Stereotypes in comedy: harm or humor?

BY MICHAEL KAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 12, 2004

Engineering sophomore Calvin Cheung is convinced there is just
no way people cannot believe the ethnic stereotypes they watch on
TV.

Julie Pannuto
Comedian Dave Chappelle performs on stage at the Laugh Factory in New York City for its pre-opening on April 3. (AP PHOTO)

“Most people tell themselves to not believe stereotypes.
But they do because they always see it, it’s in the back of
their minds,” Cheung said.

Like Cheung, many University students immerse themselves in
today’s pop culture. In doing so, they also expose themselves
to the comedic ethnic and sexual stereotypes prevalent in the
entertainment industry.

Recently, several minority student groups on campus have voiced
concerns, protesting the offensive stereotypes. Yet while some
action is being taken, some University members say stereotyping in
both entertainment and life is unavoidable. They say the larger
question is, what are the effects of living with these stereotypes?
Do people believe in the stereotypes they see?

Cheung said people often accept them, because the stereotypes
amuse them, and gradually people subconsciously believe those
comedic characterizations. But he said the consequences are
negative, leading viewers to take those stereotypes as the
truth.

“They show (stereotypes) over and over. On every movie and
TV, they will show them. And (viewers) eventually will think,
‘Oh, that must be what (minorities) are in real life,’
” he added.

But the possible negative effects of the entertainment industry
employing stereotypes are unknown, since there are no studies
suggesting viewers take stereotypes for the truth, psychology Prof.
Lawrence Hirschfeld said.

“As far as I know, no one has studied the
consequences,” Hirschfeld said, who has dealt with studies on
stereotypes.

He further explained that stereotyping in itself is not negative
— it’s just natural.

People use stereotypes to reduce the effort involved in thinking
about something, he added.

Hirschfeld also does not expect to see stereotyping ever ending
in the entertainment industry. Not only do people find it
entertaining, but the exaggerated portrayals are also easy to
understand and “catchy”, he said.

Yet Hirschfeld said that while there are no studies on the
consequences of viewing stereotypes in entertainment, studies show
there are negative effects to stereotyping in general.

“The fundamental problem with stereotypes is how much you
rely on to base your behavior. The problem is people tend to over
use them even when they don’t notice it,” he said.

Stereotypes grow even more dangerous once they become
mainstream, such as through the media or word of mouth, he said.
Then stereotypes can create a negative image of how certain groups
of people are expected to act — expectation that minorities
will be pressured to abide by in real life, Hirschfeld said.

Some University members said they see these same negative
effects from day to day, adding that the entertainment industry is
largely to blame.

Engineering sophomore Clinque Brundidge said she hates what she
calls the one-sided image of blacks projected by hip-hop music
videos. Because of those videos, people outside the black community
already feel those images are accurate for all blacks, she
said.

“Many people (nationwide) are unaccustomed to blacks, so
seeing things like that become their primary perception. …
And when they encounter a black person they have a pre-conceived
notion of us,” Brundidge said.

Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs Coordinator Sha Duncan
said the stereotyping jokes on different ethnicities often are
brought to life when groups outside of the black community embrace
what they see and think is black culture. “They think they
are being friends when they say, ‘Wut up dawg!’ But
people don’t do that. I speak proper English.”

But Tony Fox, Comedy Central’s vice president, said
critics of comedic stereotyping should also be aware of the
positive effects of using them in entertainment.

Fox said the network always deals with issues of overusing
stereotypes. But he added that the comic characterizations featured
on their shows are more than just for a laugh. Fox referred to his
network’s popular comedy-skit series “Chappelle’s
Show,” starring comedian Dave Chappelle, as an example of how
TV can reveal the deeper injustices in American society by using
stereotypes.

“Chappele’s deals with a lot of hot topic social
issues. One of those issues is racism. (Dave Chappelle) tries to
ridicule that racism, pointing out some of its absurdities,”
Fox said.

Chappelle does this by playing off viewer’s expectations
of stereotypes, by exaggerating them, to show how ridiculous those
ethnic and sexual stereotypes truly are, Fox added.

“He has something to say and he’s saying it’s
all ridiculous. I think he is trying to open minds by trying to
show some of the foolishness in all the prejudice within society.
… He’s not letting people sweep racism under the
rug,” Fox said.

Fox also said he isn’t convinced stereotypes have any sort
of negative impact on viewers since there has been no scientific
evidence to suggest it.

Regarding other shows such as Comedy Central’s
“Banzai,” which minority groups allege negatively
stereotypes Asians, Fox said he doesn’t think the show has
gone anywhere near to the extent some viewers argue. Instead, he
said most people who watch shows like “Banzai” realize
that those characterizations are satirizing, and can respect that
it is a joke.

Still, some students are unsure that everyone will understand
that it’s all for comedy, and think the stereotypes are a
form of exploitation in using different ethnic and sexual groups
just to get a laugh. Rather than thinking viewers will understand
the comedic stereotypes, LSA senior Josie Najor said, “It
gives the illusion that people are learning about minorities.
… It gives a distorted image.” She added that this
distorted image is a negative image. “(Entertainment) is
trying to portray groups, but the way they see them, it is
definitely inferior,” she added.

But other students said everyone can laugh at jokes that
stereotype and still understand that they’re likely not
intended to be serious portrayals of minorities.

Engineering freshman Mike Nolte said his gymnastics team —
which is comprised of all different ethnic groups — watched
“Chappelle’s Show” during a bus ride, with the
entire group understanding that it was a joke and not meant to
reflect any ethnic group. “We were all just laughing. It was
all fun,” he said.

But Nolte added, stereotypes are not always played off as well
as they are on “Chappelle’s Show” and they can be
offensive to a certain group. “(Stereotypes) can be funny.
But there is a right place and a right time. The right time is when
you know the other person who is being stereotyped is going to be
laughing with you.”