Monica McClure: I think what’s true about our lives is often employed in the joke as fantasy. “A Mexican and a Black guy are riding in a car together. Who’s driving? [Beat] The cops.” The joke’s work here is surprise. I remember when I was told this joke for the first time. I was young and I felt a little goaded into laughing. It was as if I wasn’t supposed to be able to guess “cops” because I was white. I think I was laughed at for not laughing, and didn’t mind. It had just made me sad because the experience wasn’t painfully mine to reframe. It couldn’t be more clear when I’m being excluded from the joke for being white, or the opposite.
Jenny Zhang: That makes me think of the time when Sarah Silverman infamously defended her right to use the slur “chink” in her jokes, and the president of the Media Action Network for Asians, Guy Aoki, took her to task for it on “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher. She actually demanded an apology from him for accusing her of being racist and not doing satire correctly. And that’s how I remember her—defensive about her right to be racist, which doesn’t even really stir me at this point. But what really bothered me was that she was defensive about her jokes working, insisting that she deserved an apology because some pissed-off Asians said her joke wasn’t funny.
But I also remember her on the brilliant but short-lived Kamau Bell show. Have you seen it? She talks about her Comedy Central Roast and how much it hurt her when a couple of comedians started making fun of how she looked like an old woman. This particular interview is interesting because she’s essentially saying the opposite of her party line, which has always been: “If you are offended, you don’t get it.” For her, some things are sacred and off limits, and of course, those things describe her identity: a thirty-something white woman. So the most hurtful thing to her is making fun of a woman who is no longer considered young. And in a way, she makes a great point when she says that roasting her for being old is like saying, “Your joke is that I’m still alive.”
But she can’t make the connection go any further than herself. Because I would argue that any joke where the punchline is RACISM=HILARITY—for example, Mexicans smell bad; Chinese people look like they’re napping but it’s just that their eyes are so small; black people are criminals—hurts me on exactly the same ground that Sarah Silverman was hurt by the jokes about her age.