Get “Funny Or Die” Trying – How The Latest Salvos On Racism Missed

In response to the murder of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Funny Or Die has produced 2 video sketches supposedly to release tension through satire. One video features a black man being harassed by a police officer for eating an ice cream cone on his own front porch, and the other parodies the television show Cops, with Ferguson as the episode’s location. Both videos focus on the theme of overzealous policing, wherein the degree to which the officers respond escalates despite exceedingly nonthreatening circumstances.

As America’s premiere web-based comedy channel, Funny Or Die guarantees high production quality, and these 2 videos deliver in kind. But where Cop v. Black Guy and Cops: Ferguson underachieve is in the creative approach to the deeper source issue. Both sketches identify the ‘game of the scene’ as hyper-reactive policemen, a tidy premise illustrated with absurd behavior and props for comic effect. Unfortunately, the events in Ferguson are but the latest and most publicized symptom of a larger disease plaguing the country—institutional racism—and deserve more respect than the sketch writers have paid.

With no black people in Mayberry? I doubt it.

With no black people in Mayberry? I doubt it.

Even when giving the sketch writers the benefit of the doubt, viewers sensitive to the reality of institutional racism can only cede the possibility of either unawareness or willful ignorance for the sake of a more immediate joke. To humanity’s credit, the public outrage against the racially charged militarized police state in Ferguson indicates that audiences will not accept such shallow attempts at humor now that the vacuum in which the jokes may have succeeded can no longer exist. More upsetting still is how the focus on policemen in the videos facilitates a shift away from racism altogether, trading it in for a more universally appealing cops-be-crazy commentary. Such an approach not only underestimates the ability for white audiences to empathize with people color, but also dismisses the pain that people of color experience on a regular basis.

In fairness, Funny Or Die is not the only comedy outlet to address Ferguson; The Daily Show has also covered the events through its trademark liberal lens, but with varying levels of success. In fact, Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s most effective commentary on institutional racism came without humor when he ended a segment on the media coverage of Ferguson by saying, “Race is there; it exists. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.”

That Stewart, one of the world’s more reliable social commentators, has yet to satirically cauterize the country’s rawest wound suggests that institutional racism is still challenging to digest for even the most trained professional comedians. And that the American comedy landscape continues to be dominated by white male sensibilities forecasts a greater delay in processing before thoughtful, biting satire on race returns to the mainstream. Perhaps this delay is simply a matter of overall timing, a textbook definition of “Too soon.” Maybe the comedy community just doesn’t fully “get it” because their world is so starkly different from Michael Brown’s regardless of race. Either way, the most reliable sources for contemporary comedy have clearly struggled to tap into the righteous anger stirred up by institutional racism and the police state and have yet to acknowledge the depth of public concern while exposing the undeniable struggle of humanity.

The possibility of eventually ignoring these tensions outright for less problematic material is real. But hopefully these initial attempts have served as lessons, indicators via audience feedback that comedians have to keep digging. The overall workshop aspect of comedy has become more public with the Internet, so here’s hoping that we are just witnessing the rough drafts to narratives that, once polished, will shine a light on what’s really going on.

About lemarmclean

I am a writer born and raised in New York City.

6 Responses to “Get “Funny Or Die” Trying – How The Latest Salvos On Racism Missed”

  1. Exceptional article. Hopefully it will be read by a lot of folks. I’d love to see it on one of the news magazines. Great work.

  2. Really LaMar? This is how you do? Word up.
    For the record, Funny or Die did didn’t produce my video. I did. I paid for it, rented the costume, found a director and wrote it with my boy Phil. In three days.
    We are at over 120K views with an 80% rating. And only reason it was on FOD’s front page was cause I hustled it up there.
    You produce something other than a blog trashing other brothers work then we can talk. This is whack homie. You didn’t even get the point if the piece. Straight lamesville. So disappointed.

    • Colton, forgive me for incorrectly attributing production credit to Funny Or Die. Good on you for financing the sketch yourself; I know that’s not always easy. And congratulations for all the traffic; I know that’s not always guaranteed, either, as my modest site visit figures reflect daily.

      As for your claim that I trashed your video, the essay was a commentary on how challenging it is to successfully satirize institutional racism. I provided a range of examples to demonstrate how that challenge exists for all comedians, regardless of race or experience with the problem, especially considering how painful recent events continue to be for people all over the country.

      Since writing my essay and reading your comment, I’ve also read your response to Charing Ball, whose commentary on the sketch on Madame Noire did not seem starkly different from mine. However, there was a stark contrast between how you responded to Charing Ball on your Tumblr and your response to me, jarringly so. I can only assume that you were disappointed by my perspective because I should understand the project differently than Ball would, coming from a comedy background. Is that the case?

      In the response to Ball, your description of the different issues you addressed with “Cop v. Black Guy” (militarization of police, the inexperience of those police, and walking while black), confirms that you’re right: I did miss the point of your piece. I missed it for selfish reasons, hoping for a commentary on institutional racism writ large since I see institutional racism as the elephant in the room that eclipses the specific issues you and Phil tackled. I would not fault either of you for not satisfying some uncertain vision to which I only have exclusive access. That kind of criticism would be completely unfair. But I stand by my criticism that the range of humor vaulted against racism lately has lacked the depth that the recent escalation of that racism demands.

      We both are passionate about the work that we do, Colton; your passion has a lot to do with your talent and success, and I’m glad to know you. But the blog I produce IS something other than “trashing other brothers’ work,” much more. The audio and written commentaries on my site are in the interest of moving all social justice conversations forward (racism, sexism, homophobia, rape culture, etc.). I welcome conversations with people who think I fall short of the points I’m trying to make, especially when using humor as a device. And I would hope that someone, especially someone I know personally, would extend that same respect to me if they take umbrage with what I have to say.

  3. Hey LeMar,

    I’m just coming across this article. We used to play hoops together, so I figure why not respond to an article about a piece that I wrote and acted in – especially an article written by someone I know and respect.

    First things first, I wrote this sketch with Colton Dunn. We produced it ourselves and then sent it to Funny Or Die, and the folks there were kind enough to feature it on their front page. We don’t work for Funny Or Die. We weren’t commissioned by Funny Or Die to write it. We paid for the shoot out-of-pocket because as comedians we felt like satire of this nature could help (in some small way) highlight the issue, shape opinions, and hopefully open some minds to the ridiculousness that’s going on.

    Okay, now for the other content in the article:

    Near the top of your piece you articulated the ‘game of the scene’ in both ‘Cop v. Black Guy’ (I should clarify now that I’ll only be speaking on ‘Cop v. Black Guy’ as I was not involved in ‘Cops: Ferguson’) as simply “hyper-reactive policemen”. You then go on to say that what we didn’t capture was the concept of institutional racism plaguing the country.

    I actually feel like a black man sitting on his property enjoying dessert and unrightfully being harassed by a cop is a prime example of institutionalized racism – a satirical example but not an unfathomable one given the state of our nation and its police forces. I believe the entire context for the scene as it is written is an example of the institutional racism that African Americans face – too often the color of our skin is the problem as opposed to our actual behavior. So I’d like to think there was zero “unawareness” or “willful ignorance” on our part. The “game of the scene” is racially ignited cop.

    You then go on to say that “the focus on policemen in the videos facilitates a shift away from racism altogether, trading it in for a more universally appealing cops-be-crazy commentary.” Again, this scene was about a cop approaching a black man on his own property and harassing him – I’m not sure where the commentary on racism is missed. There is literally a line in the sketch where the police officer says, “Oh, and he’s African American.”

    On top of that, in our sketch we wanted to comment on HOW radically this racism is manifesting itself currently – and that is in the militarization of police forces. This is why we had the costume changes in the piece – from SWAT, to Ghillie suit, to Storm Trooper. In American today there are angry, racially-biased police that are being given military-grade weapons that they have not been properly trained to use. Thus the constant cocking of the shotgun and the sniper rifle at close range – gross miss-uses of these weapons. Granted, the Storm Trooper beat is absurd, but it is satire, and I’d also be willing to bet there are officers out there that would love to patrol black neighborhoods with a laser gun if they could.

    You also said that our sketch “dismisses the pain that people of color experience on a regular basis”. Colton and I are both black, and this sketch was birthed from us both being shocked and frustrated by these recent events. Colton and I have both also had our own experiences with racism and police. As comedians we felt like we had an opportunity to channel that energy and say something relevant. Black people are being threatened and killed in scenarios in which most people would walk away. Being black is being equated with being dangerous. And we are not being served and protected but rather profiled and our lives threatened. That was the impetus for this sketch and it’s why at the end of the sketch we gave the cop the epiphany of, “I need to calm the fuck down.”

    When I sent the first draft of this sketch to Colton, we both asked ourselves if it was “too soon”. We then decided that now is the time to put it out there and contribute to the conversation. The sketch is grounded in in a frustrating truth, and this was us using our skill set to speak on what’s happening.

    The last thing I’ll comment on is when you said:

    “The possibility of eventually ignoring these tensions outright for less problematic material is real.”

    I just want to reiterate that we wrote and produced this independently. The issue you’ve brought up here might be real, but Colton and I were not avoiding any harsh-truths in our piece. We actually were doing our best to reflect/highlight an absurd reality – if you’re confronted by the wrong cop, your life is in danger. I believe there was an officer in Ferguson who pointed a shotgun at a journalist and said, “I’m going to fucking kill you.” We pulled that piece of dialogue and had it almost verbatim in our sketch. I don’t think anyone has watched ‘Cop v. Black Guy’ and walked away thinking, “I guess the point is that police brutality isn’t an issue.”

    There is a place for satire, and there is power in using humor to highlight pain as force for positive change. This sketch isn’t going to save the world, but it will hopefully act a progressive voice in the conversation. It’s fine if you didn’t like the sketch, but some of the points you made in your piece paint us as aloof and seemingly tools of an out of touch comedy community. And that is not the case.

    Anyway, thanks for watching and for sharing your thoughts. These are mine.

    Best,
    p
    p

    • Hey Phil,

      Thank you for your response. I imagine the last thing you’d feel like doing after making “Cop v. Black Guy” is defend it, especially to another black person you know personally. I understand how my article resonated as an indictment of Funny or Die (the title suggests as much) and appreciate your setting the record straight your and Colton’s the conception of the project. My aim was not to demonize any specific outlet, but rather to show how many respected comedy outlets have collectively come up short when presenting the kind of racial satire that I would want to see in light of recent events.

      Of course, I don’t believe anyone who watches your video will take police brutality less seriously than they did before, even if my criticism alluded to that belief. And I agree with you that any device to move conversation about institutional racism forward is a good thing, regardless of my personal opinion of that device. And even though I said earlier that I had yet to be satisfied by current racial satire, perhaps I’m the one who just isn’t ready to see it. I fully cede that possibility.

      Again, I appreciate the time you took to respond, knowing full well that you didn’t have to, much less at length. Best of luck in all of your work going forward, and congratulations on all you’ve done so far.

      Until,
      LeMar

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