A Cupcake with a Bomb Inside: How Comedians of Color Deal with the Mixed Expectations of Being ‘White’ vs. ‘Black Famous’
By Anna Fields, Columnist
Naomi Ekperigin didn’t necessarily have “comedy icons” growing up. As a result, becoming a professional stand-up comedian never felt possible for her until she was well into her 20’s and had already spent several years editing an upscale magazine in Manhattan. Growing up in the 1980’s and 1990’s, “the black female comedians you saw were always projecting ‘sassiness,’” and this didn’t seem to reflect Naomi’s personality. “They were big and bold and brassy, and they talked about their husbands or their kids. That wasn’t me. I’m kind of a black nerd. What I’m talking about it my neurosis, my insecurities, my fears. And I don’t think that was a option for black female comics until recently. I think if you were a black female comic and you were talking about race in America, it was all about being strong and confident and sassy.” That sort of demeanor was expected based on their gender and their appearance. Talking about neuroses and fears and body dysmorphia and dating seemed too much like “white girl” topics for audiences at that time, and so she never watched someone with the sense of, ‘I’m going to be just like that someday.’
Today, though she regularly broaches these topics, Naomi still worries about whether the room will “get” her Jewish references. In New York, these are so routine as to verge on hack – but outside of urban areas, Naomi worries that audiences who have never encountered religions other than Christianity may not relate to her humor especially, she said, because she’s African American, and they probably wouldn’t expect her to be engaged to a Caucasian, Jewish man. “I mean, I could have talked about it… but nobody would’ve laughed,” she said. “There used to be this proliferation of ‘black rooms,’ you know, where black comedians would go. And that’s where you usually found your community; that’s where you developed your reputation and your act. And they definitely still exist, but it’s not the only place anymore for girls like me to tell jokes.”
The same could be said about ‘all girl’ rooms or ‘female-centered’ television shows today, like Lifetime’s UnReal or MTV’s Girl Code, or Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, or HBO’s Girls and Insecure. The current list goes on and on and evolves constantly, but that was certainly not the case even ten years ago. Comedians and writers and actresses who all happened to be female often found themselves in “male rooms,” where they had to couch everything they did, said, and wrote in a layer of sweet, non-confrontational passivity. This was to make the men in the room feel secure; to reassure them that women weren’t going to call them out or make ‘in’ jokes about things only they understood. It was supremely important that the men in these rooms approved of what the women were offering and that these offerings made the men feel comfortable. Much like African American comics who altered their jokes for all-white audiences, comediennes altered their jokes for all-male audiences or for co-ed audiences. The listener determines the language in this way. And all women know exactly how this feels, having to wrap your truth inside a package based on what the audience expects from your gender and your race (among other things).
I told Naomi: “It’s almost like making a cupcake with a bomb in it.”
Once again, Natasha Patterson’s excellent thesis fills in the gaps between liberationist humor and this historically significant ain’t-I-sweet-as-sugar wrapping paper. Patterson explains that satire has long been a means to poke fun at and question the ideas of the dominant patriarchal system, providing a psychological and captive opening for progressive political action. According to both Patterson and Donald Bogle in his 1973 book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, mainstream Hollywood often relegated African American actresses to subservient roles as mammies and servants while African American actors enjoyed a little more diversity. This diversity, it seems, may have allowed them slightly more freedom to bake their explosively truthful experiences into palatable cupcakes for white audiences to eat.
“But I think that’s always been done,” Naomi added, regarding subjects that were (and still are) taboo or sensitive. “You’ve gotta wrap it. The real work becomes how well it’s wrapped. You’d better have some bomb-ass wrapping paper! It has to look nice. None of this newspaper nonsense. You gotta tie that bow and curl that ribbon!”
I laughed with her at the image, though its striking reality wasn’t funny. How much time do comedienne-ballerinas still spend perfecting their ribbon curls instead of simply being funny?
It’s staggering, really. It’s certainly not their fault. It is, unfortunately, still very much their problem to solve.
“It’s frustrating,” Naomi said. “But it’s also why, over the years, I’ve gotten so much more comfortable letting myself be not-so-perfect. Not having to make every joke so tight. Not always knowing exactly what to say – just getting up and finding it, onstage, in front of everyone… and then sort of forcing them to come with me on that journey. It’s like turning what seems like a monologue into a dialogue. And because we’re in this together, their acceptance is much more common. I get the feeling that I’m not alone when I say something outlandish, and I bomb far less often now. . . But it took a long time to get there. I had to learn to use my observations as an outsider who didn’t fit the mold of whatever a girl is supposed to look like onstage. But I also associate comedy itself with an outsider status. Part because I think that a lot of comedians are observers, and you observe because you were not on the inside. And so when you have somebody that is conventionally attractive, the expectation is that they were on the inside. So, it’s sort of like, well, wait, who didn’t like you? that you ended up developing this skill of observation and otherness. I think a lot of comics are other, in some capacity. I don’t mean necessarily of color or LGBT but wherever they grew up, where they first got that skill, they were not a part of. Does that make any sense?”
“It does,” I said. “Perfectly well adjusted, fabulous looking people are not sitting around contemplating the human condition. They’re just out in the world being perfect and pretty and acting ladylike at all times…. While screaming on the inside.”
“At the same time, for someone who is a pretty person, in my opinion, I wonder about women like yourself going into this chosen field. I sometimes fear that you might be treated as if you shouldn’t be there because you’re pretty.”
“That is so interesting. I mean, obviously, that’s very nice of you to say, but I do not consider myself pretty at all, and I don’t think I’ll ever believe that my audience does, either.”
Where does that resistance come from?
“Well, my family is from Detroit, but I grew up in Harlem, and I went to a private, predominantly Jewish, white school on the upper east side of Manhattan. So, you know, you couldn’t tell me I fit, you couldn’t tell me I was right, you couldn’t tell me I was good enough for very many of my formative years. And so that is who I carry on stage.”
“That little girl you used to be.”
“Yes. Today, a lot of what I say about race is what I wish I could have said when I was fifteen. It’s the confidence and openness that I only wish I could’ve used back then, to make people see my point of view. Now, I use them to take a harder look at what white privilege has allowed white people to do and say and have, but I didn’t have those words or that confidence when I was at the Dalton School. All that comes with years of experience and performing – gaining the strength to put it out there in a way that is palatable and articulable.”
Anna Fields is an author and independent filmmaker, whose various works have been published, produced, developed, and awarded by Penguin Putnam, Skyhorse/Arcade, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Forbes, Marie Claire, Bunim/Murray, PB&J Television, CBS, ABC, Turner/Cartoon Network, LaMaMa Etc., and the Austin and Toronto Film Festivals. Her latest book, The Girl in the Show, is available now wherever books are sold.