In response to the murder of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Funny Or Die has produced 2 video sketches supposedly to release tension through satire. One video features a black man being harassed by a police officer for eating an ice cream cone on his own front porch, and the other parodies the television show Cops, with Ferguson as the episode’s location. Both videos focus on the theme of overzealous policing, wherein the degree to which the officers respond escalates despite exceedingly nonthreatening circumstances.
As America’s premiere web-based comedy channel, Funny Or Die guarantees high production quality, and these 2 videos deliver in kind. But where Cop v. Black Guy and Cops: Ferguson underachieve is in the creative approach to the deeper source issue. Both sketches identify the ‘game of the scene’ as hyper-reactive policemen, a tidy premise illustrated with absurd behavior and props for comic effect. Unfortunately, the events in Ferguson are but the latest and most publicized symptom of a larger disease plaguing the country—institutional racism—and deserve more respect than the sketch writers have paid.
Even when giving the sketch writers the benefit of the doubt, viewers sensitive to the reality of institutional racism can only cede the possibility of either unawareness or willful ignorance for the sake of a more immediate joke. To humanity’s credit, the public outrage against the racially charged militarized police state in Ferguson indicates that audiences will not accept such shallow attempts at humor now that the vacuum in which the jokes may have succeeded can no longer exist. More upsetting still is how the focus on policemen in the videos facilitates a shift away from racism altogether, trading it in for a more universally appealing cops-be-crazy commentary. Such an approach not only underestimates the ability for white audiences to empathize with people color, but also dismisses the pain that people of color experience on a regular basis.
In fairness, Funny Or Die is not the only comedy outlet to address Ferguson; The Daily Show has also covered the events through its trademark liberal lens, but with varying levels of success. In fact, Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s most effective commentary on institutional racism came without humor when he ended a segment on the media coverage of Ferguson by saying, “Race is there; it exists. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.”
That Stewart, one of the world’s more reliable social commentators, has yet to satirically cauterize the country’s rawest wound suggests that institutional racism is still challenging to digest for even the most trained professional comedians. And that the American comedy landscape continues to be dominated by white male sensibilities forecasts a greater delay in processing before thoughtful, biting satire on race returns to the mainstream. Perhaps this delay is simply a matter of overall timing, a textbook definition of “Too soon.” Maybe the comedy community just doesn’t fully “get it” because their world is so starkly different from Michael Brown’s regardless of race. Either way, the most reliable sources for contemporary comedy have clearly struggled to tap into the righteous anger stirred up by institutional racism and the police state and have yet to acknowledge the depth of public concern while exposing the undeniable struggle of humanity.
The possibility of eventually ignoring these tensions outright for less problematic material is real. But hopefully these initial attempts have served as lessons, indicators via audience feedback that comedians have to keep digging. The overall workshop aspect of comedy has become more public with the Internet, so here’s hoping that we are just witnessing the rough drafts to narratives that, once polished, will shine a light on what’s really going on.