Don Rickles caused the world's mildest racial flame war last week when he made an old black joke about President Obama at the AFI's tribute to Shirley MacLaine, because nothing goes together like old clips from Madame Sousatzka and racial jokes. Now, here is the offending quip:
"I shouldn't make fun of the blacks. President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke."
This is an old joke. A really, really old-as-shit joke, one that Rickles has told millions of times, usually with Sammy Davis Jr. as the butt of it and not the President. It's not a good joke (it doesn't even make sense), and I suppose you could find it offensive. But come on, it's Don Rickles. It's Don Rickles' job to be a complete asshole to everyone. That's his thing. That's what the back room at Circus Circus has been paying him to do for decades. Getting mad at Don Rickles for hurling ancient insults at people is like getting mad at Obama for being a Muslim.
But the whole episode does beg the question: Is it possible, at all, for a white person to make a decent black joke about the POTUS? I'm not one of those people who subscribes to the idea that certain groups of people can't make jokes about other groups of people. That's crap. You can get away with making fun of anyone so long as A) You're funny, and B) You're willing to also make fun of yourself. Placing imaginary barriers on humor when it comes to sensitive topics like race or someone who recently died is for arrogant pricks who think they deserve to be the arbiters of what constitutes good taste.
I think it is possible to make a decent racially-tinged joke at Obama's expense. The problem is that it's real, real hard. For example, I'm not going to try to make a decent one right now, because I don't want to get fired. When most people attempt such a tricky endeavor, they fail. This is because many people who make black jokes about the President really ARE racist, which immediately hinders their chances of succeeding. If you're some smug redneck asshole who thinks it's HIGH-larious to read a joke about the President's mom being a dog-banging whore, you're not gonna be able to pull off such delicate comedic feats because everyone knows you have malicious intent. Whereas if you're The Onion, and you've got a proven track record of successfully making fun of everyone and everything in the universe, you can get away with "Black Guy Asks Nation For Change":
"I'll be honest, when that black guy said he would 'stop at nothing' to get change, it kind of scared me," local mechanic Phil Nighbert said. "Just leave me alone."
The Onion made this joke about spare change first. It was then appropriated by a lot of conservative commentators, who somehow turned it into a brutally unfunny joke, probably because they were crazy racist and The Onion isn't. So in order to make a decent racial Obama joke, you have to be funny AND your intent has to be clear. Our own Adrian Chen gathered together a handful of "successful" Obama black jokes. He found three.
- Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job -Onion
- Man Attempts To Assassinate Obama, 'But Not Because He's Black Or Anything' -Onion
- "This is the first time in history that a black man beat a white man and didn't get locked up for it." -Melanie Camacho
So, three jokes out of roughly seven million. Like I said, it's a challenge. But not insurmountable. YOU SHALL OVERCOME.