Last season, television’s most anodyne evening got a shot of hipness in the form of Sex and the City executive producer Michael Patrick King’s new series, 2 Broke Girls. The CBS comedy about young ladies in Brooklyn was an instant hit, kicking off a season-long discussion about girl-women on TV (viz. Girls, New Girl) and getting hailed as a slice-of-life comedy by those who thought that a permanent war over the sartorial choices of “hipsters” coupled with the protagonists’ burning ambition to open a cupcake shop seemed an apt depiction of life in the big city.
But there was another element to the show—something we hadn’t seen in a while. The Tiffany Network’s new Monday night sitcom was brazenly, shockingly, unapologetically racist.
Among the tokenish cast of minorities called upon to behave in baldly stereotypical ways are restaurant manager Han Lee (Matthew Moy), who comes in for mockery for his apparent asexuality and his utter misunderstanding of American culture. (Are his hilarious mispronunciations an homage to Mickey Rooney’s unforgettable turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?) Earl, played by Garrett Morris, is a hep-cat jazz musician of the sort one might encounter if whisked back in time half a century or so, or in the reeaal cool fantasies of a white person who’s never met a black person, while Oleg (Jonathan Kite) is a sexually voracious Ukrainian with a pan-Eastern European accent. “You’re so stinky, my mother in Korea called me and said, ‘What’s that smell?’” Han tells Oleg in a typical moment of sparkling repartee. To which Oleg replies with an unkind evaluation of the boss’s manhood.
It’s almost enough to make you long for the days of NBC’s Must-See TV—or even the springtime debates over Lena Dunham’s Girls—when we all complained that prime time was too white!
When asked about 2 Broke Girls’s use of stereotypes, Mr. King offered up his own homosexuality as a sort of license to offend.
“I’m gay,” the producer said at this year’s Television Critics Association press tour. “I put in gay stereotypes every week! I don’t find it offensive. I find it comic to take everybody down, which is what we are doing.”
Gay male humor has historically been predicated on an irreverent disdain for propriety—which, in this day and age, has apparently come to include the gleeful bashing of ethnic minorities. After all, if you’re gay, you’re a minority too: it’s a rainbow-colored “get out of jail free” card, per Mr. King’s argument, entitling the bearer to say whatever he likes. “What is or isn’t acceptable as funny in 2012 seems to be a very abstract idea,” Mr. King wrote in a recent essay in Entertainment Weekly (not online). He added that the way he knows that his gags about race do not cross the line is that the live audience at 2 Broke Girls tapings laughs.
The argument makes you wonder where exactly the show recruits its live audience. Just because idiotic racial humor has a fan base doesn’t mean it belongs on prime-time television.
Besides which, there’s a difference between laughing because something is funny and laughing because it is shocking or transgresses certain boundaries of taste. Take the new NBC comedy The New Normal, whose title refers to gay male parenting but could also be taken as an allusion to the increasingly racy and race-conscious television landscape. The show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, whose other current network series is the racially diverse, often irreverent Glee, seems to think that bigoted humor is the fabric that knits a family together. In a recent episode, a racist lady-of-a-certain-age played by Ellen Barkin finally comes to accept the gay man (Andrew Rannells) for whom her daughter is acting as a surrogate. They bond over an ethnic joke—something about adopted Chinese babies coming with egg rolls. It’s sort of a heartwarming moment, but not quite. The family that mocks Chinese babies together stays together?
The series’s sole regular minority character is Mr. Rannells’s assistant at his haute TV-production job. She’s a brash, aggressive black woman of the sort that’s been sassing up the small screen forever, or at least since the heyday of Jackée.
Interestingly, the assistant on The New Normal is played by a Real Housewife of Atlanta, NeNe Leakes, meaning that she came to national attention under the watchful eye of Andy Cohen, the Bravo executive. Mr. Cohen, who also happens to be gay, seems to have his own blind spots when it comes to racial humor. A recent leitmotif of his talk show, Watch What Happens, involves the host, lovingly or not, replaying for laughs a local news clip of a heavily accented black woman talking about her house catching on fire. It’s not impossible for ethnic humor to be funny—far from it. But there’s a certain humanity missing from these shows, where the object of humor isn’t other characters but simple stereotypes. And while gay producers certainly didn’t invent narrow-minded humor, they have lately made it their own.
Should we just come right out and call them the Gaycists–those who hold what Lauren Bans of GQ first defined as “the wrongheaded idea that having gay characters gives you carte blanche to cut PC corners elsewhere”? Let’s. A further definition: Out gay men whose knowing, ironic appropriation of racist tropes, and whose self-aware frankness about their own prejudice, sashays right across a line the rest of us have come to respect.
Race and gay culture have always made for an uneasy mix. The black drag queens of Paris is Burning—exiled even from white gay culture—have birthed generations of gay men who’ve picked up the vocal intonations and mannerisms traditionally associated with black women. (Think of Project Runway champion Christian Siriano, for example, or Will & Grace’s Jack in full finger-snapping dudgeon.) For white gay men, a group perpetually exiled from the mainstream, identification with blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups goes hand-in-hand with a sort of mockery that’s as much about the jokester’s outsider status as it is about the target’s. This isn’t new—using the women of Sex and the City as his mouthpiece, Mr. King set an episode of the show in the milieu of black drag queens, with Carrie Bradshaw, known for her love of “ghetto gold,” screeching in faux African-American patois about her drag-ball-style “twirl.” And the camp humor aesthetic, from Paul Lynde through Will & Grace, has always used its practitioners’ outsider status as a pass for universal derision. It’s all in good fun—isn’t it? But the combined airtime given to 2 Broke Girls, The New Normal, the urbane gay couple of Modern Family (who were, admittedly, created by straight people), with their Spanglish-screeching harridan of a sister-in-law, and Andy Cohen’s bickering Atlanta Housewives (whose antics are somehow always more GIF-worthy than those of their white counterparts in other cities) adds up to a troubling conclusion: Now that gay marriage is a reality, any gay man with some disposable income and a sperm sample can become a parent and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is consigned to the history books, affluent white gay men have finally been granted admittance to the majority culture, and as such, they are seizing on a privilege long-beloved of their straight counterparts: trashing minorities!
They laugh at themselves, sure, but with the apparent belief that their flaws are cute. The gay men of The New Normal are gently chided for their affectations, particularly Mr. Rannells’s fastidious dresser—but they hardly come in for the worst of Ms. Barkin’s slurs. Those are reserved for random bystanders, like a black schoolteacher of whom she asks “Hablo English?” Sure, Mr. Murphy’s trademark nihilism means that he mocks just about everyone through her character—but isn’t it all a bit wearying? “It’s very clear that I have great affection for her,” Mr. Murphy told Vogue of Ms. Barkin’s character. “It’s like what I said about the [Christian advocacy group] Million Moms: Watch the show! I get that you feel marginalized and on the outside too! We have more in common than you think!”
Indeed. But despite the fundamental conservatism of much of the entertainment industry, no one’s granting the Million Moms the clout to produce a television show casting themselves as the heroes of their own story. Whatever happened in Mr. Murphy’s past, he’s now the consummate insider, with the social cachet to do whatever he likes in his career or his personal life; that Vogue interview notes that Mr. Murphy and his husband are, like The New Normal’s protagonists, considering having a child through surrogacy. He’s portraying the world the way he sees it—with minorities as window-dressing around gay men. (This seems to be a pattern: On Mr. Murphy’s Glee, Chris Colfer’s gay teen embarks on a lovingly portrayed relationship with a fellow singer, while two Asian students’ relationship gets the derisive nickname “Asian Fusion.”)
Mr. Murphy and some of his colleagues don’t mean any harm. And the shows are far from unwatchable: The New Normal earned a rave review from Slate’s television critic, June Thomas, who happens to be a lesbian. “When the whole of America is listening,” she wrote, “it’s tempting to deny the humor. But I admit it: I laughed.”
Meanwhile, 2 Broke Girls’s ratings success, and the availability of Oleg and Earl one-liners immortalized by YouTube users, indicates that there’s a large constituency who enjoy such ethnic sketches as filtered through Michael Patrick King’s tin ear.
That said, not everyone’s so forgiving of The New Normal and its ilk: Salon’s Willa Paskin wrote that the Ryan Murphy show’s jokes “can be momentarily bracing—this show is going there!—but they’re also unremittingly nasty,” while Asian-American cultural critic Andrew Ti wrote on Grantland that “The pervasive crime of [2 Broke Girls’s] Han Lee really boils down to his infantilized speech patterns, thrown in, I assume, just in case his Asian face didn’t drive the message that He Is Not Like You home enough, and you were starting to think of him as some kind of human being.”
But maybe it’s not just the gays who are taking their seat at the table and ingratiating themselves with a rude blast of ethnocentric realness. Take Mindy Kaling’s new series, The Mindy Project, which debuted Tuesday night, featuring the Office star as an obstetrician. While the Indian-American actress, who is also the series’s creator, doesn’t mine her own background for humor, she tosses stones at a Serbian character (a “war criminal”), Gabourey Sidibe (she’s still a punchline?) and her character’s immigrant patient base (“This office is not an inflatable raft!”). Characters like Ms. Kaling’s on The Mindy Project or the gay couples of Modern Family and The New Normal or the two broke girls may belong to groups that have been underrepresented on television until recently, but if they see any irony in their easy mockery of other marginalized groups, it’s not making it to the screen.
That said, The New Normal shows signs of growth; though its most recent episode has Ms. Leakes’s character talking about how black people are always late, and a deeply unsettling joke about Tiger Woods’s lust for white women, the plot, in which the central couple wonder why they have no black friends, manages to play on the edge and actually say something about privilege, rather than throwing jibes at those who don’t have it.
It may not be normal, but it certainly does feel new.