When comedy isn't funny
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2009 - The documentary Will Gorham set out to make is not the documentary he ended up making. But along the way, he found new issues that confirmed old feelings about race, stereotypes and our willingness to play into them.
And the perfect way to get at all that?
"I think one of the nice things about comedy is that it's so disarming," says Gorham, a D.C.-film maker who directed and produced "Clean Mic: Laughing Until It Hurts," which will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20 at the Missouri History Museum in partnership with the St. Louis Beacon and KETC/Channel 9 as part of the Race, Frankly series.
Gorham, whose own life seems to have prepared him for this film, grew up in a military family, traveling around the country and meeting all kinds of people. Often, he felt, the stereotypes he saw on TV and in the media, especially about black people, weren't anything like the people he knew.
He went on to serve in the U.S. Navy, where he was a commander; and after he retired, he stepped into a whole new world.
It started with writing and producing. Then, someone suggested he tackle race issues from a more humorous perspective, like Tyler Perry.
"And I started to see a lot of vulgar comedy," Gorham says.
That wasn't exactly the right direction, but Gorham decided he would like to know more about comedy and took classes in comedy writing. During the class, he'd go to comedy shows.
He thought of icons such as Bill Cosby and Ellen DeGeneres, who are successful without vulgarities, and decided to find a few clean comics and follow them for a while. One of those comedians is Sam Beamon, who is a clean comic.
"Doing clean is a lot harder that doing vulgar," Beamon says. "You can get a cheap laugh off a swear word. For clean, you got to be really clever."
Getting a laugh from vulgarity isn't hard, and soon, Gorham found, it wasn't hard to get one from playing into stereotypes, either.
He noticed that with many minority comedians - black, Asian, women, Hispanic - there was often a trend.
"They would just succumb to the stereotypes, and they felt they had to do them to get a laugh."
Those were the same stereotypes he'd found untrue from a lifetime of working with every kind of person. Coming from the military, where in the beginning all identity is literally shaved off and everyone starts on the same footing, Gorham didn't buy into those stereotypes, and he doesn't think comedians have to, either.
A joke here or there is alright, but get past it, he says.
The film, which came out last year, features known and unknown comedians such as Karith Foster, sidekick for Don Imus (Gorham actually met Foster before she got the gig, and caught up with her after) Paul Mooney and Dick Gregory.
Gregory, a St. Louis native, will attend Thursday night's screening, as will Gorham and Beamon, and be available for a discussion after.
"I'm not really trying to change the world or anything like that," Gorham says.
But he would like to offer a more balanced perspective, and he hopes that after seeing his film, audiences will ask for more from comedians, too.