Lecture stresses correct black comedy interpretation

Jokes raise important racial issues but may not get their point across.

Courtney Sinner

Black comics like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock have made a living confronting racial issues by making them humorous and accessible to wide audiences.

But one University of Michigan professor wants people to start paying attention to exactly what they’re laughing at.

Bambi Haggins stressed the importance of self-awareness and interpretation in black comedy at a packed lecture in Murphy Hall on Friday afternoon.

Using examples of skits from “Chappelle’s Show,” formerly aired on Comedy Central, Haggins said that while Chappelle effectively “interrogated racial stereotypes,” his downfall came when the plan backfired and he lost control of how the skits were being interpreted.

“It’s a complicated humor for different constituencies,” Haggins said. “Sometimes the subtleties were not being read and got lost.”

Alex Thorson, an individualized studies sophomore, attended the lecture. She said she can see how black comedy can go both ways.

“There are a lot of people that can’t see the deeper meaning,” she said. “They just see that front layer.”

Thorson said while it’s good that the comics are able to raise the issues, sometimes the laughter can be more divisive.

“What’s funny to one person might not be funny to another,” she said.

Public relations sophomore Rashelle Holmgren said black comics have to look at their options closely.

“You have to weigh if the laugh is worth the sacrifice of not knowing how everyone interprets it,” she said. “But maybe the issue would have never been brought to the surface in the first place.”

Haggins, however, still encourages the groundbreaking style that black comedy has.

“Comedy has the power to be subversive and change the status quo,” she said. “I hope there is another out there that can, to varying degrees, bring politics into humor and make you laugh and think, too.”

Haggins stressed the notion of taking a step back and re-examining what is getting the laugh.

“I know what I’m laughing at, but I don’t know what you’re laughing at,” she said. “Chappelle was walking a razor edge. His critiques were embedded and the question became, ‘is it clear enough?’ “