Commentary: Racial Humor May Never Be The Same

By: CNN
By: CNN

Editor's note: Tim Reid is an actor, producer and director who has starred in "WKRP in Cincinnati," "Sister, Sister" and many other television shows and movies. Tom Dreesen is a stand-up comedian who has performed scores of times on "The Tonight Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman" and who was Frank Sinatra's opening act for 14 years. They co-authored a new book, "Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White."

(CNN) -- In the early 1970s, when we were the first black-and-white comedy team in the history of show business -- and the last -- we had a routine in which Tom would interview Tim, who had just been elected the first black president of the United States.

One critic who liked our act and appreciated some of our edgiest routines said the concept of a black president was just too unbelievable.

We wonder where he is today.

Not that he's the only one who is surprised by Barack Obama becoming president, of course. Obama's election has caused many people to re-evaluate their attitudes about politics, race and every other aspect of American life. And we comedians are right there with them. Jokes about race relations may never be the same. At least we hope not.

Obama's election represents a challenge to comedians who deal in racial humor. With a confident, eloquent black man in the White House, along with a beautiful, accomplished wife and two impossibly adorable children, can any young black comic possibly still do jokes about bitches and 'hos?

Won't the very audiences they're trying to reach rebel and say, "Wait a minute -- we're past that now. It's not how we are going to be represented any more"?

The same is true about exaggerated black speech that is a staple of so many acts, the kind of "yo mama" shtick that has its roots in Amos and Andy. If the rappers want to continue dealing in it, that's one thing, but as a way to get automatic laughs? How long will it continue to work? See Tim Reid on D.L. Hughley Breaks the News »

We're entering an era in which racial comedy will have to deal with creative thought rather than relying on the casual repeated use of the F word, the N word and the rest of the slackers' alphabet. In this changing frontier, how will we construct the new bases for racial humor?

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Comedians won't stop living on the edge, which is where the best ones have always existed. And we did a lot of wacky things ourselves when we were traveling the country between 1969 and 1974, things we could never get away with today, such as the routine in which Tim taught Tom how to be black. The politically correct police would crucify us, or, even worse, post out-of-context snippets on YouTube for the blogosphere to go crazy over.

When we quit our good jobs as businessmen to seek the comfort and security of lives in show business, we decided not to do a typical straight-man, funny-man act.

We figured that if we were going to make comedy out of a black man and a white man sharing the same stage, it would have to be equal-opportunity comedy. Race wasn't the punch line in our routines, it was the vehicle. The aim was to get people to see, and to laugh at, the irony of racial attitudes in America.

And that's the challenge and the opportunity that comedy about race faces today. The presence of the Obama family in the White House means that it can't be business as usual any more.

America, black and white, won't be amused by humor that trades on the old stereotypes of interracial social encounters, impressions and fears. Like it or not, change has come. O.J. is in prison, and a black man is in the White House. Is everybody happy now?

So just as we're entering a new and hopeful world in American politics, we're also beginning one in comedy that could be just as exciting.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen.


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