Culture | October 30, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Bill O’Reilly, The Daily Show, and Cultural Sensitivity in Comedy

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Earlier this month, “The O’Reilly Factor,” one of the flagship programs on Fox News, created a major controversy when it aired a man-on-the-street segment featuring contributor Jesse Waters invoking a multitude of stereotypes about Asian-Americans while interacting with passersby in Manhattan’s Chinatown district. Numerous online media outlets were quick to criticize the segment’s racial insensitivity—GQ asked in a headline, “Is This the Most Racist Fox News Segment Ever?”—and the blowback on social media was equally ferocious. The mayors of New York and San Francisco both took to Twitter to condemn the video as “racist.”

Grounds for Criticism

Several think-pieces and professional comedians have already broken down at length why the stereotypes that Watters invoked on “The O’Reilly Factor” are ignorant at best and harmful at worst. Least among these is the monolithic view of all Asian Americans: He asks one Chinese-American man if he knows karate, a Japanese martial art. The video then cuts to a scene of Watters learning what is implied to be karate, but clearly visible behind him is a sign reading “Tae Kwon Doe,” a Korean art, as well as a large South Korean flag. Watters also openly mocks a few individuals for not being able to understand English.

The segment’s basic format is a white television host giggling to himself as he asks Asian Americans if they meet numerous Chinese stereotypes. When they can’t properly answer, or if they give an answer that implies that they do meet the stereotype, Watters looks back at the camera with a bemused expression. His interactions with these passersby are also often intercut with scenes from Hollywood films where a character is berated for their stupidity.

In totality, the segment holds up Asian Americans as potential objects of ridicule and belittlement on the basis of their cultural heritage.

“The Daily Show,” Comedic Exemplar

The premise of a comedy sketch based wherein a white American comedian endeavors to learn about the political or cultural identity of minority group does not, by nature, have to be offensive. For reference, a 2002 bit from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” accomplishes just that.

In this segment, the proudly Catholic Stephen Colbert tries to better understand Jewish culture in the lead-up to Hanukkah. In doing so, he consults with several Jewish individuals around New York, including a rabbi, the owner of a Judaica store, and a classroom of young children. The premise is not all that different from that of the Fox News bit, so what is different about this sketch that makes it not offensive?

The first distinction is the selection of individuals whom the respective shows’ writers got to act as representatives for their cultural identities. In the “O’Reilly” segment, Watters asks Asian Americans on the street in New York to speak on behalf of all Chinese people. He even asks some of them about China’s official government policy, wanting to know if they can “take care of North Korea for us?”

By contrast, when Colbert wants to interview a person to ask about Judaism, he sits down with a rabbi. Unlike Watters, he doesn’t go up to random Jewish-looking people on the street and ask them to speak on behalf of all Jews with no preparation. Rather, he talks to someone whose job it is to know as much as possible about Judaism and to act as a representative for the Jewish faith. It is not offensive to ask a rabbi questions about Judaism. It is, however, offensive to ask a random Asian-looking person in Chinatown about the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China.

Additionally, when Colbert brings up popular myths about Judaism (e.g. that “Hanukkah is the high holiest of holidays”), the humor doesn’t come from his confirming these myths, as it does in the Fox News segment. Instead, he brings up cultural misunderstandings with the expectation that the rabbi will correct them. Thus, the humor comes not from a stereotype’s being confirmed, but from its being exposed as preposterous. The audience is not meant to laugh at Jewish people for confirming stereotypes; we are laughing at Colbert’s character for believing them in the first place. The humor comes not from just repeating cultural myths but from undermining them.

Fish-out-of-Water Comedy Done Right

All of this goes to show that creating a comedy segment with the framework of “white/Christian person talks to members of a minority group to learn more about their culture” is not flat-out impossible, nor is it doomed to be offensive and unfunny.

In the end, it’s a question of power. A white man mocking Asian Americans for their foreignness reinforces their marginalization and their classification as an Other. On the other hand, a scene where a non-Jew is portrayed as obtuse for bringing up Jewish stereotypes that his onscreen interactions with Jewish people unquestionably discredit can be funny, and even subversive; it does not mock its subjects for conforming to stereotypes but instead reveals the cultural assumptions to have no basis in reality.

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