Humor’s Dark Side

Comedy hit a low spot at the Academy Awards when Chris Rock’s lame joke about the buzz hair style of Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, caused by her embarrassment in suffering from the stressful condition of alopecia (loss of hair).  Most of us believe Will Smith overreacted to Rock’s attempt at humor (not only was the joke an insult but also, not in the least, funny) by walking up to the stage and slapping the comedian in the face.  Given the current state of race relations in the United States, one can only imagine what would have happened if a white actor had been the one to have struck Chris Rock:  I’m quite sure bedlam would have ensued.

Although this is not a good example, nevertheless, the fact that a Black comedian can joke about a member of his own race, if nothing else, represents an advance of sorts in race relations.  When Black comedians began to hit the stage, there was an unspoken taboo to make fun or belittle other Blacks.  Much of the humor was situational and non-racial (e.g. Bill Cosby) or about past transgressions of whites such as the vile practice of lynching Blacks (that action recently banned by the government).  This type of humor, indeed funny at times, like much of its kind, had an angry undertone to it.  Audiences would sit and, as members of the white race, would grin and bear it and laugh either because the joke was genuinely funny or because they were expected to laugh.  The late Jewish comedian, Jackie Mason, made sure when he indulged in ethnic humor, he would roast all ethnic groups rather than picking on any particular one.

The recent court case of Jussie Smollet, a gay Black actor who was convicted of staging a false hate crime, has taken a number of twists.   His story of being attacked at 2:00 a.m. in the morning in Chicago by two men that yelled racist, antigay and pro-Trump slogans, splashed him with bleach and put a rope around his neck, appeared extraordinary.  Many of Chicago’s leaders, reflexively, came to his defense supporting his narrative, thereby exacerbating existing racial tensions.  Mr. Smollett’s lack of credibility became clear when the men, two brothers, that had purportedly mugged Mr. Smollett, confessed to the police that the actor had hired them for $3500 to commit the fake attack. Mr. Smollett was initially charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct, but these charges were dismissed by Cook County Prosecutor, Kim Foxx, after the actor agreed to surrender his $10,000 bond and serve two days of community service.

This ridiculously light sentence for an offender, who had caused utter chaos in the Chicago Police Department and potential civil unrest, was reviewed by a special prosecutor, Mr. Webb.  Because he found some irregularities in the way Ms. Foxx handled the case, a trial took place.  Subsequently, Mr. Smollett was found guilty of five counts of disorderly conduct, a felony, for reporting a false hate crime to police.  Although the maximum for each count would have been 5 years, his lawyers pleaded that he receive no jail time.  His attorneys made the point that this act was the defendant’s first criminal offense. However, the Cook County Judge, James Linn, upset with the evident perjury he committed, in conjunction with his complete lack of remorse, sentenced Mr. Smollett to 150 days.  The actor left the court screaming “I am not suicidal and I am innocent.”

But Mr. Smollett’s attorneys then brought the case to the Appeals Circuit.  Two of out of the three judges on the appellate panel agreed that the actor’s offense was non-violent in nature, and he was released from jail, after six days, and posted a $150,000 recognizance bond.  The actor’s attorneys sought the release of Mr. Smollett due to the fact that the review process ordinarily would take much longer than the 5 months sentence he had received.  Although the press and most Blacks initially sided with Mr. Smollett, after the facts became fully known, many remained conspicuously silent.  Chicago Police Superintendent, Eddie Johnson, took exception to this stance of other Blacks by pointing out at a news conference how an Afro-American man had exploited racial divisions for his own gain.

David Chapelle, a Black comedian, like Chris Rock, in the manner of Jackie Mason, has targeted different ethnic groups, his own included. In a recent gig, Chapelle remarked about Jussie Smollet’s strange behavior.  He stated: “African-Americans are oddly quiet because we understand that nigger was clearly lying.”  He went on to say that the racial slurs that Smollett had cited “sounded more like something I would say.” 

I believe that cracks, such as Chapelle’s, made in the context of a comedic performance take a certain amount of boldness.  As Blacks gain more agency in the United States, jokes of this nature, once considered taboo among Blacks, will add another layer of Black humor.  In essence, one joke in bad taste made by Chris Rock, and one very timely one made by David Chapelle, point to further progress in race relations.

A Touch of Humor

October brings the playoffs in baseball marking the end of a long season in which each team plays 162 games.  When I look at the stony faces of the players, they appear to me to be under more stress than the rest of us have felt during these past two years.  Egos are at stake in the attempt of each team to “bring home the gold”, that is win the World Series.  Given this atmosphere, it is hard to imagine that baseball, like any other sport, is only a game, and isn’t participation in games supposed to be rooted in fun?  Obviously, this is not apparent during playoffs.

Kyle Schwarber, Red Sox first baseman, a few days ago reminded us not to take each other so seriously.  The Red Sox acquired Schwarber just prior to the baseball trade deadline of July 30th this year.  The main purpose behind acquiring Schwarber was for his bat, and not his fielding skills that were regarded as mediocre.  Although his position had been as a left fielder, the Sox had a weakness at first base so the plan was to place Schwarber where he would best contribute to the team:  first base. 

Even though Kyle’s bat has lived up to the hopes of the Red Sox management, his glove, especially at a position he had not played in the past, has drawn some apprehension.  He had made a few fielding miscues in some important games prior to the American League Division Series (ALDS) against Tampa Bay.  However, he outdid himself in the 3rd game of that series, played in Boston, when he fielded a routine ground ball hit by Josh Lowe.  In his effort to make a simple underhand toss to pitcher, Nate Eovaldi, who was covering first base, Schwarber threw it well over the pitcher’s head  The broadcasters, in a moment of disbelief, joked that the great and famously tall basketball player, Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain, couldn’t have made the catch.  You could see the momentary chagrin on Eovaldi’s face.  One could only wonder how Schwarber felt after making such a poor play allowing Lowe to be safe at first base.

Kyle only had to wait until the next inning when Ji-man Choi of the Rays hit a ground ball to him almost duplicating the play he had blown the previous inning.  However, in this case, he did not commit an error.  Afterwards he charged with fist flying in the air, as if to say he had made a great play, and then he doffed his cap and waved it to the Fenway crowd.  It was funny because it was a routine simple play that any first baseman could have made.  The Boston fans loved his antics and wildly applauded Schwarber. 

Humor to be fully appreciated has a context.  Telling a joke to an audience that doesn’t understand the punch line, has little value.  Likewise, Kyle’s stunt would not have been funny if the home team was Tampa Bay and not the Red Sox.  It takes a certain amount of self-confidence and coolness to laugh at oneself in a way that can make others laugh too but in a loving rather than deriding manner.  Even if you are not baseball fans, I would suggest you look at a replay of these two plays by Schwarber as it is being widely seen on the internet.  Kyle allowed us to put the importance of our lives on hold and savor a moment of good fun and humor.