George Lopez and the Slippery Slope of Social Satire

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for The Natural Resources Defense Council.

On February 7th, video taken at George Lopez’s stand-up show at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix found its way to TMZ and then all over the internet. In it, the comedian is heard cracking a racially-charged joke about Latino families: “There’s still two rules in the f*cking Latino family,” he says. “Don’t marry somebody black, and don’t park in front of our house.”

When a woman in the audience stood up and gave him the finger, Lopez aggressively berated her for over a minute in an expletive-laden rant. “Sit your f*cking ass down. I’m talking, bitch. Sit your f*cking ass down,” Lopez yelled. “You paid to see a show. Sit your ass down. You can’t take a joke, you’re in the wrong motherf*cking place.”

The incident kicked off a social media scandal. There was the ever-vocal “take a joke!” contingent, that accused those offended of being over-sensitive. There were those urging us to take Lopez’s comment seriously as social critique or to use the opportunity to advance a serious critique. And then there were the many for whom the joke and the ensuing interaction were just plain racist. Headlines critiquing Lopez’s anti-blackness abounded.

Which brings us to the question: What does a racist joke look like in 2017? And when it comes to social satire, where is the line between critiquing racial or ethnic stereotypes and reinforcing them?

Raúl Pérez, a professor at the University of Denver, studies racial discourse in US stand-up comedy. Pérez builds off the work of Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to identify a post-Civil Rights disconnect between how we talk about race in private and the politeness and civility that govern how we speak about it publicly.

America’s insistence on seeing itself as color-blind leads to what Bonilla-Silva has called a “racism without racists,” in which coded language and euphemisms have replaced overt racism, while the country’s institutions continue to oppress people of color. Pérez studies how this translates to the world of comedy, where “shocking and taboo discourse is currency.” Stand-up comedy, he argues, is a venue where racist discourse continues to thrive through the use of approaches that make it palatable.

In comedy, context can change what is funny, what is unacceptable, and what is comprehended as the joke’s intent.

Using case studies and stand-up comedy school observations, Pérez identifies a handful of strategies that comedians use to introduce racist humor without alienating the audience. Among these are self-disparaging humor, and what he terms “‘equal opportunity offender’ distance and disclaimer mechanisms.” These work to detach speakers from the racist things they may say. Being perceived as not racist, or even anti-racist, doesn’t change the content of a racist joke, but it promotes a positive reception. The audience can feel comfortable laughing and enjoying the joke without racial anxiety and self-doubt. When the veil falls, as in the infamous case of Seinfeld star Michael Richards, the content is perceived as “real racism.” With these strategies, a country that purports to overtly reject racism can welcome racist discourse back into public consumption.

This discourse can manifest in different ways. Ethnic comedians that blur the line between dissecting stereotypes and mobilizing them often distinguish between their ‘normal’ speaking voice and caricature performances. These caricatures allow comedians to perform taboo subjects or ideas, even as they distance themselves from them. Often, white comedians that portray themselves as self-aware and point at whiteness in their comedy gain the cachet to venture into racial topics. The anti-Political Correctness vanguard makes use of these tactics to impart a sense of rebellion to their content without being labeled ‘truly racist.’ These strategies migrate to politics as well. America might elect a man who could and did say anything using the structure of jokes and the surprise of breached taboos, while always insisting on the veil that “Hispanics love [him]” and he’s not really racist.

The humor for which George Lopez is known succeeds when it creates an atmosphere of ethnic community in his audience – live or on television.

Are we laughing at his grandmother’s racism because it is ridiculous or are we finding the humor in her racist comments?

His most prominent tropes revolve around the Chicano or Latino family – this is how we are raised and it is different from how white people are raised. Our laughter in response is pleasure at recognizing the idiosyncrasies of our family dynamics spoken of frankly. Whether Lopez intended to highlight the prevalence of anti-blackness in Latino households in the joke made famous by the TMZ video or simply make light of it, that fact is quickly passed over for the punchline. “Don’t marry somebody black,” is buttressed by more innocuous common ground (rules about not parking in front of our house) that make the non-black members of his audience laugh and experience community.

In an older standup routine, Lopez jokes about his grandmother’s racism and how she would react seeing him with black friends. She’s racist “like all your grandmothers,” he says, priming the audience before he begins his performance of her. She was raised hard, he offers, before offering another excuse. “My grandmother didn’t like black people,” he says, “and to tell you the truth, black people, they didn’t f*cking like her.” This positions his grandmother’s racism as a horizontal animosity between Latinxs and black people. Lopez, then, not only distances himself from the racist discourse by embodying his grandmother as a character, but also by justifying her own attitudes toward black people. The comedian’s priming also gives us permission to find the racism funny.

But are we laughing at the grandmother’s racism because it is ridiculous or are we finding the humor in her racist comments?

If Lopez were interested in materializing intracommunal critique, this could be fertile ground, but the bit gets rolled into Lopez’s well-worn trope of how Latinos are raised. It’s a typical instance of Lopez glorifying the parenting tactics of his childhood. “We grew up hard,” he says, a contrast accentuated by Lopez’s portrayal of entitled white children. Quickly, the racism that is apparently part of growing up hard is left behind as Lopez critiques how white people coddle their children. It’s an easier target that doesn’t challenge the sense of community of his non-black audience.

We could connect this approach to what Sara Ahmed identifies as the “progressive racist joke.” This is a racist joke told with ironic detachment or perhaps a joke involving a slur that claims to be interested in stripping the term of its power. In this instance, it’s a retelling of racist comments. The content of the joke doesn’t change, but the “account” of what the joke is doing does. Lopez uses the strategies described above to frame the racist discourse as a ‘laughing with,’ – an “expression of solidarity” that requires that black audience members go along with the joke in order to be in line with the affective community, in order to not be a “kill-joy.”

The reception to the Lopez video illustrates how tenuously the atmosphere of the comedy club is maintained.

The reception to the TMZ video illustrates how tenuously the atmosphere of the comedy club is maintained. The people in the audience are there in hopes of enjoying themselves and Lopez has established prior rapport with them. He has likely mobilized Chicano stereotypes and caricatures to endear himself and create an atmosphere receptive to racial humor. Though she may not have intended it, by standing up and confronting him, the woman ruptured the atmosphere and reintroduced anxiety into racist discourse. The video of their interaction is poor quality and frames Lopez, not like a TV comedy special, but like a man in the distance berating a black woman for a full minute.

As with Michael Richards a decade before him, the veil of authentic inauthenticity has fallen. There is no playful tone in Lopez’s voice as he feeds the crowd’s mob-like cheering. His vitriol is sticky. It overwhelms the content.

Still, despite the Lopez incident, perhaps we can imagine a positive potential to comedy. In a 2014 article titled “Going to Bed White and Waking Up Arab,” Professor Cynthia Willett of Emory University and Professor Julie Willett of Texas Tech University explore the potential for laughter as affect to “exert a positive and transformative force on a social reality.” Willett and Willett are concerned with xenophobia as a contagious fear that spreads from individual to individual, generating the capacity to steer the trajectory of US politics. But how do you address something not subject to rationality and logic? Willett and Willett offer a potential antidote: laughter.

“Laughter, like fear, is a socially contagious affect,” the piece argues. Operating not at the individual level, but “like waves” washing over us, laughter has the capacity to calm social anxiety and alter people’s posture towards xenophobia. Willett and Willett, using examples from Arab comedians, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show, highlight how comedians can use mockery and jokes to expose the illogic of xenophobia and tribalism.

The arbitrary boundaries and hypocrisy of white supremacy are easy to mock and can create memorable scenes like Aasif Mandvi asking a governor proposing drug tests for welfare recipients to taste his own medicine, or Aamer Rahman making plain the inherent absurdity of the concept of reverse racism, or Dave Chappelle calling American money “baseball cards with slave-owners on them.”

More recently, we can look to Hari Kondabolu exposing the reasoning of #AllLivesMatter as derailment using a funny analogy. By revealing the petty machinations employed by white supremacy, he makes a case for why #BlackLivesMatters is necessary without making light of it. The contagious laughter that emerges from this type of progressive humor can make porous the boundaries of identity and advance solidarity.

But while this type of progressive comedy is enjoyable to those predisposed to agree with a politics critical of America, it might be limited by self-selection. A comedy routine can strengthen the feeling of solidarity among people inclined to pay attention, but it’s a harder sell to believe it could convert skeptics. Moreover, humor is not inherently a positive social force. Pérez calls jokes “ambiguous and elusive.” In comedy, context can change what is funny, what is unacceptable, and what is comprehended as the intent of the joke. Jokes that rely on stereotypes can reinforce them and jokes that try to challenge stereotypes with respectability or exceptionalism can undermine their benign intentions. And, too often, comedians posturing as critical of racism, or another aspect of their communities, don’t venture beyond posturing.

Consider a routine by Louis C.K. that has been touted as progressive: the white privilege of time travel. C.K. frankly admits that it’s preferable to be white, but an actual critique or explanation of why it would be dangerous for people of color to travel back in time is absent.

Though C.K. concedes that a comeuppance would be deserved, there is no overt challenge to the violence of establishing and maintaining white supremacy – it merely is. In a routine years later, his last opening monologue for Saturday Night Live, C.K. admits to mild racism saying, “it’s the best [he] could do” as a child of the 70’s. A generous interpretation could praise a white man admitting how racist preconceptions modify his experience of the world, but the joke goes no further than self-deprecating humor. Racism is projected as a harmless personal flaw rather than a structure that alters the life-chances of people of color. While not separating himself from racism, C.K. distinguishes the racism from harm, and like the strategies described by Pérez, it allows the audience a chuckle at racist thoughts.

Humor with subversive intentions can slip into reinforcing racism in the wrong person’s hands.

Even humor with subversive intentions can slip into reinforcing racism in the wrong person’s hands. Comedians like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, among others, have expressed regret for or discontinued routines that took on an unintended life in the mouths of racists. Perhaps most famously, Chapelle, who framed the skits on his show with monologues and audience interactions, still could not do enough to discourage interpretations at odds with his intentions. Subversive (or subversive-feeling) humor can also find its impact muted when embraced without introspection. When the Academy hired Chris Rock to host the Academy Awards after #OscarsSoWhite, everyone expected the comedian to skewer the blindingly white Academy. Covering the event, Vinson Cunningham called it a performance without the comedic element of surprise. Of course, the Oscars audience got what they paid for, but we should question whether a choreographed mea culpa can stand in for legitimate self-reflection and change.

It’s natural, then, to see politically conscious comedians take to other mediums (like podcasts) for more didactic and nuanced content. The slipperiness of racist discourse in the hands of satirists, equal opportunity offenders, and comics as social critics in different audience contexts means comedians are responsible, but often not in control, of their language. We can take from Willett and Willet that contagious laughter, surging from progressive humor, has the capacity to render “identities fluid,” but are the tides enough?

I’m not sure how a non-black Latinx should construct a joke calling out our anti-blackness, but perhaps we can start the ripple by mocking ourselves.