I remember first being introduced to Chris Lilley via his show Summer Heights High on HBO. I loved it and thought it was funny. So when his new show, Angry Boys, was announced I was ecstatic.
Finally, a show that was funny and different. But all that changed when I saw this 30-something year old white Australian man not only in blackface, but yellowface.
Even though I knew what black and yellowface were and that they had long racist pasts, none of that clicked in my mind while I watched Angry Boys. My mind didn’t put two and two together—that a white man in brown make up donning an Afro wig and appropriating AAVE playing as a wannabe rapper and that same white man in a black wig speaking tight, broken English playing as a Japanese woman who was trying to make money off her son by saying he was gay (he wasn’t)—meant that he was a disgusting human being.
For whatever reason I never saw him as racist. I felt very uncomfortable whenever these two characters showed up on screen, but I couldn’t place where these feelings were coming from. That uneasiness, that discomfort.
One could say it was because of my age. I think I was barely in high school at the time these shows were on but that still doesn’t make any sense. For one, I’m black. I think I should know what’s racist and what isn’t. Yet oddly enough I couldn’t. For some strange reason I could not.
It’s not until now that I’m 17 that I can see racism (and sexism, for I am a girl) from a 10 mile radius. I can now see all the blatant racist, homophobia, and sexism in Lilley’s shows that was staring back at me 3 years ago as if from now open eyes.
So when I discovered that Jonah from Tonga was a new show where Lilley was going to star as another character from his previous series Summer Heights High via Wikipedia with the description of
"The mockumentary series follows Jonah Takalua, a rebellious 14-year-old Australian boy of Tongan descent (played by 39 year old Caucasian Chris Lilley in brownface make-up and a curly wig) who was previously seen in Lilley’s series Summer Heights High.
[…]The series was called “racist”,
I realized how deeply ingrained his racism was in his so-called “comedy.” It pulled back S.mouse and Jen Okazaki from Angry Boys and Jonah Takalua and those racist moments with Ja’mie from Summer Heights High.
I now know that I cannot watch another one of his shows. I cannot support a man—a white man—in any way that is making money off of being a complete and utter racist when there are so many other ways to be even slightly “funny.”
For Hemsley, George Jefferson meant navigating his need to sustain his career and the needs of the character, with some respect for the actresses and actors, who before him, had no such options. Hemsley was a product of the famed Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), founded by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone and was the training ground for generations of Black actresses and actors including Esther Rolle, John Amos and Janet DuBois, all of Lear’s Good Times, plus Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and contemporary actors and actresses like Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
The early generations of NEC were faced with many of the same challenges that Hemsley faced: how to cultivate the humanity of Black characters that were never intended—intentionally or unintentionally—to be fully-fledged humans by the writers and producers that created them. In the case of those folk who worked on television sitcoms, they were further limited by the conventions of the format, which rarely lent itself to depth and nuance.
In this latter instance, actors and actresses like Sherman Hemsley and his television wife Isabel Sanford, were held to standards that their White peers never had to deal with. Hemsley, for example, possessed a gift for physical comedy—that was part of what the strut was about—that was comparable to that of figures like Dick Van Dyke (particularly on The Dick Van Dyke Show), Larry Hagman, during his day on I Dream of Jeannie, John Ritter and Don Knotts, whose Three’s Company often shared the top-10 spot in the Nielsen’s with The Jeffersons.
Whereas the aforementioned actors were sometimes seen as geniuses of the style, who never had the burden of representing for their race or ethnic group, too often Black comedians of that like, Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry (“Step n’ Fetchit), Hemsley and Jaleel White, are simply reduced in the Black imagination as simply acting like “coons.” A Black actor would have never been able to get away with the “bugged eyes” that were Knotts’ specialty, dating back to his days as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
W. Kamau Bell stands out. Tall, broad, and Black, with a coife au naturale, his physicality doesn’t exactly lend itself to anonymity; equipped with a booming base for a voice, he really doesn’t have a hope in hell of ever going unnoticed in an American crowd. But come this autumn, the impulses behind the diffident stares and sideways glances on the street will be a little bit more difficult for Bell to decipher, hoodie up or otherwise.
That’s because Bell, a comedian who could do a stand-up routine featuring nothing but heckler retorts at this point in his career, just inked a six-episode deal with the FX network (the “coolest of all the Fox’s,” as he calls them) executive-produced by Chris Rock.
In case that last part didn’t make your eyebrows shoot up, for Bell to garner Rock’s participation amounts to an endorsement from a comedy doyen: having established himself in the game as a headliner who can perform in any comedy club, anywhere, on his own terms, praise and a partnership from Rock is synonymous to a weighty nod of approval from Yoda (albeit, Bell says, a foul-mouthed, microphone-wielding version).
Bell officially announced last Thursday that his show would be called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, debuting Aug. 9th at 11 pm. With the show set to follow Louie, created by and starring biracial comedian Louis C. K., the two programs together constitute a rarity in network television–a progressive comedy block not led by white people.
The show’s name is a departure from Bell’s usual stylings for titles, i.e. his love of inserting the word “negro” into things, the precedent having been established by his podcast, The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture w/ Vernon Reid.
When asked about this deviation, Bell starts laughing.
“I love calling myself a negro,” he says. “It seems like that was the last time Black people got sh-t done was when they were ‘negroes’ … I don’t think we want to tie it necessarily to [being] Black, because we’re not trying to get just a Black audience. Chris says all the time, “You’re Black–you’re going to get Black people, but you don’t need to be like, ‘It’s The Blackity Black Black Show!’”