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Race still a 'hurt line' on comedy club stages
Richad Pryor used the N-word in his standup routine -- then stopped using it after a trip to Africa.
April 10th, 2012
02:56 PM ET

Race still a 'hurt line' on comedy club stages

By Jim Roope, CNN Radio Correspondent

(CNN) - There is one place in America where racism might well be accepted, or at very least tolerated - comedy clubs.

“Race is, like everything, fodder for comedy,” said Dave Reinitz, co-owner of Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, California.

“I think there’s a fine line between racial humor and racism. And some comics cross it. But yes, it is accepted, and it’s funny."

Even he likes a joke based on race at times.

“I can be made to laugh," he said. "Particularly if I know the comic that’s doing it and I know their intent is not to hurt anybody.”

Still, most race-based humor rubs him the wrong way, he said, as it does his partner, Barbara Holliday.

“In comedy, in general, we say that you can cross the hurt line,” Holliday said. “Meaning that if your joke is about degrading the race or putting down the race, then it’s a problem."

Comedian and actor Michael Richards, best known as Kramer in the TV series "Seinfeld," crossed a line in 2006. He became frustrated by heckling patrons while he was performing at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood. He blew up with an N-word-laced tirade.

Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada said anger was at the root of the outburst, not humor.

“Hatred is different than a human being going on a stage bringing people together,” Masada said.

Comedians like Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle and Eddie Murphy use the N-word in their acts and Masada understands their use of it as social commentary or an attempt to laugh at ourselves. The comedian probably best known for the use of the N-word is Richard Pryor. He once said that by using the word, he took the poison out of it.

Vic Bullock, executive director of the NAACP in Southern California, says he remembers Pryor making that statement - and he remember when Pryor stopped using the word, too.

“After he had gone to Africa, he said he was not going to use the word anymore because he said he no longer saw any 'Ns' once he had been to a continent filled with black people,” Bullock said.

Comedian Erik Griffin, who is black, agrees.

He said he doesn’t use the N-word very often, but that comics should be free to say what they want on stage - and that patrons are free to leave if they don't want to hear it.

"It’d be like going to 31 Flavors and saying like, the strawberry’s gotta go,” Griffin said. “Hey, how ‘bout you just not eat the strawberry and eat the other 30 flavors, you know? I mean, you don’t have to go to comedy clubs."

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Filed under: Black in America • Language • Polls • Pop culture
soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Ms. Ish

    As a black woman, I'm OK with black comedians using the word. Other races shouldn't. Other races can use their own words when referring to their own race. I don't like black comics to use other racial slurs outside their own. Call me narrow minded, but it's my opinion and I stand by it. Period.

    April 26, 2012 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Elsie I

      We shouldn't have words that are ok for one race to use and not others. It separates and divides, when what we need is unity as Americans. Before you judge, yes, I am white, but my husband of more than 25 years is black. Other members of his family have also married outside their race and our friends include people of many races. I have an awesome relationship with his family...they stopped using the word in jest when we had some great dialog about the divisiveness and discomfort it caused for non-black friends and family.

      May 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Fuchu

    I'll vote as soon as they tell me what "N-word" means.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dylan

    Eh. It doesn't normally do anything for me (it just makes me uncomfortable to laugh, when I see it in comedy shows), but I think it's totally fair game. Comics should have free reign to use whatever they want as material.

    April 14, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. dbhashi

    comedy, people, just comedy. It's always good to laugh. Lighten up!!!

    April 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Renuga

      While filling the coepir with paper at the office today, I was interrupted and told exactly how to open the wrapping and insert the paper in the paper try, the suggestion being that I'd caused massive paper jams because I'd done it incorrectly in the past. Ha ha,I've only been doing this for years and didn't fall for that one, nice try though.

      October 13, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mattski

    Of course comedians can use race differences in jokes. After all, we are different races. I get a kick out of boxing commentators who go through such pains to describe a white boxer and a black boxer in the ring, "Jones is wearing red trunks with a broad white stripe, Smith is wearing red trunks with a narrow white stripe". How about just saying Jones is the black guy and Smith is the white guy?!?

    April 12, 2012 at 7:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Dee Dee

      I know, right?! lol

      April 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Caiha

    Everyone has their opinion, but I think the best comics are the ones that not only make you laugh, but make you think. Avoiding a sentsitive subject altogether is foolish and doesn't help at all.

    April 12, 2012 at 3:14 am | Report abuse |
  7. magnificentmaurice

    wheres my comment

    April 11, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
  8. John Richard

    The word itself is not intrinsically evil. The use of this word, however, has been associated with elements of our society that are truly evil. In that context, I believe that the use if this word can elicit different thoughts, feelings and even actions depending upon whose listening. It reassures a racist that his views are correct and could help motivate hate crimes. I believe that the further we move away from this word as a society, the better we will become. That goes for all races. We would be better off if the only place that word existed were in dictionaries and archaic books.

    April 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Frank

    I've seen lots of black comedicans that I've really liked, including Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, among others. I don't think this article addresses the REAL race issue, though. I've seen two black comedians that made me so angry that I contacted the network that broadcast them. They didn't use "the N word". They stood up and spent a LARGE part of their time on stage making fun of "white folks". They said things that NO WHITE PERSON WOULD EVER DARE SAY IN PUBLIC ABOUT blacks, and the (mostly black) audience ate it up – they were laughing hysterically over it. If a white person had said those things, the country would be after them like George Zimmerman. GUARANTEED. The two comics I'm referring to, by the way, are Eddie Griffin and Patrice O’Neal. I know Mr. O died recently, so I guess his days of talking smack about us "white folks" are over!

    April 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      Patrice = funny. He had the most unique take on race in America of anyone I've ever heard speak about the topic. What made it unique was that it was honest. He was visionary whose brutal honesty in his willingness to take on American race relations head-on will be sorely missed.

      April 11, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • lathina4u

      I have to admit that I dislike black comics becuase what you just said...They said things that NO WHITE PERSON WOULD EVER DARE SAY IN PUBLIC ABOUT blacks, and the (mostly black) audience ate it up – they were laughing hysterically over it. If a white person had said those things, the country would be after them like George Zimmerman. GUARANTEED.

      I am not white or black but when you go into a comedy show and is a black comedian all you hear is the White people this and white people that but don't let the white man do that becuase it will be WW3 in USA.

      April 11, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
      • DangItAll

        Then you should broaden your humor horizons – look up Bill Burr – a good chunk of his humor is race-based, and he is extremely funny, and yes, I'm black.

        April 12, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
      • Dion Green

        there are plenty of white omedians who do the same thing. Lisa Lapanelie (the queen of mean) is know for making fun of all races. Joe Rogan, has been know to make some really good racial jokes. like the article said, you can tell when someone is making the joke out of anger and trying to be mean. now, im with you, im black and HATE the N-word. but i can at least tolerate it when i know that it out of laughter and not anger.

        April 12, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Dee Dee

      You're dayum skippy, black comedians can say things about black people that white comedians can't say without starting a war! It's just like that. Not saying white comedians can't talk about race, they certainly can, it's all in how they present it. If it's funny, then I'm laughing. But there are boundaries... Sorry, but it's never funny to hear a white person say the N word. That's an automatic beat down.

      April 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Breed11

    Wow, there CNN goes with race again. Jon Stewart was right, this network is garbage.

    April 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      Jon Liebowitz is no doubt an "anti-racist," just like "incorrect" Bill Maher.

      April 11, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dale N.M.

    Richard Pryor and George Carlin they were super funny, they made me laugh I enjoyed them a lot.

    April 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. zZWilhelmZz

    funny, I have never heard a white comic go off about blacks. Why is that? Because it would be considered racist.Now for a black comic to do the same thing its funny.

    April 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • pauljack

      Ever heard of Michael Richards? Kramer from Seinfeld? You don't get out enough dude. He did a rant.....and it was indeed racist.

      April 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
      • TinKnight

        Sorry, pauljack, but there's a difference between what Michael Richards did (an unplanned tirade in response to hecklers, and intended to hit back and hurt) and what many minority comedians do (mockery of Caucasians as a planned part of their act).

        Now, I'm not like many white people who are butt-hurt by mockery, but there is a definite difference between what's allowable for white comedians (who have a traditional position of power and opportunity) versus what's encouraged for most minority comedians.

        April 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • J.Crobuzon

      Whites have a position of power over blacks. It's funnier to go off on someone who can actually fight back. If the rapper Snow were a comedian, he'd have the angle; he was the only white kid in a black project.

      April 11, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
      • Ron

        If they "had the power," we'd have politicians openly advocating white interests. The way things are, they can't even say the word "white," unless it's to demean said demographic.

        April 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Danie

      Dennis Leary had a comedy tour a few years ago for charity. All white comedians and every other one had a joke about blacks, latinos and asians in a diverse crowd in NYC. No one screamed, no one rioted, we all laughed.

      April 11, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dion Green

      look up lisa lampaneli. shes a good one. and white.

      April 12, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  13. djrickyv

    Dave Chapelle also stopped doing his brand of comedy after a visit to Africa. Hmm...

    April 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Intrepid

    Weak and dead comedians.

    April 11, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  15. I remember Lenny

    Lenny Bruce explained that concept of the uses of racial slurs. He said it wouldn't hurt a kid if it was spewed out
    in the open repeatedly. I'm not sure if it's such a good idea these days. Out of context, it could get someone hurt
    or killed.

    I hated all kinds of different races till I met too many representatives and they were better, smarter, more ethical
    than I was. Then, I grew up.

    April 11, 2012 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Cledi

      Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic however , I'd figerud I'd ask. Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a blog post or vice-versa? My website discusses a lot of the same subjects as yours and I believe we could greatly benefit from each other. If you might be interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Excellent blog by the way!

      July 2, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  16. some guy

    it can occasionally seem like a cheap way for a comedian to sell the audience on the notion that they are being mutually subversive. It can seem a little like exploitation.
    I get that people were okay with Prior using it, but when every two bit comic is motivated to use it in a desparate bid for attention and with clear commercial motivations, it seems a little cynical.

    April 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Stlchicago

    The N-word isn't the problem, as usual the problem is human-beings. If the word had never been invented, that would have been great. But, that isn't the case, so the word has history and is a part of this country's history forever; whether people like it or not. And let's be totally honest here, the word didn't become a problem until White-America either used it to suppress a race of people or White-America was told they couldn't use it. So, this argue – "Blacks or Comedians use the word" is simply weak, for lack of a strong term, since they wouldn't post it anyway.

    April 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tina

      I agree with you 101% that is the same thing I said somewhat ?

      April 10, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • pauljack

      The N word came from the Latin Negrum...meaning dark skinned. Light skinned men turned it into something ugly.... a slur.

      April 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maya

      That's ridiculous. Had the word been invented, the enslavement of black people STILL would have existed, Jim Crow STILL would have existed. The word does not create racism or racially motivated crimes any more than uttering the word "gun" causes murders.

      April 11, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |