Brow Beat

When Race Is the Punchline on Prime Time

American sitcoms are dealing with race more than ever, but too often the jokes reinforce stereotypes instead of subverting them.

Scenes from Mom, Will & Grace, The Simpsons, Roseanne, and Black-ish.
Scenes from Mom, Will & Grace, The Simpsons, Roseanne, and Black-ish. CBS; NBC; Fox; ABC.

I’ll admit it, I do enjoy race jokes—but only those of the subversive variety. Racially charged quips on Roseanne and The Simpsons led to a flurry of criticism about the indelicate use of race as a punchline last month. On ABC, Roseanne Barr’s character took a swipe at other shows on the network that portray black and Asian families as being “just like us,” implying they’re inherently different from white families, and on Fox, The Simpsons devoted an episode to brushing off charges that the character of Apu perpetuates racist stereotypes.

Upon closer examination, these headlines tell only a fraction of the extent of American TV’s racial humor, which exists in a murky moral zone, since it’s not intended to be offensive yet often contains disparaging takeaways. In one of my more exhaustive binge-watching marathons, I looked at all the prime-time comedy shows that aired in the last week of March—the week before the aforementioned Simpsons episode—on each of the five main American broadcasters (ABC, CBS, the CW, FOX, NBC) for other instances of racially charged humor—comedic references that play up racial stereotypes. My findings revealed near-clockwork regularity: Each day, except comedy-free Friday and Saturday, there was at least one such line, action, or other cue within the scant four to five hours of prime-time broadcast to millions of daily viewers.

The use of race in comedy is not immediate cause for objection. There’s a crucial distinction between gratuitous one-stop references and thought-provoking humor: The latter will feature another moment in the same episode that dispels or shows another side to the stereotype being invoked. Context turns the joke from a zero-sum remark to subversive humor that serves as a segue into meaningful commentary. To put it in facetiously simple terms, it’s the difference between “No offense, but you’re really ugly,” and “No offense, but you’re really ugly when you do this.”

Consider the “North Star” episode of ABC’s Black-ish, which wrapped up its fourth season last week. The show’s black protagonist, Dre, consistently makes comical yet resentful remarks about his biracial wife’s white relatives, like “While I was cooking, avoiding the white cousins,” and peevishly judging them for their cooked beets, dismissing the dish as boringly, stereotypically white. But his harsh perception of white culture becomes a plot tool during a group discussion in which he realizes that the white (Jewish) relatives too have painful histories of their own, that they cook beets in memory of a grandmother who survived the Holocaust. The cultural elements he’d perceived negatively become nuanced lessons in their humanity.

The problem is that shows like Black-ish are the rare exceptions, with the vast majority of the references I found treating racial groups as little more than comedic material.

On CBS’s Mom in the same week, a tipsy female character watches TV with a Hispanic man and says, “Everything’s in Mexican.” He responds in Spanish, without subtitles, then he and his wife exit the scene as they continue speaking in Spanish, still without subtitles and over a laugh track. The Spanish language is reduced to a comedic prop, the meaning of the dialogue irrelevant with the implication that the humor lies in its loud foreignness. We’re laughing at, not with.

Meanwhile, on NBC’s Will & Grace, Will says to Joyce, “Wow, you’re tan.” Joyce responds, “Like Moana, but thin like Pocahontas.” Contrary to popular misconception (perpetrated by quips just like this), Polynesians like the Disney character Moana are naturally dark-skinned, not “tan” versions of white. Such statements inaccurately imply an identity that can be easily appropriated while also subtly fetishizing brown women’s bodies, the darker realities of skin color washed over to suit the punchline for a white gaze—part of the reason why blackface is considered such an explicitly racist offense.

These references are not intentionally offensive, and some are probably even meant to be positive or inclusive. The fact that they’re comedic also makes them more challenging to debate, making critics seem like bad sports unable to take a joke. Mutual laughter can unite audiences, and sometimes comedy is meant to be controversial. But comedic context can also be a way of deflecting criticism about undeniably disparaging undertones. This becomes especially damaging when the laughter or controversy satisfies one group at the expense of another, creating more walls than connection because, as experiments have shown, messages of bias picked up through humor can lead to discriminatory behaviors.

In an oft-cited 2007 study on the effects of sexist humor, researchers found that participants were less willing to donate money to a women’s organization after reading sexist jokes, but not after reading neutral jokes. Another experiment showed that participants were more likely to cut funding from a women’s organization after watching sexist comedy skits, but not after neutral ones. The takeaway is applicable to racially charged humor: Even if presented humorously, prejudiced ideas can release the viewer’s own biases and influence him or her to act upon them.

Furthermore, the same researchers found that not all stereotypes are created equal. Different groups have different degrees of immunity from humorous jabs, which means minorities and marginalized communities are more likely to suffer from discrimination than whites and other socially secure groups. Groups with more malleable social reputations, like gay men, are more likely to face increased discrimination because of comedic routines than those whose social standings are already fixed.

Humor has recently been sorted into the categories of punching up, poking fun at those in power, and punching down, belittling those with less power. The ancient Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence, whose plays are the oldest-surviving Latin comedic texts, used social commentary to upset traditional Roman expectations and political figures. In modern popular culture, punching up is clearly visible and applauded in mainstream television, particularly in the realm of political satire on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Dave Chappelle is a master at it for observations like his line about Mexicans and Arabs taking racist attention away from black people: “We, African Americans, want to thank you for your sacrifice and your struggle.” He simultaneously pokes fun at the discrimination suffered by other ethnic groups while addressing (white) racism’s inescapability.

Punching down is often more muted, as overt denigration of the lesser is frowned upon in America’s social system, an affront to ostensible ideals of democracy and equality. But, like social prejudice itself, it has always existed. Black people were depicted as primates in antebellum America, comic relief used to justify slavery. These days, racially derogatory ideas exist in subtler forms to avoid widespread condemnation, like the casually biased jokes on prime time.

Granted, the frequency of racially charged humor on network television will vary week to week, and comedies on other channels may have fewer—or more—variations. But with issues of implicit bias continuing to permeate society outside of entertainment, the ongoing, negative depictions beamed to and streamed in millions of American homes should not be taken lightly. As Black-ish and Chappelle’s routines have shown, the race jokes that bring us together have better punchlines than skin color and accents, and though we tend to forget because it doesn’t seem like a big deal, cheap laughs do come with a cost.