Why White Comics Don't Get Barack

Barack Obama on SNL with Amy Poehler and Darrell Hammond
Barack Obama on SNL with Amy Poehler and Darrell Hammond

A black president. Now that's funny!

So why are so many political satirists crying about how unamusing the Obama presidency will be? The standard reasoning is that, unlike Bush, McCain, Palin, the Clintons or even Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama is "too perfect" and does not provide material for good jokes. But the inability of "Saturday Night Live" to produce one hilarious sketch on the Obamas has little to do with the quality of comedic material Michelle or Barack offer. It has more to do with the fact that mainstream American comedy has been, for far too long, racially segregated and has relied on two formulas in dealing with black people: one is racial stereotyping and the second is black invisibility.


Both the right and the left used stereotypes in their attempts to satirize African Americans during this past election season. Most egregious was a mailing by the Chaffey Community of Republican Women's Group, which included faux "food stamps" with the image of Obama surrounded by images of watermelons and fried chicken. This sort of imagery dates back to D.W. Griffith's racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation in which newly elected black senators run the federal government into the ground and litter the floors of the Capitol with chicken bones. The members of the Chaffey Community group defended their actions by saying it was simply satire.

The satire defense was also deployed by the liberal New Yorker magazine when it donned Barry Blitt's cover of the Afro-sporting, gun-toting Michelle Obama and the turban-wearing Barack Obama back in July. In both cases, the racial stereotyping was so obvious that it produced loud public outcries.

For obvious reasons, the invisibility problem generates less outrage, but it is equally dangerous.

Each week, as I watched actor Fred Armisen imitate Barack Obama on SNL, I tried to figure out why I did not laugh. Armisen has Obama's cadence and facial expressions down pat, but as Kelefa Sanneh noted in the New Yorker, there is no "back story" to this character. Likewise, when Maya Rudolph temporarily returned to play Michelle Obama, the skit between Michelle and Barack Obama was successful, not because it has anything to do with the personalities or personas of Michelle and Barack, but because anyone singing "Solid as Barack" to the Ashford and Simpson tune, "Solid as a Rock" is funny.

It's not just that SNL does not give a back story to the Obamas or that a non-African-American actor plays Barack Obama; it is that these skits miss the complexities, contradictions and the interior features of African-Americans lives. On SNL and other mainstream political comedy shows like "Real Time" and to a lesser extent "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," the cast and writing staffs lack diversity, and it shows in the racial parochialism of the humor itself.

Perhaps Bill Maher was right when he said that Barack Obama leads to bad comedy because he is "too perfect" as a presidential candidate and that "liberals" and "comedians" (both of whom in Maher's calculations all appear to be white) are "afraid of laughing at anything with a black person in it." But, I think it goes deeper than that.


For such comics to consider Barack or Michelle funny, one of two things now has to happen: Either the Obamas must begin to feed into prevailing racial stereotypes (and therefore be seen as unfit for the presidency), or mainstream satirists will have to learn the cultural nuances of black America.

This would include not simply making fun of how white CNN pundits developed a media crush on Obama, but lampooning, as one YouTube skit shows, how Obama preps his swagger before each debate. SNL focuses on Obama's intellect and verbal pauses but does not satirize his performance of the "cool" black man. Understanding both his swagger and cool requires an understanding of black bourgeois respectability, not just in opposition to caricatures of working-class blacks but as a source of potential contradictions and comedy.


There is a great debate about whether CNN's "D.L. Hughley Breaks the News" and David Allen Grier's variety show "Chocolate News" on Comedy Central are funny or offensive. The verdict is still out. I can't help but wonder what kind of cathartic laughter Dave Chappelle would have been able to provide for us this year.

Imagine what he would have done with Jeremiah Wright or Barack's unannounced visits to the home of white undecided voters in Ohio. It's not that Barack and Michelle aren't funny; it's just that those who have been able to thrive in a predominantly white comedic universe will now have to hire more writers and actors (and hopefully producers and directors) who know how to work with the material that Barack and Michelle will serve up. If they are going to stay on top of their games over the next four years, white comedians and comic writers will have to acknowledge black interior lives and class and ethnic diversity. Then we'll all have something to laugh about.


Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children.

Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.