From The Grio — Last night saw the airing of the 62nd annual prime time Emmy awards. The critically-acclaimed comedy 30 Rock was nominated for “Best Comedy Series” for the fourth time in as many years (it was unseated from its throne by the new series Modern Family). The increasingly popular show features the talents of Emmy winners Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and nominee Tracy Morgan, who portrays a character known as Tracy Jordan, a rich black comedian known as much for his childish antics as his broad comedic abilities.
In this setting, Jordan is used as a satirical look at black actors/comedians and their behavior in the white-dominated entertainment industry. He often complains of racism, indulges in debaucherous behavior with strippers, and is accused of fathering children out of wedlock, among other things. The character has been simultaneously criticized and praised–at times being written off as another stereotypical representation of black men and a brilliant use of satire to observe and send up the way Hollywood views and treats black celebrities.
With 30 Rock entering its fifth season, I think about the Tracy Jordan character and its longevity in comparison to other popular satirical representations of black life, namely Chappelle’s Show, which went off the air after two seasons, and the recently wrapped animated series The Boondocks, which managed to last three. I have to wonder if the Jordan character can maintain its freshness, humor, and bite or will it meet an early demise like that of its satirical brethren. And that leads me to the larger question: is black satire built to last?
Consider Chappelle’s Show. After two hugely successful seasons which propelled Dave Chappelle to “funniest man in America” status and set records with the DVD sales. But with a new $50 million contract in hand for the production of a third season, Chappelle bolted without warning, taking a highly publicized and rumor laden trip to South Africa. In his first interview after returning stateside, Chappelle spoke to Oprah about his decision to quit the show. Part of his reasoning was that during the filming of a sketch in which faeries encouraged various people of different ethnic groups to participate in stereotypical behavior, Chappelle noticed a white crew member laughing in a way that made the comedian uncomfortable. He said it was at that moment he felt he was doing something “socially irresponsible” with his art.
But Chappelle wasn’t doing anything different than what his prior work would suggest. The difference, as William Jelani Cobb, a professor of history at Spelman College and author of the recent book The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, noted in his 2006 essay “The Devil and Dave Chappelle” was the audience. Where the first two seasons spoke to an audience that was “in on the joke”, the audience that tuned in after the infamous Rick James parody was a bit less savvy and aware of Chappelle’s intent in using satire. Were the original audience could appreciate the nuance and sociopolitical underpinnings of the “Black Bush” sketch in which Chappelle imagines the backlash that would be received had former President George W. Bush been black, the new audience seemed to only respond to his less intellectual work. And rather than play into that and become the very thing that he was attempting to skewer, Chappelle left.