Neither black nor white

Reaction to the Hey Hey blackface incident keeps coming – and not just on this blog. Hungry Beast gave us Blackface for Beginners last night, a two and a half minute history of the genre, which is probably the best thing they’ve done so far, so kudos for that. Monday night’s Media Watch also delivered an interesting insight or two; first they helpfully pointed out which part of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice you might like to mention in your letter of complaint to Channel 9, and secondly they explained why it has to be a letter. Meanwhile, on Wikipedia, the entry for Hey Hey It’s Saturday has been edited and re-edited by users wishing to make sure their view on the incident was known, with mixed results.

On Tuesday I had a look at the Wikipedia entry for Hey Hey It’s Saturday to see how the blackface incident had been covered. The first line under the sub-heading “Reunion” read “There has been “considerable interest” from those of a lower social-economic and poorly educated background in the reformation of “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” in some capacity.” Later, the Jackson Jive’s performance was described as “a demeaning “tribute” act to the Jackson 5”. Throughout the rest of the article were further obvious edits, such as inverted commas placed around words which had been used to describe the show, such as “comedy”, “humorous” and even “music”. There were also several more pops at the show’s audience, who were again described as “uneducated” and from “lower socio-economic backgrounds”. But when I looked yesterday I found that these additions had been removed, and if you have a look at the article’s history you’ll find that the article was “restored without offensive POV changes”, almost 48 hours since the changes were made.

While I agree that “demeaning” is an appropriate description for the Jackson Jive’s act, and was amused by the liberal use and hilarious invoking of inverted commas throughout the article, the description of the Hey Hey audience was appalling and unwarranted snobbery and it was right that this was removed. If the Jackson Jive’s act was “demeaning” to black people, so is the stereotyping of Hey Hey‘s audience as “uneducated” and from “lower socio-economic backgrounds”, unless evidence can be found to support it.

And whether you’re a Wikipedia vandal out for a laugh or someone with a political point to make, is allowing yourself to be so open to attack a good idea? Isn’t the point to have your edits online for as long as possible? A better tactic might have been to insert some quotes from the Daily Telegraph interview with Kamahl into the Hey Hey article – they’re funny, political and from a newspaper which people pay money for (which means it’s less likely to get deleted because it can’t be characterised as some irrelevant blogger or disgruntled Wikipedia vandal mouthing-off [although, let’s face it, the more you read that Daily Telegraph article, the more you suspect half the quotes and most of the story were made up!]).

But if Wikipedia politicking and vandalism wasn’t working out for anti-Hey Hey/Jackson Jive types, this week’s Scrivener’s Fancy column by Wikipedia vandalism advocate Tony Martin was praised by many comedy fans. Towards the end of it he wrote about the three times he blacked-up on The D-Generation and the several times he didn’t on The Late Show, insisting real Asian or black actors take the parts. This raised the question: should comedians be able to play other races in sketch comedy shows, or should those roles always be played by an actor of the relevant race?

In my last blog I explained my view that comedians should be able to impersonate people of other races as long as no stereotyping or degrading of that person’s race occurred. Tony Martin may feel guilty about portraying Botswanan members of the IOC or Indian waiters, but he’s not seriously arguing that he demeaned Botswanans or Indians by portraying them, if anything he seems to be arguing that he demeaned them by not allowing a Botswanan or Indian actor to play the role. And indeed in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was a considerable movement within Equity to ensure employment for non-white (and disabled) actors using this argument.

One reason cited by Tony Martin for his blacking-up, however, is budgetary. In The Late Show, he says, it cost $3000 to hire extras for the naturalisation sketch, and it’s not hard to appreciate (or think of examples of) how similarly cash-strapped sketch shows have made use of the regular cast, who are generally white, to play non-white roles.

It is also accepted tradition that the writer-performers in a group sketch show play all or most of the parts, and there are plenty of reasons why this works so well. Writer/performers in sketch groups write for themselves and the rest of the team, whose strengths they know well. Compare Peter Cook’s version of his sketch Interesting Facts with Kenneth William’s and it’s clear that no one can get as many laughs from their own material as the person who wrote. And in the case of some sketches, like Mrs Premise and Mrs Conclusion from Monty Python Flying Circus, part of the joke is that it’s inappropriate performers playing the roles rather stupidly – with real women in the parts it wouldn’t work at all.

When it comes to comedy, context and intent is all. In some cases an actor with the right look will work best, in other cases a specific set of performance skills are required. And the bigger issue for non-white actors trying to eek out a living in Australia? Judging by the number of roles where the character could be any number of races, but has been cast as white, colour-blind casting is not being practised. That, rather than the odd comedian in crappy make-up, is the bigger crime.

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