Learnmore Jonasi at America's Got Talent: Appreciating success while also critiquing racial stereotypes in humour


HARARE – The success of Learnmore Jonasi (once known as Long John), a Zimbabwean stand-up comedian now based in the United States, at America's Got Talent (AGT) is truly a monumental feat to behold. Not many times do we hear such success stories, more so especially for creatives. The latter have always had minimal opportunities in terms of commercial success, and seeing Learnmore Jonasi leaving those judges speechless, and wowed was phenomenal. That was a huge win for Zimbabwe. 

Learnmore Jonasi got golden buzzer at AGT by using race-based humour
Learnmore Jonasi. [Image: NBC]

Getting a Golden Buzzer at AGT is the dream of plenty creatives out there. It is no small thing. And we ought to celebrate that one of our own has made it in unfamiliar territory. 

Yet this is where a major point of contention surfaces: that this is unfamiliar territory. And that he has to use techniques that yield the most results in such unfamiliar territory. 

Many have pointed out the extensive use of racial stereotypes by Learnmore Jonasi to get the American audiences—predominantly white—to laugh. To pay tickets. To support his stand-up comedy career in the United States. This is not something as unusual as it is being made to appear in the mainstream of social discourse. 

Black comedians in the US have historically played on racial stereotypes and self-deprecation in their humour, much to the amusement of predominantly white audiences who determine the success or failure of their careers. 

So, Jonasi using the same modus operandi should not really come off as something inherently bad or evil. It is a common occurrence in the belly of the beast. The incentive to play on those stereotypes that portray Black people as inferior, backward, unsophisticated, and in need of redemption from the white world is incredibly high for black comedians. It is understandable. But it prompts further analysis; it calls on us to scratch beyond the surface. 

And to do this, it is critical to unpack the phenomenon of racial stereotypes in humour, and contextualise that with Jonasi's placement in such a puzzle. We have to acknowledge that using racial stereotypes in humour stands as a double-edged sword—on the one hand, it can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about a specific group of people, leading to their further oppression in society; and on the other, it can provide an avenue for anti-racist critique because for society to resolve a problematic issue, it has to be aired out first. Not hushed. And stand-up comedy has always been the ready platform to point out these issues since they are not talked about in public.

Race humour is such a minefield to navigate. Because the thing is, we live in what we believe to be a post-racial world, where we have become more enlightened, when in fact racism is very much alive—just more subtle and institutionalized. There is a great deal of white people in the 'developed' world and here in the global south who harbour residual racist attitudes that they cannot air out in public. It explains why race humour is the currency of comedy in the contemporary, because such racial jokes validate what some whites do not want to say in public. And they may to an extend validate the internalized racism of the stereotyped group. If a stand-up comedian performs certain behaviours attributed to a specific racial group in an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek way, the performance and the audience's laughter are somehow exempt from the usual censorship of the particular stereotypes. 

It is amidst this backdrop that we should understand why race humour gets such exceptional status in stand-up, and whether or not this augurs well for anti-racist critiques. The question thus revolves on two things: whether or not Jonasi's critically-acclaimed performance furthered harmful stereotypes, or whether it had the potential of exuding a subversive character. Again, it is totally fine to celebrate his success, as we do here, while doing a further analysis of the effects of his performance within the broader context of racial stereotypes in humour. 

For many, it may appear as if Learnmore Jonasi "gets away" with race-based humour in a post-racial world; a world where straightforward racism is generally frowned on. A line of thinking that could vindicate Jonasi for getting such a pass is that without public race humour, racism might be worse. The stubborn nature of racial stereotypes can be attributed to a great extent to being taboo subjects that offer an illegal, obscene enjoyment which is central to the hold of the racist ideology. Hence, giving space for the audience to 'laugh out' their racial prejudices might then be a crucial step to disinvesting them of their obscure, affective power. Laughter can therefore be a form of purging – with the audience relieving itself of repressed racist attitudes through open expressions by comedians. The audience's laughter can also be construed as self-laughter, caused by the realisation of having once believed in such absurd views of the Other (the stereotyped group). However, this may suffer the risk of being abused by comedians to perpetuate dangerous narratives and images of the stereotyped group. 

We also have to acknowledge that it is wishful thinking to completely avoid race-based humour. Whether it is furthering stereotypes, or serving an anti-racist effect, it cannot be wished away. It is a solid fixture in stand-up comedy. If it is the latter purpose of being subversive, one cannot critique racial stereotypes through humour without bringing them up first. In this sense, saying Jonasi should not use race-based humour is unhelpful. What we can however do is ascribe to his performances positive interpretations, if that is the case. The issue is not to avoid race-based humour, but to perform it in a responsible, and if possible, critical way. But then again, this can be problematic due to the specific context in which the performance is set; i.e. the audience receiving the joke and the positionality of the performer (the racial group they belong to). A zero-tolerance approach to comedy, where race should not be invoked in jokes, is nonetheless detrimental to the interests of achieving some sort of cohesion in society, because although seemingly most appropriate, such a no-risk approach may allow racist sentiments to fester in society’s underbelly beyond public scrutiny, while comedy can play an important role in bringing such sentiments out in the open.

However, this is not to say that there should not be any critique to the use of racial stereotypes in comedy. Comedians often get away with race-based humour under the clever guise of "it's just comedy", "it's not that deep" without taking into consideration the hurt that may be caused to stereotyped groups. The 'merely playing with racism' is, many a time, used as a get-out-of-jail-free card by comedians, and thus trivializes the damaging impact of humourous renditions of such stereotypes—a situation that may lead to a lack of compassion for those being 'laughed at'; the Other. 

Racial humour may thus promote insensitivity and cruel treatment of the stereotyped racial groups. It can further racial prejudice. Hence, Zimbabweans calling out Jonasi for his race-based humour have a legitimate concern that should be given the light of day, and not dismissed without candid critique. People might believe, strongly so, that they laugh with a racial stereotype joke chiefly because of its formal qualities yet their laughter might be spurred, at least in part and unbeknownst to them, by an obscene enjoyment of the stereotype that constitutes the joke’s content. In this regard, outrage may be a valid and morally necessary response. 

Seemingly sophisticated interpretations could subtly perpetuate racism. Individuals from the stereotyped group who express outrage may face criticism for lacking a sense of humor or having a rudimentary one, and for not possessing the ability to understand the joke's subtleties, complexities, or ironies. This scenario raises questions about the fine line between humor and offensive content, and we have to put Jonasi's jokes in this context. Sometimes, if the stereotyped group laughs at racial jokes targeted at them, it can be seen as validation of the jokes—"our country is a joke in itself"—thus being complicit in their own oppression. 

Since the country is a joke, what should preclude Jonasi from using this dire state of affairs to further his career to lofty heights? Some might say. Better make some money from that. Please the white Americans. Granted. For this has always been the situation with black comics in comedy: self-caricaturing humour. Opportunistic motives may be the reason for this—but perhaps comedians have internalized racist prejudices against their oppressed group. Generally, black comedians have little choice in their careers because they are often in positions, as black people, where they have to pander to white, racially-biased audiences for their livelihood and/or to achieve widespread [commercial] success. It is not to say all black comedians give in to these pressures. But such pressures are so difficult to overcome. Jonasi should thus be viewed against this backdrop too. 

For some members of these US audiences, black comedians say "what they (whites) are thinking but don't want to say". If self-stereotyping humour is performed in front of an audience made up of the same members of the racial group as the comic, then this may not be problematic for it can serve as a mode of cultural celebration that can promote more unity and a sense of belonging. If performed in front of an audience consisting of members of the oppressing racial group, it can come off as grossly offensive and insensitive. With this viewpoint, self-stereotyping humour may appear as a 'racial spectacle'. 

Well, a lot more could be said on this. Race-based humour is not an easy thing to navigate, and one cannot fail to register their celebration for Learnmore Jonasi's AGT success. Such a notable achievement speaks volumes on Jonasi's profound levels of dedication, hard work, and confidence. Yet, at the same time, such critical analyses as we have proffered here are sorely needed so that we may be less visceral in our different reactions to his win. 

Comedians can perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes, that can misrepresent reality, or they can subvert such stereotypes by airing them when they write and perform race-based humour. Whether Jonasi furthered stereotypes or subverted them is your own verdict to reach. 

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