No joking matter – Comedian Dat Phan: Topical funnyman or race-baiting opportunist?

    In the current cultural atmosphere of pointed social sensitivity, there is no more effective way of getting the politically correct police on your trail than to raise issues of ethnicity or race. The irony of this situation is thick ‹ upon arriving at school, many students are lured into believing the opposite because ethnic studies and clubs abound, and classes focused on an ethnic minority are even required for graduation.

    Chris Taylor
    Guardian

    However, all the openness and education about our ethnic and cultural histories is extremely misleading because it comes with a tell-tale rule: You should consider and learn about ethnic issues, but only if you do so within a very narrowly designated field of discussion. The punishment for doing otherwise? Being labeled a bigot, racist or at least ruthlessly manipulative.

    Such is currently the fate of young Vietnamese comedian Dat Phan. Already extremely successful considering his short career, Phan visited UCSD on Nov. 17, and his performance provoked some people to complain about the content of his comedy, claiming it degrades and insults Vietnamese people and their culture. Phan’s adventures have been chronicled on “”Last Comic Standing,”” NBC’s American Idol-style reality show in which comedians faced off (Phan won, by the way). The claim that Phan’s comedy is inappropriate or insulting is ridiculous and has nothing to do with his comedy and everything to do with the desire to censor those who step out of the politically correct box.

    Phan’s style is self-described as “”life exaggerated.”” Makes sense ‹ his routines discuss generational differences within his family, focusing on his mother ‹ who migrated to America and therefore still retains a more noticeable Vietnamese accent and old-fashioned ideas ‹ and Phan’s own American-born generation, which has grown up in an atmosphere of misconceptions and stereotypes despite feeling just as American as their white friends. The exaggeration element is expressed in various ways, but the most noticeable is the thick and silly imitation Phan does of his mother’s accent. This is an offense of the first order to those who feel ethnicity and culture should not be laughed at, and is a perfect example of why someone has been attacked for simply making fun of his own mother, something that no honest person can claim they have never done.

    The primary issue that is causing all the trouble is that the extremely sensitive “”we-are-all-victims”” crowd does not see ethnicity and culture as something one can laugh about. Why not? Because if we laugh at ourselves, that means we might take ourselves a little less seriously. And if we do that, that means we are losing pride in our unique cultures and letting them instead be abused and stereotyped by manipulative comedians pandering to the biased majority.

    This line of logic reeks of paranoia and a hyper-emotional response to something that should actually be comforting, not troubling. Phan obviously has an acute love for his family and his mother, and it fits his personality best to express this by making himself and others laugh at the different and special qualities that come with every social and cultural situation. Other Vietnamese students find it funny (they sponsored his trip to UCSD, after all) because they probably relate to the experiences, and other students find it funny because, hey, whose mom hasn’t nagged them for not becoming a doctor? Phan’s comedy actually opens doors for us to see how we all relate to each other, and to see, since we all belong to different social and ethnic groups, how that affects our particular experiences and fosters understanding.

    The politically correct crowd also fears Phan’s routine will foster the growth of stereotypes about Vietnamese people, since they claim he is supporting them. Nonsense. Some of Phan’s best jokes are about the ridiculous ideas people come up with about him just because he is Asian, such as the weird belief held by some that he must know Kung Fu. The exaggerated accent itself can be seen as a comment on that very stereotype ‹ that people laugh about it is a sign of everyone recognizing how unrealistic and silly such conceptions are.

    But even further than that, Phan is aware such cultural clashes are something a person may come into contact with and he uses comedy to relieve the tension inherent in this ‹ if we can laugh together about our lack of ability to understand what the other is saying, then the awkwardness around the situation is removed.

    We need to stop taking ourselves so seriously and loosen up enough to see how we can all relate. Phan’s comedy is an example of this. But there are other comedians who do the same thing. What about black comedians such as Chris Rock or David Chapelle, who discuss the personality of the black community while making black audiences roar with laughter? Should they be accused of degrading blacks?

    Enriching each other, both on an individual and a group basis, by sharing what makes us special and unique is a part of almost all relationships. Comedy, laughter ‹even the obscure concept of teasing ‹ is a prime way of communicating this. Phan uses exaggeration of these traits to make his comedy ‹ and his message ‹ more powerful and pointed, not in an attempt to humiliate his family or ethnicity.

    Exaggeration is not new to comedy ‹ Phan’s experiences just come in a different cultural context, and his comedy is adjusted for that. Yet people want to take that lighthearted element of a relationship and blow it up to the point where they claim it is insulting to an ethnicity.

    Danger is inherent in this ‹ discussion limited to the politically correct isn’t intellectual discussion at all. It is naturally censoring, and has more to do with promoting an agenda than serious discussion. The feared consequence of thinking outside this box is apparently ignorance or racism, so the issue of ethnicity becomes a dangerous arena where you don’t want to slip up instead of a friendly atmosphere where we can all try to relate to one another and loosen up.

    It is OK to take ethnic, racial and cultural issues and communicate ideas about them in a positive way through comedy.

    Of course, this must be done in a spirit of friendship and tolerance, not of intolerance, bigotry or hatred.

    Those who are comfortable enough with cultural differences to laugh about them often face the charge of “”racism.””

    But simply to joke about our differences and how we deal with them in our interactions with one another ‹ there is nothing harmful in this at all.

    It will only make us realize that, as humans, we may be all different, but when it comes to laughing and relating to the little things in life, we can all do that together.

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