Comedians abide by their own rules

Where were you the day the laughter died?

For me, it was summer of my senior year of high school when Chappelle’s Show began to die a prolonged death. Granted, the importance of Chappelle’s Show hit me retroactively; its creator can be accused of nothing if not equipping friends and classmates with a dozen lines for ad nauseum recitation. Once that personal stigma faded, however, I allowed myself to watch the show and found it to be as wonderful as an entire generation of Comedy Central-ites had.

At the time, Dave Chappelle’s decision to end his program after its second season was reminiscent of the rationale behind Ricky Gervais’ continuing impulse to prevent his TV comedies from overstaying their welcome. Certainly even Chappelle, who is on the short list of the funniest people of his generation, couldn’t sustain the level of genius that marked his show’s only two seasons.

But there was so much more to it than that. Chappelle — whose humor is partially rooted in the realm of racial stereotyping — lost sleep over the fact that his show might be reinforcing those very stereotypes in his demographically diverse audience.

Chappelle’s rationale for abandoning the most lucrative contract in television history — a decision undoubtedly coupled with intense pressure — cemented his reputation as more than a typical comedian: Chappelle is a man with a true social conscience. His refusal to air “lost episodes,” which are probably the most tone-deafly racist of his sketches, points strongly to the power of that conscience.

On the same end of the spectrum is Aaron McGruder — the highly political creator of a legendary comic about black life and politics called The Boondocks. I remember hearing McGruder speak to a student audience here at USC in those breathless weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Judging from the first couple of questions, the group he addressed clearly hoped he would make a strong endorsement for the popular candidate of youths: Barack Obama.

Yet, the fiery young author said he didn’t find much of a difference between McCain and Obama — especially in light of their support for the controversial bailout bill, then still raw in the public mind. He said Obama had taken back the hope he had tried so hard to instill. As the disillusioned words of the far-Left pundit clashed with the hope and idealism of the audience, angry murmurs and walkouts ensued.

There’s no doubt that McGruder is bold. Who else could, through his acclaimed TV series based on his now defunct comic strip, so brilliantly resurrect Martin Luther King Jr. to offer comment on the state of black America? Who else would dare, in one staggering scene, to present one man’s vision of God as a cowboy Ronald Reagan clad in white?

Like Chappelle, much of McGruder’s humor deals with stereotypes.

Though when the same student moderator who pushed the defiant McGruder to offer an honest opinion of Obama asked him if he feared his program would reinforce negative stereotypes in the minds of the largely young, white audience that makes up a large piece of Adult Swim’s rating’s puzzle, McGruder evasively and shortsightedly answered that he simply didn’t think about things like that.

Now we can turn to Tyler Perry, one of America’s most financially successful black filmmakers.

Perry is an isolated force in the industry, someone far removed from the same obsessive fears about engendering racism that apparently tortured Chappelle and, for better or for worse, may someday also plague the indifferent McGruder. His films do not play outside of the community that he specifically addresses: black Americans. When critics speak up, they are dismissed as ignorant by fans or, such as in the extreme case of Roger Ebert, even deemed racist.

Perry has a freedom, whether he realizes it or not, that is provided by the isolating nature of his films. Certainly, his movies, like the works of his contemporaries, strike at the same basic human impulses when they play directly to a black audience. We laugh at Chappelle and McGruder’s comedy for reasons beyond the stereotypes. The same unifying reaction can be found in Perry’s work.

Part of me hopes that Perry’s audience will expand beyond the limited — yet lucrative — confines of black America. His films are merely yet another perspective by which a quintessentially American filmmaker views the world. That Perry is black is important to his work, but like those of Chappelle and McGruder, his films should not always be defined by their “black-ness.”

The works of Chappelle, McGruder and Perry require a constant defense against personal ignorance — vigilance against taking the racial stereotypes that these filmmakers propagate at face value.

If cinema is an exercise in viewing the world from another perspective, these three filmmakers represent a grand test in looking beyond the surface to find humor, entertainment and, ultimately, deep cultural value.

John Wheeler is a senior double majoring in cinema-television critical studies and East Asian languages and cultures. His column, “The Multiplex,” runs Fridays.