Michaela Coel, Ali Wong and others charting a new course for comedy
After an extremely trying week highlighted (if that's the appropriate word) by watching military action unfold in the name of protecting people in a country from their evil ruler — even though it's a country that our government sought to ban immigration from — I needed some entertainment to alleviate my stress.
Netflix dropped two new seasons of shows I had been looking forward to: “The Get Down” and “Chewing Gum.” Based solely on immediate time commitment (both seasons are six episodes long, but
“Chewing Gum,” the comedy, only runs about 23 minutes an episode), I decided to dive into “Chewing Gum” first and clear it off my plate. (Being a devout consumer and critic of TV is hard work, people.)
If you didn't catch this brief phenomenon last year, “Chewing Gum” was created and written by British actress Michaela Coel, who, for all intents and purposes, has star written all over her. “Chewing Gum” is a comedy set in London centered around a super awkward black woman who is basically trying to give her virginity away, having reached her mid-20s with very flawed prospects. But she's finding her pursuit to abandon her chastity a lot more challenging than she expected.
I love the show for a number of reasons, but mostly because it's the kind of raunchy and over-the-top comedy that has been dominated for years by white male performances. From the legacy of “Porky's” to “American Pie,” there has been mostly one way to tell that story until recently. And it's something rarely seen from people of color, and maybe even less so from women.
Having recently struggled to get through Dave Chappelle's comedy special, I realized something: As my awareness for marginalized groups has increased, the comedy that appeals to me most comes predominantly from women of color.
As I've continuously been disappointed in comedy that punches down — like Amy Schumer's generously labeled “racial blind spot,” or Chappelle's disregard and sometimes aggressive dismissal towards the LGBTQ community — I've taken a lot more interest in the most marginalized of the marginalized voices.
There's an authenticity in the writing and performances of shows like “Chewing Gum” that is informed by the shared coming-of-age story being told by an aggrieved community that is often treated with micro-aggression and worse — especially because female comedic figures of color are often the most attacked and least defended (see: Leslie Jones).
Recently, I watched Ali Wong's standup special “Baby Cobra” on Netflix and laughed throughout. I was especially surprised at those nuances that sounded familiar yet fresh coming from her perspective. It was the definition of punching up in comedy, while also mixing in a heavy dose of self-deprecating humor.
I used to think that, from a comedic perspective, we had heard just about everything that could be done in some form or another. Now I think it's possible that we just kept hearing it from the same people.