When is a joke racist?

John Fleming shares his thoughts

I normally try not to quote from people’s stage acts but, occasionally, American comedian Lewis Schaffer mentions on stage that an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer once called him ‘mildly racist”’.

He says that is the worst of both worlds. If you are not racist, you do not want to go see a comedian who is mildly racist. Equally, if you are a racist, you do not want to go see someone who is only mildly racist.

The only solution, Lewis reasons on stage, is that his act should become more racist.

In fact, I do not think Lewis is remotely racist on or off stage. He can be xenophobic on stage, but that is perhaps a sign that he has ‘gone native’ after too many years living in Britain. On stage, like Jerry Sadowitz, he hates everyone and everything equally. Misanthropy is his schtick.

I vaguely know another comedian who often plays ‘black’ clubs. I will not name the comedian because of what follows in this blog, but the comedian has talked to me of how he/she can tell jokes about black culture to highly appreciative black audiences. But he/she cannot tell the same jokes to white audiences because the jokes would be seen as appallingly racist.

To black audiences, they are not racist; they are just very funny observational racial jokes.

Interestingly, about ten years ago, Lewis Schaffer had a conversation with Bernard Manning, though they never met.

‘It was around 2002,’ Lewis tells me. ‘I’d been in the country for such a short time, it was all a blur to me. I was at the ITN building on Gray’s Inn Road in London and Bernard Manning was in Manchester and they were asking us about offensiveness in comedy.

‘I said what I always say, which is that I personally think you should only tell a joke about any ethnic group if you can tell it to their face and they will laugh AND you can tell it when they’re not around and people who are not of that group will not find it offensive.

‘Bad comedians are the ones who can tell a joke only when the people they’re making fun of are not in the room: Welsh people are not here. Let’s insult them. 

‘That’s bad comedy. Well, not bad. But not the best. Good comics can insult you to your face.’

I certainly agree with that. 

Live on stage, Bernard Manning was one of the best technical comedians I have ever seen . I saw a show at his Embassy Club in Manchester in the early Eighties when there was a black couple near the front of the audience. Manning, of course, zeroed in on them as the butt of his jokes and they genuinely loved it. At the end of the show, they were beaming with happiness and excitement; he had made their night.

Another time, there was a couple in the audience who foolishly admitted to Manning that they were on honeymoon. What they were thinking, I cannot begin to imagine. He, of course, did every honeymoon and sex gag he could think of throughout the show. Again, they loved it, loved being the centre of attention, loved him (as it were) giving them a hard time.

So I agree with Lewis Schaffer that a good comic can tell racial jokes to people’s faces. A bad comic can only tell those jokes when the relevant people are out of the room.

‘But,’ says Lewis, ‘there is another step. A good comic can tell a racial joke to people of that racial group and make them laugh AND he can tell the same joke to people who are not of that ethnic group and make them laugh. If you can’t tell the joke and get laughs when there are no people of that racial group there, then you shouldn’t tell the joke. You should not tell the joke because it will make the audience feel uncomfortable.’

I am not sure I go along with Lewis on this.

If you can tell a black racial joke to black people and they do not find it offensive – if they find it funny – then the joke is not racist, it is racial. If white people find the joke racist, then I think the problem lies in the people not in the joke.

Lewis tells me: ‘Just because black people are laughing, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to make the racial joke. It doesn’t mean you can tell that joke to an audience of white people. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a laugh from it. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to hate you.

‘If Bernard Manning could tell his jokes to black people who laughed at them, then the jokes were not racist. But that doesn’t mean he could tell them to white people and not be perceived as being racist. So maybe that’s the problem Bernard Manning had and has: that he was and is perceived as being racist. I’m just saying that. I don’t know.

‘I said that on the radio and Bernard Manning – I don’t know how he knew this, but he – brilliantly – said, You are going to die skint.

‘It was the first time I had ever heard the word “skint” and what he said is totally true. Bernard Manning knew he offended people, but he didn’t care, because that’s where the money was in his world.

‘With me, I actually care about people’s feelings and that’s not good for business.’

Published: 7 Nov 2011

Live comedy picks

Now on NextUp Sponsored

TOM WARD

Tom celebrates life for all its sexy little touches, spinning tales of unsung heroes including cheap kettles, friendly perverts and Tupperware. WATCH HERE

JORDAN BROOKES

The 2017 Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee takes us on an absurd and twisting journey through his inner psyche. WATCH HERE

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.