MaHB / TV: Race, A Laughing Matter

Esquire Malaysia, January 2016

Fresh Off The Boat

Race, A Laughing Matter
How comedies like Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Master of None are paving the path to greater diversity in television.

By Sophia Goh

Here in our part of the world, we do tend to take ourselves a little too seriously. Like overly eager puffer fish, we balloon up in self-righteous indignation at every perceived and minor slight, our pointy spikes erect and daring anyone to even draw near. So here’s a novel idea: what if, instead of always taking offense when it comes to hot button issues such as politics, religion and race, we learn to laugh about them as well?

There’s a new trend of sorts in American television, what I like to think of as racist humour but not in a negative way. There’s Fresh Off the Boat, about a Taiwanese American family’s move in the 1990s from the Chinatown section of Washington, D.C. to suburban Orlando. Based on chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same title, I promise you the show’s even funnier when you’re a Chinese person because they say things you know your parents or grandparents would have said.

Then there’s Black-ish, which is about a black man in America who begins to question whether all his success has brought too much cultural assimilation for his family. Or, to put it another way, whether they’re becoming too “white”. And now there’s also Master of None by Parks and Recreation alumni Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, which follows an Indian-American actor, played by Ansari, as he attempts to make his way through life in New York City. Random trivia: Ansari’s real life parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, play his character’s onscreen dad and mum.

The way I see it, there are two ways we can react to shows like these: we can sulk about how they’re perpetuating racial stereotypes and making fun of the races being portrayed, or we can appreciate the insight into different cultures and laugh about it together with them. Yes, even when it’s about our own race. Because more often than not, there’s truth in there. They are a chance for us to empathise with other races or appreciate our own, quirks and all.

From an industry perspective, shows like these are promising signs of greater minority representation in entertainment. Instead of tiptoeing around the issue of racism within the industry, Ansari and Yang speak out about it, and even better, get the conversation going through Master of None. Turns out the best way to make people listen to you isn’t by yelling at them, it’s by producing a TV show that makes people laugh while engaging with the issues you want to talk about. Well done, guys.

Television doesn’t always get it right, but we have a lot to learn from some of these guys. While there’s certainly a time and place for thoughtful conversation and intelligent dialogue (the keyword here being “intelligent”), I dare say the ability to take ourselves a little less seriously, to laugh at ourselves and with others, not at them, is a key ingredient in this magic potion called multiculturalism that those tourism ads are always going on and on about.

With everything that’s going on in the world right now, I think most people agree that we need unity and kindness and practical solutions and all that stuff, but we also need a little more comedy in our lives. If laughter is the best medicine, it’s time we take a heaping tablespoonful.