As we all know by now, gluttony diplomat Paula Deen was fired by the Food Network last week after some weird details surfaced involving a plantation-themed wedding, where Deen allegedly wanted "a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around."
Yes, this is terrible. But as Jessica Williams from The Daily Show put it: "Paula Deen's words aren't hurting black people anywhere near much as her recipes are." While this is most likely the end of Deen, her exit has granted us a brief moment to look at the two issues Americans can never have a sober conversation about: racism and obesity. And as with any other untouchable subject, the only people really moving the debate forward are comedians.
There's an inevitable moment at almost any standup comedy show where the comic on stage will make a viscous joke about black or fat people, and without fail, all those who don't fit into this category will look to the one or two people who do, and check to see if they're laughing. If they are laughing (either out of awkwardness or sincerity), everyone else will. If they're sitting with arms crossed and heads shaking, the audience will give the obligatory "Ooooooh."
Either way, whether the comic was delivering a brilliant commentary or just being a dick, talking about these unmentionables through comedy penetrates the minds of an audience in a way that no politician or pundit could ever hope to achieve. It's a secret back door to the critical-thinking part of the brain. Even with the "ooooooh"s, there's still that four-to-six-second moment where the audience takes the statement in and chews on it for a bit.
As the whitest boy from the whitest part of the Midwest, I'm really not qualified to comment on racism (my home town had only one black citizen, and he was adopted into a white family), but I do come from the state that introduced the world to fried butter on a stick, so I know a thing or two about fat people. And just like people living in a place where real racism exists, we weren't really allowed to talk about obesity. Yet whenever a standup comedian came through town, all of the dumpy farmers would jiggle their jowls with laughter at the jokes about how they were eating themselves into an early grave.
And comedians will happily take on that role. Long before Paula Deen was exposed as a Southern simpleton with a nostalgia for owning humans, standups were having a blast with the hypocrisy of Deen being a closet diabetic while teaching Americans how to poison themselves with food on TV every day.
"I'm very concerned about celebrity chef Paula Deen, because her recipes are like a suicide note," Maria Bamford said last year. "'Ya, uh, we gonna be makin' some Sweet Dreams. Little balls a butta, shortnin', Crisco, fat-back-crackles, blubba, margereene . . . each day I wake to a fresh nightmare . . . Then we gonna roll that in some powdered sugar, candy-corn, gummy stix, salt . . . don't look for me, I've made a plan and I'm following through with it . . . then we're gonna drizzle that in some hot-fudge, heavy cream, whip-cream, sour-cream. Bon appetit, and goodbye.'"
I'm going to go out on a Caucasian limb here and say that overeating is a much bigger problem in America than racism. Now, that statement may piss some people off so much that it won't matter if I try and explain myself with any data about health-care costs over unjustified incarceration rates; some of you will have already stopped listening and labeled me an asshole. And that's fine. My only point is that if the same statement were wrapped in a joke and presented to you an hour into a comedy set with a roomful of laughing people, you may not have agreed with me, but you would give the idea some credence.
And this is why we need people like Paula Deen.
Without hysterical characters to spoon-feed comedians their jokes on things like drug abuse (Lindsay Lohan), sex addiction (Tiger Woods) and mental retardation (Sarah Palin...I was talking about her son!), we wouldn't be able to really get anywhere in the conversation. We certainly can't rely on academics and politicians to talk about delicate social issues, because no one will listen to them. So why is this dipshit intellectual still rambling on about this, you ask? Fair point. Why don't we just click ahead to the next page and take a look at some of the best comedy videos about Paula Deen?
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.