Somewhere in between catching up on Alyssa’s great (relatively) new blog and hearing that 30 Rock just got more Emmy nominations than anything ever, it occurred to me that among the proto-posts I’ve meant to write here is one disagreeing with Alyssa’s take that 30 Rock “has done a terrific job with ethnic humor”:
Ethnic humor is, I think, generally effective under a couple of fixed circumstances: a) when it comes from within the minority group being parodied, as with the best of Woody Allen and the Jews, b) it expresses something true that is difficult to say under polite or serious circumstances by carrying something far beyond its logical conclusion or realistic bounds, c) it subverts our expectations or understanding of the group in question, or of the teller. I think 30 Rock in particular has done a terrific job with ethnic humor, whether it’s Irish…or African-American (the running feud between Tracy and Twofer fulfills all three categories at once), especially in Tracy’s plans for a Thomas Jefferson movie, which refer to the former president as a “jungle-fever haver,” while also mocking African-American actors like Eddie Murphy
I’ll take Alyssa’s word for it that the racial humor about Blacks comes from Tracy Morgan, but I don’t think it tends to get at hard truths or subvert expectations. I watched all of 30 Rock in a short stretch a couple months ago, after having pretty much avoided it because I disliked the pilot so much when it first came out – largely because of the Tracy Jordan character. My boyfriend et al were right that it’s a great show and was worth a second chance. But I still think the racial humor is the weakest point – the most common trope seems to be “Black guy [Tracy] that gets away with stuff too much.”
The episode that epitomizes this for me (spoilers ahead, but they’re from memory so could be inaccurate) is the one in which Liz gets fed up with Tracy for never showing up to rehearsal on time and never learning his lines. Liz announces she’ll start holding everyone to the same standard, with the implication that she’s been letting him slide because he’s Black. She gets her comeuppance when Tracy starts being super-disciplined but announces Liz will no longer get special treatment because she’s a woman. That means she has to refill the water cooler and come to a strip club, which is enough to break her by the end of the episode and make her abandon her equal-standards project. In other words, women will get to keep abstaining from strip clubs and manual labor and Blacks will get to keep abstaining from punctuality and discipline.
What’s clever about this? It seems to me it’s hard get something good out of this without taking some kind of double-double negative/ “stereotype of a stereotype” position. What are they sending up in this episode? This is not a rhetorical question. Who or what is being satirized here? Is it satirizing people who believe that African-Americans are undisciplined? If so, why contrast that with the belief that hetero women object to being forced to strip clubs? Is it satirizing ostensible liberals who are willing to believe uncomplimentary things about Black people? Satirizing people who push for equal standards for everyone? People who push for special treatment for some people? Black people who “play the race card” to get out of showing up the work? Women who say they want to be treated equally but expect men to do the heavy lifting?
It’s provocative to joke that making a Black guy come to work on time is like making a woman come to a strip club, but I don’t see how it’s illuminating or even ironic.
I mention that episode because it’s the most flagrant example, but also because a lot of 30 Rock’s humor about race (Irish jokes excepted) seem to fall into that category. Edgy, but not really subversive. Based in stereotypes without really upending them. I agree with Alyssa that some of the jokes revolve around Tracy Morgan’s character (Tracy Jordan) trying to maintain a certain Black male image that’s not really him (pretending to be adulterous, or illiterate). But a lot of the jokes just come down to him being stupid or clowning around, him getting away with what others can’t, and more sympathetic characters having to put up with it.