Have you ever said a joke and gotten the response “c’mon… to soon” or “really? That’s taking it too far”? If you have, then you know very well that sometimes jokes can carry more than the intention of laughter. Specifically, it can open up a painful, violent, heart-wrenching reality for the audience. So you must ask yourself, why make the joke at all? In other words, was there something in the nature of the joke that could’ve allowed for the discussion of an otherwise uncomfortable subject matter? Eddie Murphy, an American comedian, actor, writer, singer, and director, would certainly say so. In a number of his works, he engages with issues of race using comedy. In this blog I would like to discuss the effectiveness of his comedy in critiquing the extensive racial issues that permeate society.
To begin, Murphy articulates that Abraham Lincoln forgot to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Immediately after he made that statement, the crowd started to laugh. He responded, “I don’t think that’s funny. Because technically that means that slavery was never abolished and that means that technically I’m still a slave and you’re still slave owners” (0:35-0:45). When he said that the Emancipation was never signed, my eyes grew in shock as I obviously knew what that meant. However, when I heard the laughter from the crowd, I grew uncomfortable. How can you laugh about such a critical issue? How can you laugh about the ostentatious abuse and violence of slavery? How can you laugh that slavery could have been longer than 250 years? At that moment, my reaction was, “oh shit, that’s not funny.” However, when Murphy states “you’re still slave owners”, he articulates that the skit is meant for a white audience and not necessarily a black one. Specifically, it is as though he knows that the only racial group who could possibly laugh at such a turn of events are those who did not experience its hardship. Thus, I argue, Murphy is criticizing whites for their disregard – whether consciously or subconsciously – of racism. In other words, he accentuates that whites always laugh at the expense of blacks.
Furthermore, placing the joke behind this statement aside, Murphy is implicitly argues that racism still pervades our country as though the Emancipation Proclamation had never actually been signed. He continues, “So tomorrow if you happen to see a black person that you like… by all means take him home with ya” (0:44-0:50). Through this statement, he clearly points out that blacks, in the post-enslaved world, are still liable to be controlled by their social environment. This point, despite its intended humor, is a significant critique of United States political system. In other words, Murphy is simultaneously forcing the audience to realize that the “modern” society is really no better than it used to be. It still considers blacks as the inferior race controllable by whites for the benefit of whites. Stated as painful truth, I continued to be shocked at the laughter of the audience. However, I slowly realized that laughter was probably the only way to lead into a more serious discussion of what it means.
Throughout the video, I was very uncomfortable at the way Murphy was addressing racial inequality. However, through the use of comedy he was able to his significant social, political, and cultural issues without shying away from the truth. By doing so, he forces the audience to recognize reality and forces us to engage in conversation behind the meaning of his jokes. Although I would argue that his style is too far, I would also argue that it is necessary. If members of society are uncomfortable speaking frankly about racial issues, what better way to break the ice than laughter: “Haha that’s funny right? No, it’s not.”