December 13, 2006
No laughing matter
Posted by: Chris
Give Jason Stuart some credit for chutzpah. He no doubt gets it from years of combat duty, working as an openly gay stand-up comic in mostly straight comedy clubs. But after a press conference at the Laugh Factory, site of Michael Richards "n-word" rant last month, Stuart turned the tables a bit on a black civil rights activist overreaching a bit in response to Richards. The New York Times reported:
In the lobby of the Laugh Factory after the news conference, Jason Stuart, a gay comedian, buttonholed Najee Ali, a civil rights activist, and said, ''Twenty-five percent of every black comic's act is gay-bashing and none of you have done anything about that."
Earlier, Mr. Ali had shouldered his way to the microphones to tell the cameras that what Mr. Richards said showed that many white people harbor deep racism. In the lobby, he said he opposes [a ban on using the 'n-word'], and he responded to Mr. Stuart. ''It wasn't so much what he said," Mr. Ali said. ''We've heard the word used by many comedians. It was the rage, the hatred, the anger."
Talk about your moving targets. The reality, as we all know, is there's truth in humor. And whether a black comic's fag jokes are said with "rage, hatred and anger" or not, they contribute to a hyper-masculine, homophobic culture that plays itself out everywhere from hip hop music to the "Down Low" phenomenon.
Within a few days of the Times article, Stuart's chutzpah was on chutz-break. He issued an open letter claiming he has made peace with Ali (who says "he has been on the front lines to support all folks from prejudice") and was misquoted by the Times, and had really said, "about 25 percent of black comics have anti-gay material in their act and just as many or more white comedians do the same."
Regardless, Stuart's larger point shouldn't get lost in all the back-pedaling. Richards' rant was an out-of-control, unscripted response to heckling that did, of course, reveal a darker side to the man we know as "Kramer." But the anti-gay riffs in white and black comics' routines are scripted to get laughs and do, and say much more about what prejudice is still acceptable in society.
Of course comedy involves poking fun at all sorts of groups. And gay activists have been more guilty than most at lacking a sense of humor, but there's an important difference between a comic who is laughing with you and one who is laughing at you. Let's hope the Michael Richards rant helps us keep a closer eye on that line.
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