Larry Wilmore took plenty of flak for calling President Barack Obama “My nigga” at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday.
Journalists were quick to condemn the term of endearment, a word loaded with cultural weight.
That criticism ignores a bigger concern that starts, but hardly ends, with Wilmore. Black comics failed not just the public but Obama himself over the past eight years. How? They didn’t treat him like every previous president.
Obama has proven repeatedly he’s an adept stand-up comic himself if given solid material. What a shame that professional comics couldn’t rise to his own standard.
The majority of black comics, particularly Wilmore, Chris Rock and Comedy Central standouts Key & Peele, coddled Obama. They ignored the president’s flaws and sat on their hands when his administration didn’t live up to the sales hype.
- Did they excoriate him for the lies built into ObamaCare, the health care overhaul that continues to generate toxic headlines?
- What about the ego that’s become one of the hallmarks of Obama’s presidency? He gave an iPod full of his speeches to the Queen of England.
- How about his ability to blame everything sour during his two terms of office on his predecessor?
- Didn’t race relations get worse while he was in power?
- Obama wears mom jeans and his Mother-in-Law moved into the White House. That’s the kind of layup most comedians would lunge at.
Instead, more often than not they spun for him rather than hold him accountable. In some cases, they created comic scenarios for the sole purpose of defending his administration and savaging his enemies.
And they weren’t alone.
Comic Landmines Ahead
Non-black comics haven’t fared much better regarding Obama. “Saturday Night Live” only sporadically mocks Obama. Can anyone name one signature “SNL” bit from the past 8 years ridiculing him?
The late night talk shows rarely grill him like they did his predecessors. How many Obama comic rants have gone viral?
It’s why black comics were uniquely positioned to fulfill their job descriptions.
It’s a cultural given that comedians have more room to mock their own race, religion or background. A Jewish comedian can “get away” with harsher material about Jewish traditions, for example.
One of Rock’s classic stand-up bits found him savaging black fathers for handling basic parenting duties. “I take care of my kid,” Rock shrieked in character, bragging about a chore any competent dad could do.
Could a white comic get away with that observation?
It’s another reason we need diversity in comedy. That allows more voices, more viewpoints, into the pop culture landscape. And, as a result, the ability to dig deeper into themes in a way only comedy can. Except that’s not what happened once Obama took the oath of office.
Comics Walking on Eggshells
Obama’s election was historic, no question asked. Yet at a time when political correctness was just gaining momentum, the notion of mocking a black president took on a tricky component.
Obama also didn’t initially give them much material, too. He was handsome, eloquent and free from the kind of tics a hack comic could ridicule.
Some comics avoided the prospect entirely. Others kept blasting away at President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney as if they still worked in the Oval Office.
And then there were those who chose to defend Obama, not take him to task as they would with any Commander in Chief.
In 2009, David Letterman didn’t just use his “Late Show” perch to defend the president’s reliance on TelePrompters. He structured a bit comparing Obama’s silky rhetoric to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
That isn’t comedy. It’s working as an extension of the Obama administration.
Jon Stewart, the so-called dean of modern political satirists, actually visited the Obama White House last year. He also spent plenty of air time spinning, defending or downplaying Obama’s actions when necessary.
What were black comedians doing during the Age of Obama?
To Protect and to Serve
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele created a recurring skit on their old Comedy Central sketch show around Obama’s “Anger Translator.”
“Luther” voiced what Obama was really feeling, even though the president kept his cool in front of the cameras. The bit, while well-executed, let the comedians defend Obama and attack his enemies.
For example, the first episode of the duo’s third season found them addressing NSA spying headlines.
“I can assure you the American people we are not reading every individual e-mail. Rather, we’re searching for keywords that would indicate a threat,” Peele’s president says. “These keywords are being used … to prevent terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction….”
“I assure you that the country’s gotten safer since the end of the Bush era.”
The duo extended their Obama defense to Twitter, using a Luther-themed account to attack Mitt Romney in 2012 during the presidential campaign and defend the sluggish fiscal times. A sample Tweet:
Obama: Although it’s slow, the economy is showing signs of recovery.
Trans: I told yall I’m turning this s*** around! Just gimme a damn second!
Rock wasn’t active on the stand-up circuit during the past seven or so years. He still spoke glowingly of Obama when asked, calling him the “Shaq” instead of “Michael Jordan” of politics.
Wilmore’s tenure on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” includes him showering Obama with adoration.
“Barry got his groove back!” he once cried while analyzing the president’s State of the Union address.
These are political comedians who, instead of speaking truth to power, defended the powerful, the status quo. It’s as subversive as saluting Apple’s market dominance.
A similar situation didn’t occur within the black intellectual community. Cornet West has been one of Obama’s harshest critics in recent years. Tavis Smiley, a black journalist for PBS, has pummeled Obama for much of his presidency.
The Fey Factor
One obvious truth is that black comedians know the power of comedy in the modern age. They watched Tina Fey deconstruct Sarah Palin with her gimlet-eyed impression, and they didn’t want to do the same against Obama.
They also felt pride in seeing a person of color as president. Wilmore said as much during Saturday’s dinner comments.
What patriotic American didn’t, regardless of party affiliation?
To treat Obama differently than other presidents, though, hardly served Obama or race relations writ large. This country strives for equality, to judge people on the “content of their character” above all else.
By putting Obama on a pedestal, away from the slings and arrows of our best court jesters, it made him different than Bush, Clinton and Reagan. Not equal.