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Should White Comedians Ever Ridicule Black Culture?

“Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally Covering Riskay’s ‘Smell Yo Dick’ Is As Awesome As It Sounds,” proclaimed Gawker yesterday, describing a show in LA a couple of nights back wherein Nancy and Beth ( Mullally and Stephanie Hunt) performed the song live on stage, with a guest appearance from Nick Offerman on vocals. The video was uploaded to Funny or Die and duly went crazy, with some 120,000 views to date. But is it awesome? We’re not so sure.

If you’re not familiar with the glory of “Smell Yo Dick,” it’s an entirely serious song by previously unheralded Floridian rapper Riskay about the ingenious titular method of detecting infidelity, and it became something of an internet phenomenon on its release a few years back. The song’s clearly rich with comedy potential, and Offerman, Hunt, and Mullally exploit its absurdist qualities to the fullest.

Still, the idea of white people performing a song that seems to embody and reinforce a whole lot of negative African-American stereotypes was always gonna be inherently controversial, and sure enough, the comments section on Gawker and Funny Or Die (and pretty much everywhere else this has been posted) filled up pretty quickly with debate over whether the performance was offensive, or exploitative, or etc.

Much of this debate centered on the duo’s extensive use of the word “nigga,” which gets strewn about with predictable abandon in the song and was reproduced verbatim in the performance. Just last week another comedian, Lisa Lampanelli, faced an enormous backlash for a horrible tweet describing Lena Dunham (of all people) as “my nigga” and then attempted to justify her use of the word because “comics aren’t Senators.” There’s clearly a subject for discussion here — the question of whether the word becomes offensive depending on who uses it and in what context is an interesting one, and not dissimilar to the usage of the word “faggot,” which we addressed a couple of weeks back in the context of Azealia Banks’ tiresome Twitter ranting.

But really, we shouldn’t get caught up in semantics, because the greater question here is as much one of class as it is one of race — although the two topics are of course, as ever in the US, deeply intertwined. We’re not ready to join the pitchfork-wielders and deem the performance irredeemably “offensive,” but it did rather whiff of the middle class pointing and giggling at the plebs. In this respect, the extensive use of the N-word is something of a red herring, because even if the song had included no such word, the more fundamental point would remain: this is privileged people giggling at less privileged people for their relative lack of sophistication and social polish.

The same smell of white upper-/middle-class condescension surrounded the whole “Smell Yo Dick” phenomenon first time around. Just look at the comments on the song’s YouTube page: “Black people are hilarious.” (52 thumbs up!); “Because hot white girls are always into obese awkward working-class black dudes” (60 thumbs up!); and this: “Why can they not speak proper English? Speaking unequivocally is not hard. ‘Nigga’ is not a word. Double negatives are not supposed to be used, they are not even supposed to exist in the engish language. ‘Aint’ isn’t a word. I do not understand why black people insist on talking like uneducated simpletons. Where could she have possibly learned that: ‘You aint responding to nothing. What the fuck is you doin?’ is an acceptable sentence? People like that just drive me insane.”

Ridiculing working class culture isn’t exactly a new phenomenon — Owen Jones’ excellent book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class addressed this topic in the context of the resurgent fondness in the UK for laughing at all things chav-esque. America is generally thought of as a less class-bound society than its transatlantic cousin, but that’s not really true — for all that the US likes to embrace the idea of meritocracy and social mobility, the fact is that it’s just as difficult to break out of an impoverished background here, and significantly more difficult than in most OECD countries. Class is very much an issue here, in other words, and the last thing you need when you’re already down is someone higher on the pyramid than you are pointing down and giving a Nelson Muntz laugh.

Of course, comedy shouldn’t be bound by strictures as to what is and isn’t appropriate material, and neither should it also make for comfortable viewing. And certainly, on a superficial level, the sight of a chubby white dude who’s making an effort to look geeky performing the rap about “fucking lots of bitches” is inherently amusing. Perhaps we should just leave it at that, and not overanalyze it — in a way, it feels silly to be penning a considered treatise on a throwaway performance of a song called “Smell Yo Dick.” It’d take a pretty hardened conspiracy theorist to argue that this performance was meant to be racist — if anything, it mines a similar vein of simultaneous affection and condescension to, say, Little Britain‘s überchav Vicky “Yeah But No But Yeah But” Pollard.

But then, both Pollard and her creator are white. And in general, whereas Little Britain lampoons what we might call “white trash” culture on this side of the Atlantic, the authors of “Smell Yo Dick” are black, as is much of the US’s working class, along with the working poor and the flat-out impoverished. Again, as we noted above, race and class are inextricably linked in this country. As such, the racial dimension is inescapable, and the questions this whole thing raises are pretty weighty ones: Can white people ever lampoon black culture without getting called racist? Are such accusations justified?

These are difficult questions to answer. Clearly, there are aspects of hip hop in 2013 that are probably long overdue for a satirical shellacking: the machismo, the materialism, the general existence of Kanye West. These are topics that plenty of (white) comedians have steered clear of over the years precisely because of the racial sensitivity that surrounds them.

But these aren’t the things that this performance addresses. At all. Ultimately, we’re not “offended” or “outraged” by the performance — honestly, there’s too much cheap outrage on the internet these days — but we do wonder if it’s entirely wise, or fair, to mine working class black stereotypes for the sake of cheap belly laughs.

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