Virginia’s slow-motion disaster of a governing crisis has now been dragging on for more than a week. On Feb. 1, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam apologized for appearing in blackface in a 1980s yearbook photo, standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The next day, he announced in a press conference that, actually, he didn’t appear in the yearbook photo after all, though he did use shoe polish to darken his face once for a Michael Jackson dance contest. Days later, state Attorney General Mark Herring, who is second in line to replace Northam if he resigns, confessed that he too had appeared in blackface at a costume party in the 1980s. (Meanwhile, two women have come forward to accuse the lieutenant governor of sexual assault.)
Blackface is both indisputably racist and a historical staple of white America’s performance tradition. As the New York Times crisply summed it up last week:
A partial list of people who have appeared in blackface on screen and stage in the 186 years since [blackface “pioneer” Thomas Dartmouth] Rice’s performance on the Bowery includes: Desi Arnaz, Fred Astaire, Dan Aykroyd, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (from “Amos ‘n’ Andy”), Ethel Barrymore, Milton Berle, Jimmy Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby, Billy Crystal, Ted Danson, Marion Davies, Robert Downey Jr., Judy Garland, Alec Guinness, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Benny Hill, Bob Hope, Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Hedy Lamarr, Janet Leigh, Harold Lloyd, Sophia Loren, Myrna Loy, the Marx Brothers, David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Will Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Grace Slick, Spencer Tracy, Shirley Temple, John Wayne, Mae West, Gene Wilder and the Three Stooges.
Embedded in that long list is one of the biggest, messiest blackface scandals of the modern era—one that still feels at once relevant today and like a startling relic of another era. In October 1993, actor Ted Danson appeared at a Friars Club roast of his then girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg, with his face painted dark brown and a wide white stripe encircling his mouth. He used the N-word more than a dozen times in his bawdy routine, talked in explicit detail about their sex life, joked about having her clean his parents’ house, and ended the set by eating from a tray of watermelon. Before the performance, a reporter had asked him to preview his performance, which he had been told was closed to the press. “My career would end,” he joked.
It almost did. Danson bombed—first in the room and then outside it, as word spread about the disastrous performance. Critic Roger Ebert was there and reported that each joke drew successively fewer laughs from the audience of some 3,000 people at the New York Hilton. Attendees including Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, RuPaul, and Mr. T sat stone-faced in the crowd. Talk show host Montel Williams stormed off the stage and later announced—by telegram!—that he was resigning from the club. New York Mayor David Dinkins, who also attended, issued a statement calling the jokes “way, way over the line.”
The spectacle quickly became even messier. On Saturday, the day after the roast, the Friars Club issued an apology to anyone “discomforted and offended by the racial remarks.” On Sunday, Goldberg held a press conference in Beverly Hills in which she strongly defended Danson. On Monday, the all-male club reversed itself and withdrew the apology. “We feel that the attention drawn to this recent private roast because of the strong reaction by people who apparently did not anticipate or understand our format was totally undeserved,” the club’s dean said in a statement.
Danson himself mostly stayed quiet. But the scandal dominated headlines so thoroughly that Goldberg marveled it “knocked Somalia off the cover of the New York newspapers” just days after American forces had participated in a battle in Mogadishu. Danson’s routine spawned think pieces and op-eds across the country; the New York Times called it “a flash point for a national debate over the First Amendment, political correctness and interracial couples.” The paper reported that Whoopi Goldberg (“but not Ted Danson”) was a popular Halloween mask that year.
No tape of Danson’s performance has ever been made public. (There are, however, photos.) So why did it blow up the way it did? In part because Danson was such a huge star at the time. Earlier that year, 42 million households had watched the series finale of Cheers, the barroom sitcom that made him a star. His first big project after the show was Made in America, a sperm donor mix-up comedy co-starring Goldberg. The pair had fallen in love on set. By the summer of 1993, Danson was in the process of divorcing his wife, and People ran a cover story about his new relationship: “TED & WHOOPI IN LOVE.”
Danson might not have recovered from the disastrous performance were it not for the fact that Goldberg stood by him so unreservedly. When she appeared onstage after his performance, she fumed at the audience’s obvious disgust. “It takes a lot of courage to come out in blackface in front of 3,000,” she said. “I don’t care if you don’t like it. I do!” She later said that she herself had written much of Danson’s material, and called the backlash “insane.” She accused his critics of not understanding comedy. “Whoopi has never been about political correctness,” she told the Times. The couple announced their breakup less than a month after the roast. By then, the scandal had mostly died down. Danson rarely discusses the roast, but he reflected on it at some length in a 2009 interview on Fresh Air, calling it “a graceless moment in my life.”
At first glance, the Friars Club scandal seems to have played out in 1993 exactly how it would have in 2019: The explosive early coverage, the hasty apology, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, the rescinding of the apology, the talk show jokes, the op-ed tsk-ing, the think piece contextualizing, and finally the whole thing just peters out.
But on closer examination, the 1993 coverage of Danson’s debacle seems like a striking time capsule in one significant way: It’s unbelievably simplistic. The controversy took place amid a burgeoning anxiety about “political correctness,” and many of the mainstream opinion pieces reacting to the routine were working out issues about comedy and offensiveness that now look almost infantile in their shallowness. “Given the history of racism in America, it’s dicey whenever white people decide to poke fun at black people,” an analysis in the Washington Post observed. “Some believe that being funny is a greater social good than being politically correct. But others say the history is so painful that whites—even in the pursuit of honest humor—should simply hold their tongues.” The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Race is no laughing matter.”
Bill Maher’s Comedy Central show Politically Incorrect had made its debut that summer, and Maher, ever desperate to the play the provocateur, defended Danson’s routine. “The whole point of a Friars roast is to be over the line, to be distasteful,” he told the Washington Post. “If [Goldberg] enjoyed it, that’s all that mattered. If she wanted to see her boyfriend in blackface, that’s all that mattered.” So the point of the routine was to provoke the audience, he suggested, but also that audience should have interpreted the routine as a private act and therefore not taken offense.
Contrast this kind of gross oversimplification with the discussion around this disastrous week in Virginia politics. In the last week we’ve been able to read about the history of racism in Virginia specifically, in college yearbooks, and in medicine; other critics have traced blackface’s shift in the 20th century from public performance to private display of “edginess” and meditated on the question of whether all instances of blackface are really alike. And it’s no coincidence that in 1993, most of the outside voices weighing in on the Danson scandal were white; today, many of the sharpest dissections of the Virginia debacle have come from black culture critics, podcasters, and academics. On Sunday, Gayle King pointedly corrected Northam on CBS’ Face the Nation when he referred to slaves from Africa as “indentured servants.”
Today, the broad contours of the conversation might be similar to those around Danson, but the substance of the debate is so much more sophisticated. Even allowing for the fact that Danson was merely an actor, while Northam is a public official, the difference is marked. The moral clarity of the reaction to Northam’s yearbook can now coexist with subtle analyses of the context in which it appeared and the importance of disentangling individual acts of prejudice from systemic racism. As much as our age of cultural criticism gets pegged as stark and overly moralistic, there’s something bracing about reading critical dispatches from a time when the culture was only just beginning to reckon with these questions—when a blackface performance by a huge sitcom star got framed by prominent critics as a breezy choice between “being funny” and “being politically correct.”