Anyone watch the NBC reality show Last Comic Standing? I don’t, but I was checking out the blog Racialicious yesterday and ran across this post about a Chicago comedian named Esther Ku who recently appeared on the show. The post’s headline suggests that Ku is the Korean-American Sarah Silverman. (Silverman, for those who don’t know, is a white comedian who traffics in an offensive brand of humor that tries to squeeze irony out of common racial, ethnic, gender, and religious stereotypes. Her jokes come across as more cruel than insightful, and I think she likes it that way.)
Like Silverman, Ku’s comedy usually causes audiences to squirm in discomfort: Did she really say that? Is it okay to laugh? Is this social commentary, or is she making fun of Asian people? It’s a risky style of satire, for sure.
In addition to a YouTube video of Ku, the Racialicious post excerpts a telling passage from a Boston Globe article about her act:
The Korean-American comedian started with the words, “I don’t really like being Asian, but I’m kind of stuck with it.” That, at least, received a few titters. But when she continues, “The only good thing about being Asian, really, is it helps you get into college,” the crowd stays silent. It goes downhill from there as she mines the subject of Caucasians adopting Asian babies.
“Nigerian babies cost like 25 cents a day,” says Ku. “Asian babies cost a lot more because they pay off.”
As the crowd erupts in pained groans and a smattering of uncomfortable laughs, Ku innocently asks, “Did I go too far?”
Later on, the Globe article allows the comedian to explain what she’s attempting to do with her humor:
The underlying message of the [Nigerian vs. Asian babies] joke is a cultural commentary about white people who adopt Asian babies, says Ku. “How unfair it is that people purchase Asian babies like it’s an investment. I don’t mean to degrade Nigerian babies.”
But, as the article observes, Ku’s audiences often miss her point. And many leave her shows feeling she’s a self-hating racist.
- How far should we go in joking about race and ethnicity?
- Does it do more harm than good?
- Is there a place in the work of reconciliation for biting social satire that indirectly challenges us to examine our stereotypes and prejudices?
Ku’s comedy offers yet another angle for considering these issues.