By Makana Risser Chai
“One of the recurring themes of comedians at standup open mics is if you’re a white male, you can’t say anything anymore. Do you kind of feel that way?” That’s the question Cain Kamano asked me in this Backstory Podcast. This is the answer I wish I had given.
You can say anything you want. You just have to find the right audience. Half the country voted for the former president, so if you go to those states, you’ll probably find a fan base. Australia has different standards than the U.S. Bill Burr—who I happen to love even though he’s not politically correct—had great success in Europe and filmed his last special in London.
If you want a U.S. mainstream audience, you can’t say anything racist or sexist anymore—but that still leaves a lot of topics.
And this isn’t new since #MeToo or Black Lives Matter. This has been the rule for decades for comedians who want to be on TV or get a movie deal. Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin didn’t get where they are by using racist or sexist jokes.
Comedians are always supposed to punch up or at least across. That means not making fun of people who have less power or privilege than you do. Some white guys poke fun at white guys. Look at Trae Crowder, the Liberal Redneck, and Christian Lander, author of the New York Times best-selling book, Stuff White People Like.
If you feel it’s tragic that you can’t say anything anymore, you’ve got the perfect premise for a joke. As the saying goes, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” But it has to be funny, not angry. White male comedians can see this as an opportunity. Just as Chris Rock and Trevor Noah used their unhappy childhoods, just as Aziz Ansari used the sexual misconduct accusation against him, if you can make it funny, you can be a star.