WARNING: This post contains mild spoilers for season 2 of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, streaming now on Netflix.
From Episode 3:
KIMMY: You’re playing a Japanese woman?
TITUS: Playing? I was a Japanese woman!
KIMMY: Well, if Aisha Tyler can play a white woman on Friends, then I guess it’s okay!
I love rumbling with jokes. I love a joke that I have to wrestle with after my first impression with, something that hit me weird the first time but needs further examination to fully understand and appreciate. And maybe it’s because I was reading Brené Brown’s latest, Rising Strong, on the weekend that I dug into season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but I came to it particularly excited to pull some jokes apart.
The nature of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s material invites that in a lot of ways. It’s dense, it’s fast, and it’s smart. I watch most TV with captions, but find it a necessity when watching Kimmy Schmidt because of the quick pace of the dialogue and heft to the jokes. Nevertheless, the line above thumped me on the chest hard- possibly because I saw it before I heard it. I had to pause playback, and audibly whispered “Whoa.”
This is a complicated episode, that touches on a lot of interesting issues. Cultural appropriation comes up when considering Tituss’ insistence on playing the talented and troubled geisha who he believes he lived as in a previous life, Murasaki. Is that a stab at Rachel Dolezal? Might be, no direct link is made but a case could be made…To the credit of both Titus Andromedon the character, and Tituss Burgess the actor, that performance (when it does happen) is not played for a laugh, or treated as a joke. The show has taken similar stances on other controversial portrayals of cultures, most notably Jacqueline Voorhees (now White)’s Native American heritage. It did garner something between frustration and outrage in the show’s first season, but nevertheless made a return in the second. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Also addressed in the episode is the culture of Internet outrage itself. A group finds out about Titus’ play and comes to protest, placing him on a list of “Top Five Internet Hitlers” (on which, it’s worth noting, the original Hitler doesn’t actually appear) and insisting that his portrayal will be offensive without yet having seen the final product. We’ve all become well aware of what that archetype looks like, so I won’t rehash it – other than to say that the line from one of the commenters, “I don’t want to hear the end of anything anyone has to say!”, might encapsulate the problem better than any other explanatory line to come before it.
Believe it or not, for me, neither of those jokes were particularly arresting; for others who have more personal connections to the issue at hand, that may be different. The Aisha Tyler line however, likely designed to be a throwaway line to bring Kimmy into agreement with Titus, threw me. Hard. NOTE: it did not offend me, but it did make me stop and think about why I reacted as it did. And that was the important bit to me, an important role that comedy can serve if we allow it to.
Whether you agree or not, Tina Fey and the showrunners of Kimmy Schmidt have opted out of the apology culture that we often see for jokes that are deemed “problematic,” an abstract term that has somehow come to encapsulate discomfort, confusion, and true offense all at once. She has addressed the issue only once, noting that the jokes falling in that vein poke fun at a character, rather than a culture. This approach is reinforced in season 2; in addition to Titus’ straightforward and gag-free portrayal of Murasaki holding all the gravity he believed her life merited, the jokes made about Native American culture were geared more toward a character genuinely struggling to incorporate her initial denial of heritage, with her current wish to embrace it. They seek to understand and write to where the joke is (with the characters and the easily lampooned elements), and not with the culture in question itself (Japanese and geisha culture, Native American culture). These sorts of portrayals often get painted in the press or minds of consumers as thoughtless; I don’t happen to believe that’s the case here.
I realize I’m having trouble getting to my point, so let me make it here: I think problematic comedy can be good. Now, unlike the Internet commenter refusing to get to the end, hear me out here. Well crafted jokes, ones not purely out for shock or amateurishly slapped together, can provoke thought and encourage the listener to examine their behavior. A joke that you struggle with is telling you something, whether you’re ready and able to hear it or not. But there are two sides to that process, and that means the listener has to be willing to rumble with it a bit.
By rumble, I’m borrowing from Brene Brown’s definition: wrestling with the story we’ve told ourselves in our mind about what we’ve heard, what experiences or feelings we have that inform that reaction, and what we might be able to take away from the experience. As an example, I’ll walk you through my conversation with myself about the Aisha Tyler joke.
“What’s going on with you?”
“That felt weird.”
“Doesn’t feel weird to assume Aisha Tyler was white.”
“Because she isn’t!”
“Yeah, I know. But why would Kimmy have come to that conclusion?”
“Oh, I don’t know, the whole rest of Friends’ run? There weren’t many other black people, so her reasoning was that they must have just assumed she wasn’t”
“Yup. And what was that about, by the way? Where in New York was that even possible?”
“Not now, you’re watching something, remember?”
The conversation above is pretty close to the rumble I had with myself. And being a fan of comedy who is also constantly searching for ways to be understanding of underrepresented populations and their experience in the world, I’ve learned to do this regularly. I have to wrestle with the idea that some of the comedy I regularly enjoy, is also comedy that doesn’t include people that look like me. I rumble with that reality, and how odd it can appear when those elements are seemingly thrown in, often. I rumble with how shows that do it more naturally (see: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore) are discussed- groundbreaking! Diverse! Progressive! It’s not a quick process, and I have to do it with a LOT of content because of how big a part of my life it is. But I’m better for it.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to change the channel or declare a comedian off-limits when something feels “problematic.” But I like doing the hard work of digging into the feelings that these issues summon to the surface. I know myself better because of it. I know better how to speak up for myself in situations that make me uncomfortable, and how to call out other people when they’re making me uncomfortable. I can push past that “I don’t know why I feel this way” barrier far more quickly now. And, even with jokes that are legitimately problematic, I can find some semblance of enjoyment in them while recognizing that I don’t have to agree, or let them dictate or represent my thoughts on a topic.
That doesn’t mean I don’t get offended by things, nor does it mean that I don’t grant other people the right to offense. There are things that life circumstances have allowed me to declare off-limits, and I respect that in others. But I remain firmly of the belief that discomfort, and offense or trigger, aren’t the same. I work through the things that offend or trigger me with the help I need, but I explore those things that make me uncomfortable with curiosity and an eye toward positive regard.
As you continue your quest for things that make you laugh, I hope you’ll keep an eye on the distinction and rumble with what makes you stop and say “whoa.”