gotta go with Ms R on the whole 'if it ain't funny, it hasn't worked' thing. I'm sorry, but I have trouble undertanding why you cats are discussing this sorta thing as being 'clever' on ANY level whatsoever, any more so than the various fat suit/ black face gags in Little Britain, a show in which 90% of the tasteless jokes are defended on some 'we're poking fun at & exposing peoples prejudice' premise, and while I don't imagine for a second that Walliams is a racist, I certainly do think that if you haven't got anything worth saying on the subjects of body size, mental health, race etc that doesn't involve you playing a mentally disabled person saying 'AHH AHHH' and not having the balls to admit that the real 'gag' there is simply the funny sound she's making then it's probably just better not to say anything at all. M&W are not cultural commentators, and I do not want cultural commentary from them, at least not when it is't funny or insightful.

Excuse the ranty tone.

chrissie said...

I detested Olivier's insulting caricature. We had to go see "Othello" (the movie) as part of our O level studies in the late sixties;I complained I felt a bit sick so was allowed out to the cinema foyer. Phew!

Whatever did L.O. think he was doing??? I think blacking up is always ...just wrong.

Anonymous said...

"Gotta go with Ms R on the whole 'if it ain't funny, it hasn't worked' thing. I'm sorry, but I have trouble undertanding why you cats are discussing this sorta thing as being 'clever' on ANY level whatsoever, any more so than the various fat suit/ black face gags in Little Britain"

Well up to you, I'm not claiming any comedic knowledge or moral high-ground, but I'll defend the M+W sketch (and Ali G for that matter, but for different reasons) against most charges levelled in this thread.

It's *not* a question of being clever, It's a question of what they were trying to say, however ineffectively. were they saying , as LB and Bo Selecta do pretty much every episode 'Look! isn't it funny that I'm pretending to be black! isn't it funny that I can do a totally unrealistic impersonation of Michael Jackson, because he's black! and I'm pretending to be!' it's egregious nonsense, as racist as anything I've seen on television.

Compare that to a sketch which you can say pretty reasonably that the *target* of the joke was those types of comedians, and you just can't compare them to my mind. this really reminds me of a (small scale) version of the Brass Eye paedophile thing, and I really can't be bothered to go over those arguments again. Subject of joke vs target of joke, the two things are very, very different.

P.S forgot to identify myself, I have also posted on the Fisking thread on another aspect of this.

CB

Anonymous said...

"Gotta go with Ms R on the whole 'if it ain't funny, it hasn't worked' thing. I'm sorry, but I have trouble undertanding why you cats are discussing this sorta thing as being 'clever' on ANY level whatsoever, any more so than the various fat suit/ black face gags in Little Britain"

Well up to you, I'm not claiming any comedic knowledge or moral high-ground, but I'll defend the M+W sketch (and Ali G for that matter, but for different reasons) against most charges levelled in this thread.

It's *not* a question of being clever, It's a question of what they were trying to say, however ineffectively. were they saying , as LB and Bo Selecta do pretty much every episode 'Look! isn't it funny that I'm pretending to be black! isn't it funny that I can do a totally unrealistic impersonation of Michael Jackson, because he's black! and I'm pretending to be!' it's egregious nonsense, as racist as anything I've seen on television.

Compare that to a sketch which you can say pretty reasonably that the *target* of the joke was those types of comedians, and you just can't compare them to my mind. this really reminds me of a (small scale) version of the Brass Eye paedophile thing, and I really can't be bothered to go over those arguments again. Subject of joke vs target of joke, the two things are very, very different.

P.S forgot to identify myself, I have also posted on the Fisking thread on another aspect of this.

CB