INSIDE THE JOKE: Playing the race card to win
One of the jokes that gives Alonzo Bodden a reputation as a smart political comic goes something like this: “I support Barack Obama because he’s black. There are a hundred other reasons: taxes, housing, education, health care … but he had me at black.”
Alonzo Bodden is black, too. Would the joke work otherwise?
Appearing Friday, Nov. 15 at the Jubilee Auditorium as part of the latest Just for Laughs tour, the New York comedian wrote the bit in the run-up to the last U.S. election, tried it out for the first time in front of a racially mixed crowd at The Improv in Washington, D.C. It went over so well that it got an “applause break” – the highest praise in professional comedy.
The joke was meant as satire, Bodden says, on what all the pundits were saying at the time, “That black people will only vote for Barack Obama because he’s black – completely dismissing the fact that it might be economic issues or maybe they don’t agree with the Republicans’ views on abortion or immigration. There are a bunch of issues that affect black people as people beyond being black, just being a human in society.” He adds, “No white person would’ve said, ‘I’m voting for Mitt Romney because he’s white!’”
Bodden’s take on the famous Jerry Maguire movie line “you had me at hello” is part of a whole raft of related material that has served him well. He was the winner of the 2004 season of Last Comic Standing, and has landed a number of TV and movie gigs. Not all black comics play the race card all the time, he points out, but a lot of them do, while a lot of observers tend to focus on it in either case.
“The joke is the oppression,” Bodden explains. “The thing about comedy is that it always comes from the oppressed point of view. In other words, short people can make fun of tall people, but tall people can’t pick on short people. That’s what makes it humorous. And let’s be honest, race is such a prevalent issue. We wouldn’t talk about race if racism wasn’t so prevalent.”
There are racist things that happen in America all the time that seem “utterly ridiculous” to Canadians, he goes on. Blaming illegal immigrants for all the nation’s ills is a common one that happens every few years, especially in Southern border states where “immigrants” is code for Latinos. “They’re not looking at a white guys and saying, ‘Hey, you look Canadian!’” Bodden says. The Tea Party, the far right wing of the Republican party, provides another rich lode of comic material. Because they must automatically vote against everything that the president is in favour of, “Republicans who would be moderate, who would express some form of common sense, are now held hostage by the extreme right,” Bodden says. He claims that the Tea Party is a racist organization because the moment Obama was elected, the Tea Partiers cried, “Give us our country back!”
He could go on – and does.
“We’re talking about gay marriage? Interracial marriage has only been legal for 50 years? It some states in was illegal until the ‘60s and the Civil Rights Act. I don’t think Alabama officially allowed interracial marriage until the year 2000,” he says.
There has been slow progress forward, Bodden allows, like the election of a black president, with recent setbacks that make it so frustrating, like the Supreme Court recently repealing the law that prevented specific states known for racism and segregation from creating weird rules that prevent black people from voting.
“We’re moving forward in the sense of the younger generation,” says the 51-year-old comic. “All of my hope is under 25, Those kids just don’t carry the baggage of historical racism, other than their families who’ve indoctrinated them this way. So for the most part they’re more open-minded. So is it getting better. I can’t wait until they’re in change – even if I’m not alive to see it.”
Also appearing in Edmonton at the Just for Laughs show are Tom Papa, Orny Adams and Darrin Rose – who are all white, not that it matters. Tickets from $50 at Ticketmaster.