Comedy sterotypes are a good thing

By Italian stand-up Giacinto Palmieri

It’s accepted wisdom that comedians are allowed to crack jokes about their own ethnic, religious or national groups that would seem offensive coming from outsiders. The usual justification is: ‘I can say these things about Italians [for instance] because I am Italian.’ But I think there is another side to this, which is: ‘I can say these things about Italians DESPITE my being Italian – because it’s comedy.’

All communities seem very touchy about stereotypes and can react angrily to them. But the risk in doing so is to forget why these stereotypes came to be in the first place. Take the stereotype about my nationality that can be reduced to the belief that ‘all Italians are Mafiosi’. This is of course highly offensive and deeply unfair in its failure to recognize the many Italians who died fighting the Mafia. But it also true that there is an element deeply rooted in the Italian culture that seems to favour allegiance to family, town or political party over considerations of legality and morality. The Mafia code is just the most extreme manifestation of this mindset.

Stereotypes are crude generalisations, but every generalisation needs a grain of truth from which to generalise. So isn’t rejecting stereotypes simply a form of self-denial?

This is where comedy can really play a role, being a safe environment in which the comedian can explore the stereotype and help their own community come to terms with the grain of truth at the bottom of it.

More generally speaking, comedy is a place where the bonds of loyalty, identity and belonging are loosened a bit and a grade of "treachery" is exceptionally allowed.

I recently saw Ivor Dembina's excellent stand-up show This Is Not A Subject For Comedy, about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which explores the dangers of letting your sense of loyalty prevent you from seeing what's wrong in the behaviour of your ‘own’ people. He has received hate mails for doing so, but his message is probably reaching people who would have reacted angrily if it wasn't for the comedic context. In a way, it's the ancient role of the jester, who was allowed to say things that would have cost anyone else their head.

So, the text time I'll see an Italian joking about the Mafia, a Muslim about terrorism or a Jew about money, I'll look for the reactions of the Italians, the Muslims and the Jews in the audience. If I see them laughing I'll know that the jester is doing his job.

Published: 15 Oct 2009

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