CNN has an interesting show airing in the USA right now. It traces the relationship between American history and comedy; in a snappy/selective CNN type of way. Last night’s episode looked at how minority comedians have played an important role in shedding light on discrimination in US history and how comics have helped integrate or normalize their communities into mainstream US culture by using humor and sarcasm. There were some snippets of controversial stand up such as Richard Pryor’s taboo crushing 1979 performance as well as revealing moments, such as Sarah Silverman’s infamous joke about Chinese people (I won’t repeat the word she used here) and her odd defense of it.
One could speak at length about the academic problems here. Of course this is not “The” history of comedy, but only “A” history as seen by CNN producers in their interpretation of what constitutes pop culture and what/who is important to mention. Also some of the comics featured seem to consider their art to be totally justified, somewhat outside the realm of racism or not racist or problematic in any way (“We are the racism referees” said Keegan-Michael Key). There didn’t seem to be much soul searching among the interviewees at how words could be digested differently depending on the audience.
But beyond all this, I noticed a very particular problem with the show. It featured interviews with a great range of minority performers: Latinos, African Americans, Jews and Asians. But there was not a single Arab or Muslim comic interviewed. Could CNN simply not find any Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern comedians? What about Hassan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed, Kumail Nanjiani–all of whom currently either have shows on Netflix, HBO, Comedy Central or been in major big production films. They could have also chosen to interview Dean Obeidallah, radio host and frequent commentator/columnist on Arab media portrayals on CNN and in The Daily Beast.
Did the CNN show producers simply think there was no major discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans? It’s hard to imagine how one could do a show about “the” history of comedy and racism, without barely addressing one of America’s most stereotyped and demonized groups today.
To be fair, the program did use a brief soundbite of performances by Ansari and Kumail, but there was no follow up discussion on the struggle of Arab or Muslim groups or studio interviews that contextualized their jokes, as was done with comics from every other minority group during the hour-long show.
Last week, we lost one of the greatest scholars of Arab media portrayals in the US media, Dr. Jack Shaheen, who died at 81 on July 12. One of Shaheen’s greatest contributions was a survey of over 1,000 Hollywood films over the last 100 years which found almost 90 percent of Arabs were portrayed negatively, largely as evil villains, exotic dancers or buffoons. This sobering figure should give us pause in trying to understand the roots of Arab stereotypes today and perhaps even some of the violent military polices inflicted on Arab/Muslim regions by politicians who have been subjected to those films and stereotypes. The absence of Arab or Muslim “good guys” is key to perpetuating negative portrayls of Arabs. The absence of Arab and Muslim comedians in a show about minority comedians only helps reinforce the problem.