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Comedy and Race

Marc Sanchez

Desiree Cooper

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Teja Arboleda
(Teja Arboleda)
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Desiree Cooper: Why a documentary about multiracial comedy and comedians as opposed to multiracial education, or food, or cultural conflicts?

Teja Arboleda: If you're too serious about some of the issues we have in this country, race and culture issues, I think it's difficult for a lot of people to listen to it, to absorb it. And I think that humor certainly opens it up. And I think comedians also really go the edge, they have to step over that edge. And I think that sometimes, without stepping over the edge, the truth doesn't come out.

Ok so, if comedians have to go up to the edge, where exactly is the edge. Where is that line?

Well I don't think there really is a particular line. I think the lines come in many many forms and colors and shapes and sizes. And I think part of it is the context. So if humor lies in what we say with respect to the reaction of our audience, then we have to understand who the audience is. So let's say, if you are a black and white comedian, and if you look black, then it's easier for you to make jokes, generally, about being black. But if you don't look stereotypically black, then it's more difficult to cross that line. Multiracial comedians have the advantage however of crossing many lines, but they have the disadvantage of having to explain who they are.

I've noticed that comedy is often, you know, at its core there's often this little discomfort or even pain behind a lot of comedy. Where is the pain when it comes to multicultural comedy?

A lot of young people especially have to, you know, they want to belong. They want to belong to a group, whatever kind of group that is. And in order to belong to a group, race plays a large role and has played a large role. So you really kind of have to identify for the most part with one race, generally. You know, other kids used to throw stuff at my brother and I, and they used to say things to us like "Are you going to play with us, or are you going to play with them?" A lot of my angst growing up and a lot of the things that I've had to deal with were about that.

Where was a moment for you, where the pain was either so unexpected or ridiculous that it occurred to you that it was funny?

I was standing in a supermarket once and I was buying some pita bread and hummus. And there was these two large guys standing near me, white guys. And one guy leaned over to the other and said, "Eh, take a look at this guy." And I looked over at one of them, and he said, "Hey, you! Take your pita bread, and your humus, and go back to Mexico!" And so I took my pita bread and my humus and I moved to Mexico. But was it funny at the time? No, actually I was pretty scared.

***

Desiree Cooper: Teja's documentary, "Crossing the Line, Multi-Cultural Comedians," also features comedian Marc Yaffee. Marc was raised by his adoptive parents: Mexican, Catholic mother, Irish, Jewish father. And then in is twenties, he was contacted by his birth mother, who turned out to be Navajo.

He often refers to himself as a "Mexi-jo" or an "adopt-a-jo," and I asked him about which comedy circuit he tends to gravitate toward.

Marc Yaffee: Well, you know, being part Mexican, sometimes I'll be in LA and I go up and I'll do the refried Fridays, which is you know, the Latino night at the improv. Or you know, I tour with three other Native American comics, we have what's called the Pow-Wow Comedy Jam, our slogan, "Taking back the land, one joke at a time."

Do the Native audiences accept you as a Native comic?

Yeah, I mean, I always explain myself, straight out of the box. You know, I don't represent to be someone from the rez, I grew up in an urban area. I joke about my kids, Little Big Mouth and Grounded Till Christmas. You know I just try to make fun of myself and how I relate to the culture, and people are pretty supportive.

Is that tough for you, to identify who you are ethnically, before you can launch into your routine? Or do you do that?

For some reason, it seems to work better in my act when I come right out. Because people are confused. Mexicans think I'm Indian, lot of Indians think I'm Asian. Cops think I'm a suspect. So people look at me and they're not quite sure. There's a familiarity that an audience likes to have. I try to embrace the whole thing in my whole background. It's more fun for me to bring it up.

Are you finding that audiences are growing for your kind of humor?

I think so. If you look at the demographics of the country, you know, more mixed families. I'll go to a def comedy type show and then there'll be all sorts of, there'll be Latino, and white folks, and we'll come to our Pow-Wow Comedy Jam, and sometimes our audiences will be 50 to 60 percent non-Native. Which is great. It's really a bring, I think, as a multicultural comic. I'm a bridge between different groups. You know, laughter brings us together.

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