Chris Rock has been under fire for enabling Louis CK and Ricky Gervais to enthusiastically say the n-word in a video, facing more criticism than the white comedians themselves. Ava Vidal discusses the context of that video and whether white men should be given an n-word pass by a Black fellow comedian.
Content note: This article contains uncensored use of racist slurs and links to comedy videos that may cause offence.
A clip from a 2011 HBO special called Talking Funny has recently resurfaced and has gone viral across many social media platforms. The unscripted special features Chris Rock, Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais in conversation discussing what it means to be a comedian.
It has caused controversy because Rock refers to Louis CK as the “blackest white guy I know” and then goes on to say “all the negative things we think about black people, this fucker…”
Louis CK then responds and says, “You’re saying I’m a nigger?”
Rock replies, “Yes, you are the niggerest white man I have ever…” as the group roar with laughter.
Talking Funny HBO clip
As somebody who has worked as a stand up comedian for the past fifteen years, I immediately recognised that Louis CK was doing what we in the industry refer to as a “call back”. This is when you “call back” to a joke made in earlier in your set or in a previous show. Comedy is about familiarity and making you feel as though the comic and the audience have a personal connection. This is why so many lay people get upset when they meet comedians in person and realise that their on stage persona is just that, a persona, and they are not fluffy, bubbly people that just crack non stop jokes but rather are wretched and miserable.
In 1996 I was sitting in New York watching Chris Rock perform Bring the Pain the one-man show that made him an international star. In many of my early interviews, I cite Chris Rock as a huge influence and one of the main reasons I wanted to go into stand up comedy. When I was in the Comedystore in London and he wandered in to rehearse some material for his upcoming show Bigger and Blacker I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe that I got to watch him live, meet, and have a brief conversation with him. It turned out it was actually the last special of his I have ever seen as I went off him after that.
During Bring the Pain he did a routine called “Black People Vs Niggas”. I can see how the routine would be viewed as problematic now but at the time it was seen to be ground breaking.
It was nothing that black people hadn’t said amongst themselves for years. We know all too well that we are judged for what the worst amongst us do, but what Rock did was take it to mainstream non-black audiences, many of whom saw black people as a monolith. So when Rock refers to Louis CK as “all the negative things we think about black people” and he responds by saying “You’re saying I’m a nigger?” – with a hard ‘r’ – this is what he is referring to.
“Some would argue that as they are friends, they are entitled to address each other in whatever way they choose. But this wasn’t just a conversation amongst friends. This was something that they knew was going to be broadcast”
That being said, I do not endorse what happened at all. Chris Rock has become increasingly problematic to me over the years so much, I no longer watch his work. His observations regarding relationships that I used to see as insightful just sound like misogyny to me now. And now we all know that Louis CK sexually harassed women for years, I can’t help but wonder exactly what behaviour it was that Chris Rock was referring to.
Some would argue that as they are friends, they are entitled to address each other in whatever way they choose. That’s fine – although if I ever had a white friend that used that word around me they’d be catching my hands. But this wasn’t just a conversation amongst friends. This was something that they knew was going to be broadcast. Much has been made about Ricky Gervais whooping with delight as he also used the word and howling with laughter as Louis CK says, “You and me use nigger in private”.
Many are angry that Rock sitting there being passive empowered him to do so. There is definitely truth in that. But the fact that Ricky Gervais would behave this way should be no surprise to anybody familiar with his work. He drones on about people who get offended and how much he doesn’t care. In fact, he cares so little he searches his name on Twitter to argue with people and invites his fans to pile on to those that find him offensive. This is a man that shows more compassion to a stray dog than he does to a living, breathing trans person. He once did a routine laughing at an advice leaflet that was given to gay men in the middle of the AIDS crisis that killed off almost an entire generation of LGBTQ people.
I have been arguing for a long time that comedy should have a conscience and I did a TEDx talk on the subject.
There are far too many comedians spreading hate and fear and dressing it up as a “joke”. If the only jokes you can write mean causing further alienation for marginalised people then you may want to re-examine your life. Every comedian has made a mistake in the past. The way to deal with it is to have a conversation and apologise if you think you need to, not to double down and make it your life’s work to harass those people that dared not to endorse your particular brand of humour.
“Those that are only just finding Chris Rock to be problematic haven’t been paying attention”
Much praise has been given to Seinfeld for being the only one not to join in with the use of the n-word. Those of us who have longer memories recall how he defended Michael Richards, an actor from his long running sitcom, who had been caught on camera calling black audience members at a comedy club niggers. Seinfeld even arranged for him to appear alongside him on The David Letterman Show.
Jerry Seinfeld defending Michael Richards
The whole incident nearly caused his sitcom to be pulled from syndication so I am not surprised how uncomfortable he is here.
Those that are only just finding Chris Rock to be problematic haven’t been paying attention. This is the man that was hired by The Academy to present the Oscars the year that many black stars chose to boycott the event. That’s fine. It was his choice. What I found extremely uncomfortable was how he used that platform to diminish what #OscarsSoWhite organisers were trying to achieve. He also took aim at one of the most outspoken critics Jada Pinkett Smith, saying “Jada boycotting is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties … I wasn’t invited”.
The fact that he chose to denigrate two black women during a routine about racial equality within the industry confirmed what I had long suspected about Chris Rock. I have no idea why the seven year old clip has gone viral now, but I don’t think there’s a plot to “bring a black man down” – Rock is firmly part of the establishment. And to all the cisgender, heterosexual Black people who are up in arms about Rock’s complicity but were defending Kevin Hart after his homophobic comments resurfaced, chill! It’s only a joke right?
Ava Vidal is a stand-up comedian, journalist and author. She has appeared on TV and radio including shows such as Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, BBC Radio 4′ s News Quiz and BBC Two’s Mock the Week.Follow @thetwerkinggirl