Some of the highest paid comedians working today are still telling racist jokes. The fact that humor is still a relatively safe place for casual "That's so naughty!" racism is unsettling, but so is the fact that we're still unsure or unwilling how to respond to it.
Before Sunday night, I had never seen or heard of Jeff Dunham before, so I wasn’t at all prepared or contextually informed about what I was about to see on television. Later, I would search for him on Wikipedia to find out that his DVD went quadruple platinum in the first two weeks of sales, and that he made $30 million in 2009, making him one of the top three highest paid comedians in the US.
As it was, I was watching TV with my clients at work. We had spent a couple of hours watching a "30 Rock" marathon, followed by the requisite football time (I work at a furlough house for incarcerated young men who are taking steps towards becoming community members again. Football is a staple). After the game was over, someone flipped the channel to Comedy Central, and an enthusiastic “Yes!” rippled through the group as Jeff Dunham appeared on the screen.
Jeff Dunham may be the most publicly successful racist in America since, say, Harry Truman. He is an unfunny Harry Truman, with puppets.
Jeff’s act is centered around ventriloquism, with several different characters, his staple being -- are you ready? -- Achmed, the Dead Terrorist.
I’m serious. It’s a skeleton in a turban.
Jeff also has other cultural atrocity puppets, such as Jose, the talking Jalapeno. But for parity, there's also Bubba the drunk redneck and “Sweet Daddy D,” the “pimp.”
We’re all sensitive people here, so I will omit the lengthy paragraph that I want to include about how even when played for humor, racism is dangerous. Clearly, this man doesn’t care and is willing to be disgusting and horrible to make a buck.
The thing is -- the crowd was on board. There were close-ups of people in the crowd mouthing things, like “That’s so true!” and “He’s so BAD!” Sitting on the couch, not laughing, I felt utterly hopeless on behalf of humanity.
Most interesting was the reaction of my clients. Before they laughed at each joke, they looked around, to see who else was laughing.
These guys, who so many people in the community see as hardened criminals, weren’t sure whether what they were watching was OK. They took cues from the others as to how to respond. They didn’t have the same abandon and indulgence that the people in the audience did. Their hesitation was encouraging! They were thinking, unsure, maybe even a little guilty.
I eventually employed the eternally useful social services tactic of “setting a boundary” and asked that we switch channels because I was uncomfortable.
When confronted with racist humor, this is a simple, effective way to be the person who says, “I’m not OK with this.” It's easy, and it's necessary, because this stuff is everywhere, all of the time.
Kids receive over 5,000 media messages a day from companies trying to tell how they should think and what they need to do to be accepted, and some of this is communicated in what is considered "funny." Media and entertainment prey on the consumer desire to be part of the group, and use it as a tool to establish social norms.
Jeff Dunham apparently has a voice in this country right now, and he’s using it to create a culture where humor has no insight or compassion: it’s cheap, accessible and bland. It is not harmless. It is 100 percent intentional.
It’s not easy, but even in a situation where you don't feel secure and authoritative (like, say, with a racist grandmother or a co-worker, instead of a little kid) the responsibility of the people who think this stuff is not OK is to say so.
It can be hard and scary sometimes, to go against a crowd and or someone you respect to stand up for what you think is right. There’s no recipe for success, and it is best if you do it in a way that is reflective of you. It can be as simple as standing up and walk out of a room or frowning. Passive or direct, your reaction counts, and it helps to tip the cultural scales.
My first action was to tell the room that I was uncomfortable, and posting here is another way of saying that paying Jeff Dunham to tell those jokes, watching him, or laughing at him is not right, on a larger scale. It sucks to be the only one who isn't laughing when actually talented, funny performers are saying racist or sexist things, but somebody has to be the heavy, or this puppet-wielding monster wins. This is a kind of action: letting people know that I think Jeff Dunham sucks.
I'd like to close by wishing Jeff Dunham a future of enlightenment, because my hippie therapist told me that one of the ways to stop being angry is to do the “loving kindness” meditation, and send good will and love to a person who you dislike. So, have some love and good will, Jeff, you racist hack.
PS: Your non-racist "dog with no legs" joke is funny! Just as funny as it was when I heard it in fourth grade.