Comedy as an art has been used for centuries to talk about problems within a society that can’t be discussed openly. The issue of race is no different, as Michel Norris, the host of NPR’s All Things Considered, once said “in the world of stand-up comedy, the subject of race is not so much a minefield, but rather a goldmine, an endless source of great material. That's because comedy provides a comfort zone to discuss uncomfortable topics -- a place where audiences can laugh at themselves and look past pain to acknowledge unvarnished truth."
Comedy on race is extremely popular in the United States right now partially because of this reason. It is a topic which people are well aware exists in our culture but are scared to talk about. Comedians such as Richard Pryor and later on Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle made this brand of comedy one of the most prominent around.
Proponents of this brand of entertainment say that by poking fun at problems with race in our society, comedy is able to make a meaningful statement about what needs to be done. Conversely, some people are offended by racial jokes, saying that they merely enforce racial stereotypes and broaden the gaps between the races.
There are many different types of jokes in this genre though. We see some jokes centered around the differences between races. Supporters would say these jokes poke fun at racial stereotypes rather than enforcing them, as some people would complain they do. Other jokes make a statement about the interactions and discriminations between races. These jokes say something about our society and how far it has come in terms of race relations. One thing that is for sure is that these comedians are able to make statements about the topic that many people are too scared to make.
In 2004, during the production of the third season of the immensely successful Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle abruptly left the United States for South Africa. Rumors spread that the comedian had left due to a drug or psychological problem. In actuality it was something much more than that. Besides feeling overly constrained by network executives and questioning the direction of his show, Dave Chappelle was starting to question how responsible he was being with his own art. He describes hearing a white man laugh at one of his more racial jokes in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. As William Cobb from SeeingBlack.com puts it, Chappelle felt as though by making these jokes to White and Black audiences, he was letting whites in on an inside joke which blacks shared, only not all whites were laughing with blacks, some were laughing at them.
There is certainly I line you can cross in this genre of comedy, the question is who says where that line is?