Charlie Skelton
November 6, 2012

Some jokes don’t ‘mean’ very much. What sits at the bottom of the sea and shivers? A nervous wreck. This joke says very little about sunken ships that anyone, even an extremely sensitive sunken ship, could possibly find offensive. But make a joke about politics, throw in a reference to race hate, and suddenly all kinds of toes are getting trodden on.

Here’s one such joke, which has been causing a fair bit of fuss in a tense and nervous pre-election America. It was delivered by the comedian, commentator and Democratic cheerleader, Bill Maher, in the opening monologue of Friday’s Real Time on HBO.

So I would just like to say, for anyone thinking about voting for Mitt Romney, if that’s who you are, if you’re thinking of voting for [Mitt Romney]…
I would like to make this one plea. Black people know who you are and they will come after you.
Just this one plea.
I’m kidding! Oh, I’m kidding!

Some conservative commentators (including the website have very reasonably accused Maher of using violent rhetoric, and have branded the joke inappropriate. They’ve argued that it would have been unthinkable to make this joke in reverse, i.e. saying to Obama supporters: ““White people know who you are and they will come after you.” This seems to be the main gripe of the those criticizing Maher: that he and his liberal pals be the first to be outraged if a conservative voice had said something so racially insensitive. But is the line actually inappropriate? Is Bill Maher making a racist joke?

It’s an awkward, unpleasant thing to pick one’s way through the bones of a gag, particularly a topical one, to try and unpick its meaning: like drawing chalk circles around body parts after a car crash. No joke comes out sounding remotely funny after its various bits have been bagged and tagged. That said, let me snap on my rubber gloves, tape off the area, and see I can work out what’s happening here, and why people are annoyed at Maher. My apologies in advance for the grinding detail of this analysis.

The offending joke follows a short sequence of gags about Romney’s Zen-like relationship to the “lying bullshit” he spouts, and leads into a bit about the ridiculousness of Romney “packing up canned goods” for hurricane sufferers. This is the context of the joke: Maher’s very considerable dislike of Mitt Romney. The context doesn’t seem to be the story which has been talked about in some (primarily conservative) quarters of Obama supporters firing off tweets that promise ‘rioting’ if Romney wins. It’s just a joke about angry “black people” coming after Romney voters, simple as that.

What I’ve transcribed above is the full text of the joke, including the mumble in the middle [in square brackets] where Maher half-says the name Mitt Romney. I’ve written it out word-for-word because the set-up differs a little from the truncated form in which it’s been generally printed, and the long, lulling preamble is part of how the joke functions.

So how does the joke work? How is it funny? A chunk of the humour comes from Maher undercutting the seriousness of the set-up by making such a shocking statement: “black people know who you are and they will come after you.” The mock gravitas of the plea (which sets up, within the logic of the joke, an expectation that serious advice is about to be delivered) is emphasized by the repetition, the pausing – as if Maher is reaching out, earnestly, to these misguided voters. And then the earnestness is exploded by the punchline. The violent shock of the pay-off jabs the audience into laughing.

Maher is comically imputing to “black people” the intention of racially targeting and physically attacking Romney voters (who, according the logic of the joke, aren’t black). And then he smiles and says – ha ha, not really: “I’m kidding! Oh, I’m kidding!” – which he has to add at the end because he knows what he’s just said is dodgy. Like the lawyer who says something in court that he then retracts. It’s been said, it’s out there. You can’t simply ‘unsay’ it with an ironic chuckle. But that’s what Maher does. Because he’s an intelligent, socially aware, 21st Century, left-leaning comic. Racist? How absurd!

But the punchline itself isn’t absurd. That’s not where the humour lies. Compare this Steven Wright joke: “I have a large seashell collection, which I keep scattered on beaches all over the world.” The comic swerve of the punchline depends (in typical Steven Wright style) upon the absurdity of the conclusion, which blows apart the assumption of the set-up. In Maher’s joke, the “black people” of the punchline are all set to engage in violent race hate. If this racially targeted aggression were, say, imputed to “Buddhists”, there would be a comic disconnect between the essential non-violence and passivity of the Buddhists and the aggressive act. This disconnect doesn’t work with “black people” any more than it would with “white people” or “French people” or “fishermen”. Non-violence isn’t a go-to characteristic of any of these groups. The laughter of the audience doesn’t mean: “ha ha ha, but black people are – by their nature – so profoundly non-violent that this statement about them ‘coming after’ Romney voters is absurd!” It’s not “you have said something absurd about black people”, but “you have said something *shocking* about black people”. The comic disconnect, if there is one, is between the racially charged punchline and the non-racist nature of the person delivering it.

Maher is not delivering this punchline in the ‘persona’ of a racist person – like earlier in the monologue where he imagines Pat Buchanan praising President Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy with the words: “you’re doing a heck of a job, brownie” (a twist of Bush’s famous words, just after Katrina hit, to the then FEMA director Michael D. Brown). Satire.

In the punchline of his election plea, Maher isn’t satirizing the racist assumptions of a racist person by saying: “black people know who you are and they will come after you.” He’s just *saying it*. And then he smiles, and says “I’m kidding”, and the implication is that obviously he doesn’t believe it. It’s a joke, albeit one with a racist (or at the very least, racially insensitive) punchline. Perhaps trivially racist is a better description. It’s hardly a Bernard Manning routine. But what it does do is reduce, for comic effect, the political engagement of black people to that of an angry mob, a scary, dangerous, anti-social, irrational force. Crucially (if you think any of this is crucial!) Maher isn’t presenting this as a satire on what Romney voters think of black people. Maher is making that reduction himself. Playfully, I should add. He’s delivering a comedy routine, not a barroom rant. He’s being casually, laconically racist. And the liberal ear forgives him because it knows he doesn’t ‘mean’ it. He’s just said it.

What grates is the hypocrisy of the man. Here’s Bill Maher, the archetypal US liberal, who spends a good half of his professional life scoffing at the racism, real or imagined, of Republicans, making a racist joke. But because it’s him saying it, the audience imagine an ironic distance, a satirical safety net, where actually there’s none. There’s just Bill Maher, his racist punchline, and the sheer impossibility that what he’s just said is racist. Even though it is.

Maher has made a joke which is shocking (and funny – at least according to the HBO audience) precisely because it’s so violent and angry – it’s an image of rioting, race-hating “black people” that’s completely the opposite of what we’d imagine coming from a mainstream, liberal talkshow host (and so unlike the sage piece of wisdom we’d been led, by the structure of the joke, to expect).

After the joke, Maher throws open his hands and says “I’m kidding”. Because obviously he’s not a racist. Except that, for the duration of the punchline at least, he is. And I believe that it’s this absurdity, this paradox (of the racist non-racist), which provides another chunk of the humour. A “non-racist” is being shockingly racist. But he’s not really racist! “I’m kidding!” Phew, that was close. Stand down.

Not that I care if Bill Maher makes a racist joke or not. I’m not massively in favour of people making racist jokes on television, even non-racists like Bill Maher, but I’m all for people exercising their free speech. Bill Maher should be free to insult black people as much as he likes, just as long as he realises that saying “I’m kidding” at the end of a dodgy joke, and giving a naughty boy grin, doesn’t automatically make what he’s just said ok. It’s not a presidential pardon. You can’t rip up your own speeding tickets. You can’t drive at 70 in a 30 zone and when the cop comes up grin and say “hey, I’m kidding”. You weren’t just playing at breaking you speed limit. You were speeding. And unfortunately, a few blocks back, you ran over a few toes.

One last thing: the structure of the joke implies that no “black people” vote for Romney. According to the logic of the joke, they’re are all Obama-voters. And violent. Within the joke, it’s non-black people (or rather, misguided non-black people) who vote for Romney. In other words, the election is reduced to race. The joke does its best to sharpen the racial division in the voting population of America. It draws an angry riot line between “anyone thinking about voting for Mitt Romney” and “black people”. It is a joke which divides, not brings together. But you know what, he sold it. The audience laughed. Because let’s not forget, Bill Maher isn’t racist. If he was racist, the joke wouldn’t be funny.

If it is.

Charlie Skelton is Script Editor of Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live and a Guardian journalist.

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