I’m not sure Charlotte Hornets point guard Jeremy Lin would agree, but I think jokes about Asian people being good at math and having tiny phalluses are funny.
Or they can be, at least. In the right context. When delivered by the right person.
For instance, right person, right context: Sierra Katow, who is Asian-American, performing stand-up comedy.
“I only speak English,” she says in a 2014 YouTube clip. “So it’s pretty weird, I’ll go to a Chinese restaurant and they’re always coming at me speaking in their tongues, and I’m just like, ‘Sorry! No hablo Chinglés.’ But they kind of judge me – they think I’m a little less Asian, because I don’t speak Asian. And it hurts. It feels a little awkward. So I figure if that ever happens again, I’m just gonna leave. And then drive away and crash into 17 cars and be like, ‘Who’s the Asian now, b----?’ ”
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That, to me, as an Asian-American, is funny.
Now, on the other hand, wrong person, wrong context: Sacha Baron Cohen, who is not Asian-American, presenting as his comic character Ali G at Sunday night’s Academy Awards. “How come there’s no Oscar for them very hard-working, little yellow people with tiny dongs?” he asked. “You know, the Minions!”
Also wrong person, wrong context: Chris Rock, who is not Asian-American, introducing three tuxedo-clad Asian children as “bankers” from a financial firm. “They sent us their most dedicated, accurate and hard-working representatives,” Rock said. “Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz.” Then: “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”
These examples are really tricky for me. On the one hand, to me – as an Asian-American – the jokes are at least somewhat funny. We all have different tastes of humor, but mine run pretty dark and I’m not easily offended. So yeah, I laughed.
But I cringed a little, too, because I think there was a matter of situational appropriateness. Or inappropriateness, as the case may be.
I mean, here you have the Oscars, an institution that had just spent a month and a half trying to do damage control after summarily white-washing its 2016 nominations, that had opened the telecast by trying almost desperately to face up to Hollywood’s diversity problem.
And here it was broadcasting two comedians telling juvenile jokes based on broad racial stereotypes.
Jeremy Lin, the Hornets player, was among those who weren’t laughing.
“I just feel like sometimes the way people perceive Asians or Asian-Americans today can be disappointing in the way they view them,” he told journalists Tuesday, explaining a tweet in which he’d expressed disappointment with the Oscar jokes. (Lin was born in Torrance, Calif., but his parents emigrated from Taiwan in the mid-1970s.) “Even Asian-American masculinity or whatever you want to talk about, just a lot of the ways that Asians are perceived I don’t always agree with.”
I do understand where Lin is coming from, and if Rock or Cohen had asked for my opinion before serving up their gags, I would have grimaced and shaken my head back and forth vigorously.
Not because I care about being P.C.; rather, it’s about sensitivity and perspective. Like I said, I believe the measure of how funny a joke is about race hinges on who’s telling it, and what the context is.
When Howard Stern (who I like) starts playing the “Oriental riff” and breaks into a fake Asian accent every time an Asian person is mentioned on his Sirius/XM radio show, I groan.
But when actor Ken Jeong chatters away in an equally stereotypical fake Asian accent – and when he flashes his very real and very small genitalia on camera – as a gangster in “The Hangover,” I convulse with laughter.
In fact, Jeong (who grew up in Greensboro and attended Duke and UNC Chapel Hill) said something in an interview a few years ago that’s always resonated with me: “Here’s a little secret. Every Asian has read a role that has required an accent. That is the business you guys set up for us. That’s just the way it’s done. That’s fine. But to me, it’s my job to make fun of that stereotype.”
I’m with him. Like virtually all comedy, race- and ethnic-based humor is about exposing insecurities and laughing at them. Exposing stereotypes and laughing at them. People just need to be thoughtful about their approach.
Let’s take it back to my opening sentence. I think jokes about Asian people being good at math and having tiny phalluses are funny. You looked at my picture, and you didn’t bat an eyelash.
But now try this: I enjoy jokes about black people not being able to swim or talking during movies. Or I enjoy jokes about Jews being greedy or having big noses. How do those statements sound, coming from me?
And I’m not AT ALL saying that Asians are the only ones who can laugh at Asian jokes, or African-Americans are the only ones who can laugh at African-American jokes, or gay people are the only people who can laugh at gay jokes.
I’m saying that we’ll all be more willing to laugh if the joke-teller truly understands their audience.
I’ll leave you with this: The last sentence of my Twitter bio says, “I defy Asian stereotypes by being horrible at math.”
If you think that’s funny, you have my permission to laugh.