We didn't need the "S—t [Insert racial group here] Say" meme to recognize that Americans prefer laughing about race to talking about it. Even the phrase "That's racist" has been stripped of its call-to-arms roots to become a sitcom punch line, an Internet meme and the name of a hipster hip-hop group (Das Racist).
A version of the phrase shows up in an ad for Key & Peele, a new Comedy Central sketch show starring biracial improv actors and comedy writers Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. "If you don't watch, you're racist," the tagline reads under a photo of the smiling duo.
It's a knowing wink to passersby, letting them know immediately that the show will tackle issues of race but that we're all in on the joke. Key & Peele pulled in a record-breaking 2.1 million viewers when it debuted last Tuesday, the biggest Comedy Central launch since 2009. It seems like comedy has become a safe place to highlight instances of racism in everyday life.
While it remains to be seen whether Key & Peele will go on to fill the satirical race-comedy void that Chappelle's Show left in Comedy Central's programming, its existence points to an emerging trend in black comedy: accessibility. You don't have to be black to laugh at the sketch of two men going to great lengths to call their wives "bitches" behind their backs before switching into dutiful hubby mode when the wives appear. Nor do you have to be black to think that Peele's President Obama impersonation is the best in showbiz (or that Key's role as Luther, the president's "anger translator," is a stroke of comedic genius).
"When we write, we say, 'This is a really funny premise, it's pretty universal; we just happen to have melanin in our skin,' " Key says.
"Today it's a little bit harder to break out as a black comedian if you don't have more universal material," says Issa Rae, better known as J from the popular Web comedy series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. "Race relations in stand-up have been done and redone countless times."
Black comedy today deals with race relations with more intelligence, says Comedy Hall of Fame comedian and historian Darryl Littleton, who wrote Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us How to Laugh. Building on the political humor of comic greats like Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory and Paul Mooney, new comedians "are using satire to make fun of that stuff instead of hitting you over the head and saying, 'That's wrong.'
Along with providing a nuanced look at racism, black comedy has also moved beyond speaking to a section of black life to making it seem universal. Stand-up acts popular in the '70s, '80s and '90s ("White people do this, but black people do that") supported the idea that blacks are a monolithic culture with the same background, largely based on negative stereotypes associated with living in "the hood." While comedy at large allowed for different types of white experiences — from Archie Bunker to the yuppies on Friends — blacks were not afforded that same range.
But the election of President Obama showed that there was a different voice out there, one that identified with being black but also had an attachment to white culture, either through having a white parent, being well-spoken or wanting a glass of merlot with an arugula salad.
"All of a sudden, there was a place where we fit," Peele says. And it's a place where people feel comfortable pointing out the idiosyncrasies of race and laughing.
Even if we can laugh about it, racism — the ugly core found inside any race-based comedy — still exists. As Dave Chappelle's milkman character and his wife laugh at the end of the controversial skit "The Niggar Family," Chappelle sighs, "This racism is killing me inside." Why can't Americans just talk about race? Peele turns the question around, asking instead why race is so funny.
"At its core, race is an absurd notion," he says. "For some reason we find ourselves obsessed with something that's primal: If you don't look like me, you must be from a tribe that's not next door to me. It is intertwined with our basic fears. Only in this point of time, as the world gets smaller and smaller and we achieve a greater sense of what it means to be human in this world, can we find the humor in it."
"The reason comedy is the spoonful of sugar that makes medicine go down is because human beings are really expert at deflection," Key says. "They're allowed to have their own private moment of 'I often act like the fool on the screen.' You can use me or Jordan as the scapegoat, and then you can go home and examine it."
Anthonia Akitunde is a freelance writer living in Astoria, Queens. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Fast Company and The Root DC. Follow her on Twitter.