Using "The N-Word" in my comedy: A recent critique

I had a gig the other night at Södra Sällskapet.  It's one of my favorite clubs to perform at.  It's a basement, nice room, normally a good, energetic crowd.  I have fun when I'm on stage there.  The gig went very well.  I got laughs and applause.  I felt good.  I stuck around for the rest of the show and some drinks and socialization.  The night was good.  I met with some comics and some of their friends upstairs and began chit-chatting.

One Swedish guy told me that I was funny.  It's always flattering.  I gave my normal "Thanks a lot, man!"  It really means a lot to me when someone tells me I'm funny.  You should try it.  Go up to a comedian and tell them they're funny.  I promise you you'll make their day.  However, this guy followed it up with a "but".

       - The only thing I would say...

Here goes.  Another person that doesn't get on stage telling me what I should do the next time I get up there.  Let me guess, "Talk more about things Swedish people do."  I've heard that before.  But I don't want to jump to conclusions.  He might tell me something that I could use.  I prepared myself to give a polite smile and say, "Thanks.  I'll consider that."  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate feedback.  Comics love feedback.  But we GET it INSTANTLY when the crowd reacts to the jokes.  If you wanted them to laugh and they groaned, then maybe you should work on that joke a bit.  If you wanted a groan and they groaned, keep doing that shit.  It's the terrifyingly gratifying thing that makes standup so awesome.  Real feedback.  That wasn't enough though.  I had to hear from this guy.

       - That word.  You shouldn't use that word.

I didn't see this coming.  This dude is white and Swedish.  I was perplexed.  I had to entertain him.

       - What word?
       - You know.  The one you used at the end.
       - The "N-word"?  Why shouldn't I use that word?  The story I tell is a true story and that's the word my uncle used in it.
       - But you're in Sweden now.  We don't have the same history as America.  You could lose the crowd.

This is when my "bullshit radar" started buzzing like crazy.  First of all, this guy's problem with me using the word wasn't due to any concern over my comedic success.  As I said, I got laughs all night.  Obviously I didn't lose the crowd.  His problem was probably that the word reminded him that a situation existed/exists in my country where people that look like him oppress people that look like me.  He felt the associated "white guilt" from that and it made HIM feel uncomfortable.  How dare I?

I kept my cool and went on about the way the word has been altered by black Americans in an effort to remove the sting from it.  He frowned and told me that I could maybe use this as a teaching moment.  You know, because Swedes are so non-racist that they won't understand what this "nigger/nigga" word means.  Please miss me with the bullshit, sir.  I was getting heated.  Another comic overheard the conversation and looked shocked and uncomfortable.  This guy's ignorance had his girlfriend sitting in awkward silence.  I decided to shut this dude down in as polite a way as possible.  I put on my "obviously sarcastic, dumbass" voice.

       - Oh I get it!  So I shouldn't use a word that was used to oppress my people in order to make you feel more comfortable.  I'll keep that in mind.

I couldn't hide my annoyance.  My sarcasm was received.  He flashed a slightly embarrassed smile.

       - I get what you're trying to do.

The conversation ended.  I began talking to the other comedian as I cooled down.  I'm not even that radical about the word.  I personally don't care who uses it.  Yes, even white people using it doesn't bother me. It's just one of those things that bothers some (probably most) black people and not me.  Imagine that.  We're not all alike. I won't force myself to be angry, however that associated anger is a right that I have as a black man that has dealt with the systemic discrimination that resulted in the sensitivity around that word.  The usage of the word is a luxury afforded to me as a member of a people that tried to change the tone of it.  One thing that I will not tolerate is someone without that history telling me not to use the word in order to relieve them of their white guilt.

What that guy should do is ask himself why was he so uncomfortable if in fact Sweden doesn't have that history.  Why would such a foreign word matter?  Does he really care to know about the history of that word or the context in which it was used?  I mean, I told a story about my great-great uncle speaking inappropriately to my brother.  One of the words he uses in the story is "nigga" (he also uses motherfucker, but I guess that didn't affect this guy so much).  Did that word really take this person sitting at a comedy show out of the story?  I don't think it did.  I think this man looked at me and only saw black and happy.  The layers underneath weren't as comforting though.  But they were real.  So he and future audiences are just going to have to deal with it.  As long as they keep laughing.  Until next time...

Comments

  1. I saw Kevin Hart back in January, his routine was so honed and mainstream, I think it was impossible to offend. Now his openers were a different matter entirely. In the context of comedy or a comedy club, there is really nothing that can offend me. But that was not the case with the Swedes around me that night. They were literally squirming in their seats with uncomfortableness. It was as amusing to watch as it was to hear the jokes. Even though I've heard worse things in an aisle in piggly wiggly. So long story short, fuck that guy, you do you, if it's funny, it's funny.

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    1. Hey, thanks for reading! I saw Kevin Hart in January as well. His act is mainstream. I noticed that the Paper Cup Boys didn't get a good reaction whenever they made comments about certain things. I wasn't surprised at all, but I was a bit disappointed in the Swedes. Lighten up everybody. It's a comedy show. Thanks for the kind words though. I'll definitely do me. Take care.

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