When comedian Joe Torry hosted Def Comedy Jam in the ’90s he punctuated his intros of each comic with the call out, “Damn, is he funny?” and a playful neck roll. It was a suitable gesture because it emphasized all that mattered when it came to the world of comedy: Will it get a laugh?
We all know that being funny isn’t easy and that humor often comes at someone’s expense. Race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation are all fair game in the world of stand-up and filmed comedy and it’s almost impossible to get a laugh without pissing someone off.
As history will tell it, the most offensive things will often get a pass if it can get a laugh. However, some producers for Russell Simmons new Youtube Channel ADD (All Def Digital) have crossed a line, but it wasn’t a punchline.
In a sketch dubiously dubbed “The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” the famed abolitionist and her Underground Railroad were parodied by insinuating that she established the network for freeing slaves by blackmailing her master with a sex video.
Being honest, the very notion of a Harriet Tubman sex tape offended me and all of the reasons why this should never have made it off of the scribble on a napkin stage are outlined succinctly in an essay by my NewsOne.com colleague Terrell Starr HERE.
But one thing I’ve learned about critiquing art is that when you highlight things like sexism and racism the offending parties bristle and turn a deaf ear. They go into defense mode and fail to understand why their “art” was not taken as such, but instead offer damage control apologies, as did Russell Simmons HERE, hoping that the whole thing will go away.
However, if you point out that a song was just BAD, or that the acting was BAD you can strip the emotion from the interaction and appeal to their common sense in another way. If you tell someone they’re racist or sexist they feel judged. But if you tell ’em they’re really just bad at their job they’re more inclined to listen. This isn’t meant to justify piss poor ideas, but to build a bridge of understanding that will prevent piss poor ideas from being done anymore. Feel me?
So I’m here to point out something to the creators of the sketch from a purely entertainment stand point that they should take heed to if they plan on being in business for very long:
You. Were. Not. Funny. And let’s examine why.
1)It wasn’t original. The whole “rewriting of history” bit has been done before and done better. Everyone from Dave Chappelle to Wayne Brady has jumped in virtual time machines and re-imagined horrible circumstances for catharsis and laughs. So your sketch was doomed to be seen as three minutes of comedy Karaoke before it even made it to the web no matter how funny it may have been.
Watch Wayne Brady discuss his Crispus Attucks sketch, “It Was A Good Day”:
2) Your premise was flawed. The idea that Harriet Tubman had to “trick her master” into anything is redundant because guess what–she DID outsmart them in REAL LIFE. There is no irony here.
“When it comes to parodying stuff, it’s funny if you’re parodying truth. In this case it was just rewriting history,” says Madison Shockley, known to online TV fans as Fred on the popular “Misadventures Of An Awkward Black Girl. “The courage of what she did is why she’s in the history books. This sketch is not telling the truth of her story, it’s mocking it.”
To “shame” a slave owner into supporting the Underground Railroad assumes slave owners could have a conscience about raping their black slaves and tried to hide it from anyone. This is is like implying that Donald Trump would be ashamed of his millions or how he got it.
3) Your editor should be shot. You made several attempts to convey a “message” (“162 years later, there’s still tremendous injustice”) but it was lost in the disorganization of the scenes and the audio that was mixed in a tin can. This would have been more effective shot on an iPhone. The “I won’t leave you hangin'” joke was as inaudible as it was tacky.
4) You didn’t know your audience. Slavery as a topic is not off limits (see #1) but you have to understand your audience. In this clip below Aries Spears skewers interracial couples in the crowd and even suggest that they play “escaped slave and the master’s wife” to their faces! Maybe some of them sat there embarrassed or walked out of the show but for the most part it got a laugh. You may say this is not a fair comparison because stand-up is a different animal from sketch comedy and I’d agree with you. But your boss Russell Simmons pointed out in his “apology” that he “never pulled a comedian from Def Comedy Jam” so I’m trying to connect the dots for him as well.
When people pay to see Katt Williams or Tracy Morgan there is a reasonable expectation of some out-of-bounds shit going down (even though that didn’t stop some patrons here). But when you’re producing comedy for the web your audience can be anyone or anybody. And seeing as you are targeting an African-American demographic on the internet you’ve got to pick your battles carefully. Unlike the couple in the front row we will not laugh sheepishly and keep it moving if we don’t like something. #BlackTwitter will hand you your head.
5. We didn’t care. For comedy to work there has to be a payoff for the audience. If you’re going to make fun of men the women have to get it or vice versa. If you’re going to make fun of white people the Black folk have to ride with you. But you took one of the most powerful figures in American history–male, female, white, or Black–and stripped her of her power. You reduced her accomplishments to a romp in the bed. She “forgave” the prior rapes and “consented” this time so she could film it?? Where is the comedic payoff in that for the watcher? Even the poorly edited ending fell flat as she stumbled through her lines, “get in there and build that railroad, White n*gger.” What the what? This is the position of “power” she now held because she “outsmarted” her master?
She ran the Underground Railroad, she didn’t run trains, fool!
But maybe this is a top down problem. Even the tagline for ADD “If you don’t have ADD then you’re not paying attention…” is documented proof that there is a dearth of wit on the payroll.
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