30 ROCK’S RACIAL HUMOR: NOT SO HOT

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.

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9 thoughts on “30 ROCK’S RACIAL HUMOR: NOT SO HOT

  1. Pingback: 30 ROCK, RACE, AND CURRENT EVENTS « Little Wild Bouquet

  2. 30 Rock is my favorite currently airing show, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who has found the racial humor to be a bit…well, racist at times. One thing they tend to do often that really annoys me, is that they’ll talk about an unseen character and specifically mention their race for no apparent reason, like when Carrie Fisher’s character said she obsessed about the Jamaican man across the hall. Is the fact that the neighbor is Jamaican supposed to be funny in and of itself? Why? And there are many other examples of this. Still love the show, though.

  3. I’m pretty sure that what happened in that episode is Liz thought Tracy was getting special treatment because he was the star, at which point he pulled out the “race card” (literally). So, if Tracy can’t get special treatment for being the star, than Liz can’t for being the head writer… or so goes the logic of that episode.

  4. Pingback: YEAR IN REVIEW « Little Wild Bouquet

  5. why irish jokes excepted? as an irish person, i think at times they go too far. i absolutely love 30 rock but im disappointed that every few episodes there’s something about irish people being dumb alcoholics. i mean, so many times.. i dunno its like theyre trying to really get the point across. i thought julianne moores comment of her husband being ‘ah, an irish moron’ was when they crossed the line. its like irish is a byword for idiocy. love the show, at times a bit baffled as to what theyre getting at. thats all.

  6. I just don’t see Tracy as a “typical black guy,” I think he is meant to be an exceptional personality, whoooo… a crazy ADD star who is allowed to have a pet lizard. He is always set aside as exceptional and his blackness holds second fiddle to his craziness because no one else on the show acts like him. Tracy’s jokes are mostly on Tracy being “SO WEIRD” and all that. Grizz and Dot Com are kind of like the tough bodyguards/entourage a la Suge Knight that are respectively surprisingly emotional and intellectually didactic. It IS racist that the joke comes from the audience not expecting them to be like that. Just as Liz Lemon is not meant to be a shining example of a feminist.

    The show has surprisingly frank racial jokes. And just like it stands back from the characters, pointing out their flaws (like Liz’s hypocritical feminism in TGS Hates Women) with a fourth wall of irony, or pushing them to be a stereotype then fleshing out their character (like Avery being the ultimate FOX News pile of hair and makeup) it tells these jokes and points out foibles with a fourth wall eye roll at the way things are. Just like Liz Lemon’s unattractiveness is a joke that requires suspension of disbelief. But, people might not always get the “tongue firmly in cheek” aspect. Here I wonder if the show is racist, when it cuts too close to the quick like it does for every other joke (like the stuff about the Teamsters or Frank and Susan Sarandon.) It depends on what offends you. And it doesn’t really directly reflect truths other than just entertaining with common tropes (i.e. the being contractually obligated to snatch a weave.) There isn’t effort, as you said, to subvert truths, other than just to entertain. This is the same way that we don’t really learn enough about the show’s archetypes, like life in a 30 Rock environment, weird, bro-ey boss/employee relationships, what it’s like to be a tv writer, but we do see a lot of good jokes about being a single woman over 30. Not a lot is pushed for learning purposes and mostly we are just pleasantly entertained and can’t read too much into the characters. (Like, Jack’s work relationship with Liz is almost immediately inappropriate.)

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