Why is Campus Comedy So White?

As the sky was pouring down on us, my friends and I sought shelter in one of our cars/. Upon getting in the car, the unpacking began almost immediately: the event that we had all just witnessed begs to be discussed. Who is to speak up first here? Which one of us is brave enough to cast the first stone? Who can speak up here? I, myself, certainly didn’t feel equipped with my minimal experience. You will excuse my overly dramatic tone, but the act of sitting inside a parked vehicle in the pouring rain almost requires it, don’t you think? Nonetheless, “analyzing” a Gag Reflex show didn’t require nearly as film noir a setting as the one we had found ourselves in. The show was lighthearted, funny, and warm. On our way home, we talked about what went well, what we liked, who we liked. It’s discussion we are accustomed to, being in the same improv group; for after every one of our performance, we would dissect the show bit by bit. However, what we talked about that evening after Gags show invoked deeper introspection on my part: the group was made up entirely of white students. They all have a nice, easy rapport with each other, it seemed, which is essential in an improv comedy group. This begs the question: how would the group dynamic change if they weren’t all white?

When the group’s diversity, or lack thereof, was brought up in our car discussion, I pointed out that it’s unfair to criticize Gag for their representation, because I am the only person of color in my improv group. This seems to be a pattern across the board, and not just across the improv board either. Nay, the trend continues across the stand-up and the sketch comedy board. I also was one of the only two non-white performers at last semester’s Queer Comedy Show, which has been a space known for its openness and inclusivity. Why is comedy at Wesleyan dominated by white students? In order to inspect this effectively, we must frame the question differently: Why is there a shortage of students of color in the Wesleyan comedy scene? I would like to preface this by relieving the groups themselves of blame. There is no deliberate filtration of us on their part; I say this because when I myself recently hosted auditions with my group, there weren’t that many students of color who auditioned to begin with. I also remember, when I myself had auditioned, being one of the few—if not the only—colored person in auditions. The root of the problem does not lie in who the respective groups let into their posse of jesters, but in who decides to show up for consideration in the first place. To further make sense of this, we must examine the differences between white students’ upbringings and their peers of colors’, that factor into the disproportional representation in comedy at large.

I will only draw from personal experiences that I have as an immigrant, with immigrant parents, combined with a strong sense of religious identity. I came to the U.S. when I was nine, not speaking a lick of English, accompanied by strong-willed parents who had uprooted their whole lives in Vietnam to come here. One thing that my parents made sure they instilled in me was hard work. They both work manually intensive jobs to support me and my brother, and in return, following an unwritten contract, we would work as intensively in school. Naturally, with this driven lifestyle, everything was purposeful; time was spent with an end goal in mind. The language itself had purpose; when you’re working ten to twelve hours a day, scrubbing away at floors, you say things with intention. You can’t afford futile words. I am by no means saying that immigrant parents don’t have a sense of humor; in fact, it’s at times the only thing that keeps their heads above the tide. But to me, this humor is different than that which my white peers may think of as “jokes”. Like I said, this humor is tailored by and for people like my parents; humor that contains an undertone of the hardships of everyday life, humor about the grittiness of human nature, and it’s more concrete than it is conceptual.

For white families, they largely have the privilege of not having to worry about basic survival needs, not to the degree that immigrant families like mine do. Consider these two separate scenarios: my parents never get to see each other during the week, because one leaves for work as the other comes home; we rarely have dinner as a family; when we do, one thing is always discussed: how I’m doing in school; I grow up in a culture that is foreign to them. In contrast, my white friend has dinner with her family almost everyday; the parents’ jobs are less strenuous; they have more time and energy to hear her thoughts, no matter how novel; she is under less pressure to succeed, because her parents’ livelihood doesn’t depend on her; she is more encouraged, both emotionally and financially, to seek out more frivolous hobbies, one of which (you guessed it) is comedy.

A lot of white families have an ongoing rapport with each other, something that immigrant families of color lose to the strain of cultural differences between parent and child. An example of this is the phenomena known as “The Dad Joke”. We all know what I’m referring to: endearingly terrible jokes made by our fathers, who, with their hands in their tan cargo shorts, are simply trying to brighten the day. This fosters a joking relationship with their children, where nicknames would be given, and often it’s most comedians’ first exposure to the act of making people laugh as a performance. This isn’t a strictly white phenomenon, dads of color (DoC’s?) have their own versions of this too. However, the relationship is a little different. For parents of color, especially immigrant parents, there arises a certain tension in their connection to their children, though not necessarily a negative one. It’s more of an expectation: an expectation of obedience, of success, of submission. This tension is what drives us to do well in school, to succeed in life, and to make the sacrifices our parents had made worth something. Since humor is escapism, it would come across as dismissive and unseriousness to our parents, who understand that they must work a lot harder than their white counterparts to be “equal”.

Therein lies the problem. There aren’t as many comedians of color, because a lot of us were brought up in such an environment. There’s a running joke shared by people of color that white kids can say whatever they want to their parents without consequences. It’s based in the liberty that white children enjoy, which lets them discuss things with their parents, speak their minds to them, unburdened by all the expectations that children of color carry on their backs as a result of being labeled “other”. White people have a natural sense of belonging in places; they navigate the world with more ease, which is the confidence essential to standing up in front of a crowd with the sole purpose of making them laugh. Students of color consciously and unconsciously feel that they do not have the same luxury; therefore, in order to be taken just as seriously, they know the work they put out into the world has to pack a punch. This makes them shy away from something as subjective as comedy, because they know that like most things, they’d have to be extraordinary at it in order to compete with white mediocrity.

Growing up in a goal-centric environment like that, most students of color observe their parents making jokes not for the sake of “being funny”, but in order to relieve. “Comedian” suggests individuality, autonomy, being funny as an art. This is different from the functional, specific humor that immigrant kids are exposed to by their parents. In order to put yourself out there as a “comedian”, to audition for an improv group, to sign up for a stand-up show, you must first own your functional joke-making as a performance. You are an artisan and this is your craft. Humor is not viewed as such in communities like mine. To us, humor is simply another way to survive.

An Pham, Spring 2018

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