Sunday, March 14, 2010

For Crying Out Loud, Grow a Sense of Humor

[NOTE: Sorry readers, Blogger is acting up again. Click the title of the post to pull up this post only in order to watch the hilarious videos of Joe Wong.]

KoreAm magazine blog recently carried a post by Emil Guillermo, discussing a rising stand-up comic named Joe Wong. Here is Joe on the Late Show with Davie Letterman.


The Korean laughed. Laughed really, really hard. The Korean is an immigrant himself, and everything that Wong did was spot-on. The Korean showed the clip to the Korean Fiancee (also a first generation immigrant,) and she also laughed really, really hard. The Korean went on Youtube to find more clips, and Wong did not disappoint. Here is another clip:


Then the Korean read the post below it, and was disappointed. Unlike the Korean, Guillermo did not find Wong to be funny at all. After lobbing a few unnecessary low blows toward Letterman, Guillermo takes aim at Wong:
Blacks certainly wouldn’t welcome a modern reprise of racist pick-a-ninny jokes nor the second coming of Stepin’ Fetchit-type humor. So why should Asian Americans? That’s the trouble with Letterman selling Joe Wong as the face of Asian American comedy.
If Joe Wong taps into some universal truth, it’s stupidity. But when you’re barely represented in the media and stupid is all people see, an image problem is created. No one thinks all white people are like the Simpsons. Besides, they’re cartoons drawn in Korea. But for many, the only Asian they might see could be Joe Wong. When people laugh at Wong, an Asian immigrant lost in American society, they are laughing at and glorifying the everyday examples of racism.
To be fair, Guillermo sees value in self-deprecating jokes. But he thinks that such jokes do not suit Joe:
Certainly, self-effacing, self-deprecating humor can be useful. For Congressman Norm Mineta, it was standard to open every speech with a self-deprecating joke. But when you’re one of the most influential Asian Americans in Washington, you can afford the self-deprecation. Besides, the audience always saw it as charming.

But when you’re lowly Joe Wong, the self-deprecation is merely a re-affirmation of your lowliness. And Wong takes every Asian American down with him. With this everyman, we’re all the butt of the joke.
Guillermo closes with a reflection on Asian American comedy, and by essentially branding Joe as a traitor to his race:
Lately, I’ve come to appreciate the gifts of comedienne Margaret Cho. The comic genius continues to boldly shock and challenge cultural assumptions. Another Korean American, Tina Kim, never stoops to the stupid accent.
The correspondents’ dinner in Washington should represent quite a contrast. The Obama administration has done much to raise the Asian American profile. But all it takes is one Joe Wong in such a high-profile venue to imprint a new negative image within American pop culture. We no longer have to worry about white shock jocks doing accented ching-chong comedy bits anymore. (Hey, that’s racist.) Now, we have one of our own all too willing to debase us.
Authentic? No, just pathetic.
Strong words they are. The Korean does not shy away from strong words either. So here is the Korean's message to Emil Guillermo: "Get a fucking grip man, and grow a sense of humor."

First of all, Guillermo simply does not get Joe's jokes, and why they are funny. Take the joke about washing hands that Guillermo cited his post. The joke works in two stages -- the "inspiration" part, and the "children" part. The inspiration part is very clever. It focuses on a part of the commonplace language on which we rarely focus, and exposes a possible incongruence between the language and the purpose of the language. Then the joke proceeds by bridging the incongruence in a deliberately false manner.

Overall, that joke works a lot like Mitch Hedberg's "Yoplait" joke, which goes like this:
I opened-up a yogurt, underneath the lid it said, "Please try again." because they were having a contest that I was unaware of. I thought maybe I opened the yogurt wrong. Or maybe Yoplait was trying to inspire me. "Come on Mitchell, don't give up! PLEASE TRY AGAIN!! An inspirational message from your friends at Yoplait." Fruit on the bottom, hope on top.


(The Korean could not find the video of this joke for the life of him. Too bad, because Hedberg's delivery takes it to another level.)

(-EDIT 3/16/2010- Thank you, commenters Marten and Sungik. The Yoplait joke is at the 1 minute mark of the updated video.)

But Wong takes his joke one more step, in a pitch-perfect manner: “I wash my hands every time I use the bathroom, so my children don’t have to.” Now this joke is not only clever, but also has an element of sweetness to it. The joke now exploits the deliberate false cognition at full speed, and brings in a stereotypically Asian and immigrant concern for children. Many different things are at play here. The deliberate false cognition is funny. Father's concern for his child is sweet, but funny when it veers into something that does not seem to deserve that concern. (This is a huge appeal of Stuff Korean Moms Like, for example.) This concern packs an additional punch due to Wong's sincere delivery, made believable by the stereotype about Asians/immigrants and their concern for their children's future.

Guillermo does not understand any of this. Instead, he chalks up the reason for the laughter to such canard like the laughers' "need to feel superior" or Wong's "stupidity," playing the part of "the dumb Asian immigrant." Please! There is not a single dumb joke in Wong's bits shown on his two appearances on Letterman. All of Wong's jokes are incomparably better than the crude and unfunny ching-chong jokes. In fact, a good portion of Wong's jokes are not even about being an Asian immigrant. (For example, the "parallel parking" joke, the "blueberry vs. strawberry" joke, "baby on board" joke.)


In fact, Guillermo belies that it's not just Joe Wong that he does not get -- Guillermo does not get stand-up comedy as a whole. "Blacks certainly wouldn't welcome a modern reprise of racist pick-a-ninny jokes"? Really? Then how does Guillermo explain one of the most iconic black comedians giving this bit?
Fat, black women don't give a fuck what you think. She's going out on Friday night. She got an outfit on. That shit match. She got the pumps on, and the pump fat coming out the pump. That's right. It looks like they baking bread in her shoe.

"Baby, your foot ready yet?" "I'll just sprinkle some cinnamon on it!"

That's right. She got an anklet on, and that anklet's holding on for dear life. Black women don't give a fuck. She's like, "I'm sexy. I am sexy, yes, I am! I am the sexiest motherfucker here tonight! Yeah, I got a gut. There's some good pussy under this gut! That's right. You want some of this so you can "livin' la vida loca!"
Was the thunderous laughter for Chris Rock only came from the white people sitting in the Apollo Theater?

It is actually funny that Guillermo cites approvingly of Margaret Cho. Mind you, the Korean LOVES Margaret Cho. But we are talking about a woman who launched her career by (and drew a lot of flak for) talking about how her mother, complete with Korean accent, would call her daughter "moron" in a screaming manner. What about that routine "boldly shock[s] and challenge[s] cultural assumptions," as Guillermo puts it?

But the problem is not simply that Guillermo does not have a sense of humor. The larger problem is that Guillermo represents a certain mindset that is downright harmful to Asian Americans.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


Let us turn away from Guillermo's apparent lack of humor, and focus on the larger reason why Guillermo denounces Wong. Guillermo writes:
... when you’re barely represented in the media and stupid is all people see, an image problem is created. ...  for many, the only Asian they might see could be Joe Wong. When people laugh at Wong, an Asian immigrant lost in American society, they are laughing at and glorifying the everyday examples of racism. ... Wong takes every Asian American down with him.
(Emphasis added by the Korean.)

While this is an oft-repeated argument, the Korean does not think it is correct. In fact, the Korean often faces a similar criticism, which usually progresses like this:

Critic:  "Who are you to call yourself 'The Korean'? You don't represent all Koreans."
The Korean:  "Do YOU think I represent all Koreans?"
Critic:  "No. But there are stupid people in the world who might think so."
The Korean:  "Who are these "stupid people" that you speak of? Do you know any of them personally?"
Critic:  "No, but they are out there, and there are a lot of them."
The Korean:  "If there are a lot of them, how come you don't know a single one?"

Let us set aside the fact that it is nothing but pure arrogance to consider yourself to be smarter than a lot of people for now. The Korean will concede this -- surely, in some corners of America, there are some number of unreasonable people who think it is perfectly fair to judge a group based on a single individual. But truth is, by now, most reasonable Americans know enough to recognize the stereotypical depictions, and think that it is incorrect and unfair to infer a group characteristic based on one individual even though they have only seen one representative of that group.

There is even less danger that Wong would be taken as a representative of Asian Americans, because he is performing a clearly defined act as a stand-up comedian. Reasonable people understand that Wong is there to make people laugh, not to expound upon the essential characteristics of Asian Americans. Guillermo finishes his article with a pithy phrase: "Authentic? No, just pathetic." But Wong never claimed to be authentic in the first place! For crying out loud, he's just a comedian!

Reasonable people know what the stereotypes of Asian immigrants are, and that Wong will play the part by deliberately exaggerating them. Will there be unreasonable people who do not get that? Sure. But how does it make sense that we Asian Americans must act based on the expectations of unreasonable people, instead of the expectations of reasonable people?


Separately, think about how unlikely it is that Joe Wong is the only Asian that any given group of Americans would ever see in the year 2010. The most popular drama on television (Lost) prominently has featured two Asian Americans. A very popular comedy movie (Harold and Kumar) features two Asian Americans as protagonists, and the movie is successful enough to be made into a trilogy. Heck, even though it was a commercial flop, there was even a blockbuster-budget movie (which was good enough to attract the Wachowski Brothers brand name) that was essentially a 100 minute-long dedication to a naked torso of an Asian male. (Ninja Assassin.) Guillermo's point was most certainly valid at some point in recent history, but we are quickly moving past that era.

Joe Wong on The Ellen Show

Lastly, the most troubling part of Guillermo's article to the Korean was when Guillermo wrote Norman Mineta may issue a self-deprecating joke, but not Joe Wong:
Certainly, self-effacing, self-deprecating humor can be useful. For Congressman Norm Mineta, it was standard to open every speech with a self-deprecating joke. But when you’re one of the most influential Asian Americans in Washington, you can afford the self-deprecation. Besides, the audience always saw it as charming. But when you’re lowly Joe Wong, the self-deprecation is merely a re-affirmation of your lowliness.
If Guillermo's earlier passage about stupid people believing the stereotype only implied arrogance, this passage makes the arrogance quite explicit. Guillermo assumed the throne of what is an acceptable behavior for an Asian American, and decreed that Norman Mineta can make certain jokes, while "lowly" Joe Wong cannot make the same type of jokes.

The Korean understands the motivation for that statement. Yes, Asian Americans are a racial minority in America. Yes, we are stereotyped. Yes, we are judged more harshly for doing the same thing as the majority race does. It would be helpful if we do not make an ass out of ourselves in our day-to-day lives, since there is always a possibility that our actions will affect the majority's judgment on other Asian Americans. All of the foregoing is true, and the Korean understands them fully. But even if they are all true, why in the world does a regular Asian American have to attain Norm Mineta-like status in order to tell self-deprecating jokes???

This is the stance that the Korean finds the most harmful. In effect, Guillermo is telling Asian Americans that unless we are in the right position to do so, we cannot be ourselves. Instead, we must be engaged in a constant kabuki dance that scrupulously avoids presenting what could be remotely considered as a flaw from the most unreasonable perspective. The dance can only stop when we put ourselves in a position of power, where no one can dare laugh at us.

This is extremely counterproductive. The fundamental problem that bedevils Asian Americans is the problem of "otherness" -- the deep sense that, no matter how long we have lived in this blessed country, other Americans will not see us as a fellow American. One could try many different things to overcome that problem, but a staged phoniness cannot possibly be a solution. To be accepted as an American, we have to be first accepted as normal human beings who are motivated by the same forces as any other humans. We cannot, and should not, carry on our lives as if we are a manufactured construct of an ideal race.

What is more American than a self-deprecating joke? One of the greatest strengths of American culture is the ability to step back from it all and have a good laugh about what kind of mess we are. Frankly acknowledging our flaws is remarkably powerful, because it causes other people (who often have the same flaw as ours) to identify themselves with us. Through a small joke, you are instantly made more accessible to others. Is this not the best way to overcome the problem of otherness?

So go on with your self-deprecation Joe. Thank you for the laughs. The Korean will go on with self-deprecation as well. Did you know that the Korean has a rare congenital disorder that prevents him from writing anything less than 10000000000000000 words? And it's not even covered through his health insurance, so all he could do is to write this silly blog. So annoying, I swear.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

14 comments:

  1. Yeah, not always funny and a little too Yakov Smirnoff at times, but definitely not harmful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Aw! Ninja Assassin ain't that bad! Anyways, you're right. Guillermo really does need to loosen up. I'm an Asian myself and I laughed at Joe's jokes too. He executed his Asian goofiness really well. Comes across as cute and not "OMG Stereotypical what are you doing ruining our reputation".

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very good post here, and very poor analysis by Guillermo.

    As an aside, I've also had issues with videos and jumpbreaks. Looks like you need to stick them all under the break, not convenient if you'd like to lead off a post with one.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Here's the Yoplait-joke:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggOdTarlYWY#t=0m59s

    ReplyDelete
  5. Once again, you are spot on. Emil whoever just totally does NOT get it. In fact, I think it's humorless people like him that give umm (Gosh I hate the word choices) *minorities* a bad name.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Korean,

    You're right, Mr. Guillermo seems to lack a sense of humour. While I didn't find everything of Wong's funny, he did hit on enough to show the man does have comedic talent, even if his timing is a little off yet. For example, that riff on Benjamins and the 2nd Amendment was witty and as much a slap against mindless gun nut culture as it was laughing at bewildered immigrants. It may come as a shock to Guillermo, but comedians are best when they plumb their own experiences for material, just the same way writers do, of which he seems to be one.

    After reading Mr. G's bio, I wonder if he isn't a bit of an elitist snob looking down on proletariat humour. I mean, really, he says that he has "come to appreciate" Margaret Cho? What is she? A fine Bordeaux? In my experience, Margaret Cho's humour is either gotten or not, immediately. No one has to learn to appreciate such in your face stuff. Unless of course you were highly offended by her in the first place.

    Some unsolicited advice to Mr. Guillermo, put down the NPR mike and the Harvard Crimson. Read the Sunday funnies, watch American Dad, Bill Maher and South Park and get a fucking life. Joe Wong isn't such a bad guy.

    ReplyDelete
  7. But we are talking about a woman who launched her career by (and drew a lot of flak for) talking about how her mother, complete with Korean accent, would call her daughter "moron" in a screaming manner. What about that routine "boldly shock[s] and challenge[s] cultural assumptions," as Guillermo puts it?

    In her early career, I loathed Margaret Cho. Seeing her imitate her grandma by squinting her eyes and saying in a mock accent, "Margaret, why you do that?!" to a guffawing audience of Whites and Blacks made me cringe. Margaret Cho was, in those days, giving license to bigots to make fun of "Orientals" in that way.

    Ironically, though, I liked her show "All-American Girl," only because it allowed her to be humorous in a way that was about family life, not mocking Asians.

    And I don't see anything wrong with Joe Wong's routine. It's not really mocking Asians at all; if it mocks anything, it's mainstream America's view of immigrants, not the immigrants themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Unfortunately I have nothing intelligent to contribute this the article, but I liked the joke at the end.

    LOL

    ReplyDelete
  9. Here's a link of the yoplait joke at around the 1 minute mark:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6xaj2fC1jI&feature=related

    ReplyDelete
  10. His delivery reminds me of Andy Kaufman.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This is why I love this blog. It's so varied. Korean, you challenge me, educate me and even entertain me! And, it's free!

    As for Joe's comedy, I love it. At first, I was expecting another William Hung, so I was happy to see Joe transcend Hung with his sheer talent. His immigration jokes remind me of my Russian grandparents' experiences as new Americans and weirdly, his amateur delivery is appealing to me.

    So, yeah, the Guillermo dude needs to stuff it!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Korean,
    thanks for introducing Joe Wong. He is very funny, and I laughed real hard.

    I am a fan of George Carlin and watch his show frequently. Wong is different in style, but still does the stand-up well.

    You should check out his comedy in the Headliner Radio & Television Correspondents Dinner.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Joe Wong is hilarious. I really liked his bit and that Roe vs. Wade joke had me laughing for 10 minutes!

    That's the problem with a lot of Asian-American activists. There is no one Asian male role that they will not complain about.

    If he does anything "asian" then they say that we are being labeled as perpetual foreigners. If he doesn't do anything "asian" then he's whitewashed and they complain that they aren't taking his heritage and culture seriously. If he dies, the writers are racists, and if he makes it through the story without getting a girl, then they're racists.

    If they are perfect, then they're the token asian guy, or just boring characters. People liked Harold and Kumar because they were believable characters.

    It's not like someone is making up Long Duk Dong. Joe Wong is being himself, and he's a little fobby. Do they want fobs to entirely be out of the media's spotlight?

    All that aside. How can ANYONE like Margaret Cho? She is the most not funny comedian I have ever seen, and her recent stuff is still not funny. Her jokes are tailor made for white people who don't have much experience with asian-americans, (though the first part of her chicken salad joke was funny, the second part of it was fucking annoying.)

    ReplyDelete
  14. just came across this blog. i know this post is 2 years old but i was just looking at some margaret cho videos and realizing that she doesn't resort to mocking her mother anymore to get laughs. it seems she's taken an asian studies class or two through the years. but i'm going to have to disagree with you about a couple things. 1. margaret cho. i can't believe you don't find her offensive. i'm wondering if it's because you're first generation and haven't internalized a hatred of asian mockery through years of receiving it in your younger years. my parents would probably laugh at margaret cho too because they might not view it in the same context as i do. anyways, number 2. i don't agree that self-deprecation is american at all. america is more of an individuality oriented, prideful country. i think self-deprecation and humility are appreciated and commended when it happens but it's definitely more of an asian virtue. anyway, just my 2 cents.

    ReplyDelete

To prevent spam comments, comments left on posts older than 60 days are subject to moderation and will not appear immediately.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...