The Agony and Ecstasy of Dialect Comedy

Comedy Features Dialect Comedy
The Agony and Ecstasy of Dialect Comedy

Comedy has always been reflective of who we are, our values and the times in which we live. Perhaps more than in any form of populist creative expression, comedic presentations of people who are “other” have shape-shifted in concert with prevailing social norms and our attitudes towards and anxieties about those changes. Today, more comedians from culturally diverse backgrounds are bringing their own authentic experiences to mainstream comedy, creating a fuller, wider and a more inclusive reflection than ever. There is less acceptance of unkind treatment of under-represented people, or depictions that may be perceived as bigoted or harmful.

At the same time, the sloganization of “Make America Great Again” can easily be interpreted as a coded message of white nationalistic intolerance, especially as we await a legal decision regarding the pending ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. Meanwhile ICE is conducting roundups of undocumented immigrants, and the potential construction of a great wall across the span of our southern border threatens to further divide us… literally. So now seems like a good time for an analysis of how our comedy has historically portrayed new arrivals to this country. In trying to better understand this subject from a place of historical and cultural honesty, I felt it was important for me to seek the input of thoughtful comedic minds with different perspectives than my own. I did, and learned a lot in the process.

Before getting started, I need to confess something right up top. I have always been drawn to comedy flavored with foreign accents. Perhaps that’s because of my background. As a second-generation American Jew of Eastern European lineage, it is very much a part of my own heritage. My father was the child of newly arrived Russian/Polish immigrants who spoke little to no English. He spoke many different languages and didn’t learn English until he entered school, later employing his multilingual abilities as an interpreter during World War II. Although he was not a performer, my father had a gift for mimicry that was a component of our larger legacy of identity and adaptation.

Dialect comedy was a consistent staple of 20th century humor. I believe this is at least somewhat attributable to the fact that a significant number of Jews of Eastern European extraction emerged as entertainers in the early to middle part of the last century. For many years, the comic projections of our immigrant identity were either muted by assimilation or amplified by exaggeration. In the former category, many comedians changed their names, either upon entering the country or entering show business: Benjamin Kubelsky, Nathan Birnbaum and Mendel Berlinger became Jack Benny, George Burns and Milton Berle. These comedy superstars rarely if ever directly alluded to their origins. Meanwhile, in the latter category, Benny’s radio series featured the recurring characters of Schlepperman, played by Sam Hearn, and Mr. Kitzel, played by Artie Auerbach. Both performers came from the Yiddish theater of the time and spoke in the heavy dialects of that immigrant group. While it could be argued that their characters were cultural stereotypes, a) the performers were themselves from the group that they represented, and b) their portrayals were cruelty-free. They were lovable, if broadly drawn and without nuance. Not coincidentally, Schlepperman appeared on the Benny program prior to the Holocaust, and Kitzel first appeared only after the end of the war.

At the same time, Gertrude Berg, a first-generation American born Tillie Edelstein to Jewish immigrant parents, created and starred in the heavy-dialected Jewish family comedy series The Goldbergs. (Yes, there was another series called The Goldbergs way back when.) The program began on radio in 1929 and became one of early television’s first sitcoms two decades later. Again, the characters were comically unassimilated. Given that they were at the center of the show, however, there was a greater ability to imbue them with a fuller range of humanity; but generally it would take another full generation for this category of immigrants to be depicted in a more meaningfully multidimensional manner. Jewish comedians of Eastern European stock in the 1950s and 1960s—including Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Joan Rivers—could own their background while not being restricted to the most simplistic renderings of that experience. Still, each of them did feel compelled to abandon the names Melvin Kaminsky, Leonard Alfred Schneider, Allen Stuart Konigsberg and Joan Molinsky. Progress is always incremental.

There were other performers of that same immigrant group who chose to affect the persona and dialect of a different identity than their own. And this is where things begin to get dicey, as hindsight shines its light on the differences between representation and appropriation. Chico Marx was not Italian, and yet so much of his delivery’s potency relied upon his use of broken English. While I might perceive that Chico’s triumphs over polite society in many Marx Brothers films represented empowerment, and that Chico never felt like he was “punching down,” I have to acknowledge how those being caricatured might be inclined to take a different view.

Photo by Rob Holysz

Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu is deeply contemplative and analytical about the degrees of offense in such matters. He suggests that there must be a sliding scale based on positions of power—the power of those in charge of the representation and those being represented. “For me, everything has to be analyzed with power,” he said. “You can’t eliminate power from any discussion of representation.” In applying the “Kondabolu Test” (as I have decided it shall heretofore be referred), the balance of power in Chico Marx playing an Italian character is fairly even. Especially in his time, Eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants held about the same status. Both groups are also white, making their ability to assimilate reasonably easy. Kondabolu maintains that non-white people of immigrant origins found achieving real representation in comedy additionally challenging, especially because the option of assimilation was largely, if not entirely, off the table for them.

The history of appropriation of non-white immigrant characters is essentially the minefield. Master voice artist Mel Blanc was also cut from Eastern European Jewish cloth, discovering his vocal talents at an early age. The “Man of 1000 Voices” employed a range of dialects during his long and illustrious career. Using the Kondabolu Test, Blanc’s French characters Pepe Le Pew (in cartoons) and Professor LeBlanc (on radio and television) might not be so problematic, but his Latin American characters Speedy Gonzales and Cy—from the long-adored “Si, Cy” routine on The Jack Benny Program—are worth re-examining.

Self-proclaimed “eminent Latino” comedian Ramon Rivas II recalls watching a Looney Tunes DVD as a child and seeing a disclaimer warning the viewer to consider that many of the characterizations were reflective of the era in which they were made. Only now does Rivas believe he fully and consciously comprehends that significance. “Back then, appropriation as a concept didn’t occur to me,” he told me. He doesn’t seem deeply troubled by his memories of innocently indulging in those cartoons. “Sure, when you overanalyze it, Slowpoke Rodriguez is racist,” he said. “But I just took it at face value. The danger in looking back at material from the past is thinking it carries it into the present.”

Kondabolu is less inclined to be so forgiving. “I hate when people say ‘get over it,’” he said. “Because whenever Temple of Doom gets rerun, it’s like ‘ugh, I’m getting hit with this racism.’ Some things are timeless. Racism, unfortunately, can be timeless.”

Latin American representations in American comedy were almost nonexistent in the 1950s and 1960s, with a few exceptions, like Cuban-born Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy and Spanish ventriloquist Senor Wences. And then there was Jose Jimenez. Bill Dana, born William Szathmary, was the son of a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant father. He grew up in a multicultural environment, surrounded by different languages and accents. Consequently, he too cultivated an ear for dialects, ultimately coming to his greatest prominence as a supporting player on The Steve Allen Show, and on multiple hit comedy albums in the 1960s with his Latin American character Jose Jimenez.

Like Chico Marx, Dana made use of a thick accent and a malaprop-infused manner of speech as the delivery system for his comedy. Critics hailed Dana’s performances as “Chaplin-esque”; he was asked to sit on the board of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. But following an advertising campaign for the phone company’s “Jellow Pages,” public attitudes began to shift. After hearing that some found his portrayal denigrating, the self-described “ultra-liberal” Dana decided to stop appearing as the still popular character completely. It is worth mentioning that Dana’s views on bigotry are clearly in evidence in the “Sammy’s Visit” teleplay he later wrote for All in the Family, when Sammy Davis Jr. famously visited the Bunker household and kissed Archie.

Latin American comedians like Freddie Prinze and Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong began to break through in the 1970s, leaning on the use of accents and humor derived from their ethnic and cultural identity. But it signified a sea change wherein these newly empowered artists could be funny in voices that belonged to them. Interestingly, Prinze faced a certain amount of controversy over issues of appropriation when he was cast as the Chicano lead character in the sitcom Chico and the Man. Prinze was actually of Hungarian and Puerto Rican descent, a fact he openly admitted in his comedy, referring to himself as a “Hungarican.” Over time, a slow but steady increase in the number of Latin American comedians has meant that a wider range of experiences could emerge. Rivas is mindful of this in his own work. “Playing into stereotypes is easy,” he said. “You’re not challenging the audience and you’re not challenging yourself. When I started, I did a lot of jokes about being Hispanic. I finally felt like the audience was like, ‘We get it. But what else are you?’”

Fred Armisen is a first-generation American born to a German father of Asian heritage and a Venezuelan mother. He grew up in a multilingual household, speaking mostly English and Spanish. “Not only was I exposed to these other languages, but also the accents when my relatives spoke English,” he told me. Armisen spent two years of his childhood living in Brazil attending an international school, which he credits as opening him up to a whole other world of voices. He loved hearing different accents in comedy and recalls being excited to see performers who completely transformed by adopting a dialect, citing Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop as particularly influential.

When Armisen began performing comedy himself, he went consciously and deliberately in that direction. “I really want to fool people so they think I’m from somewhere else,” he said.” After joining the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2002, Armisen ascended as the show’s consummate cultural chameleon, playing a range of ethnicities, including drawing upon his own heritage as the Venezuelan comedian Fericito. But Armisen makes no claims of concern about representation: For him, a character like Fericito is just funny. “The name Fericito is what my family used to call me,” he said. “It means ‘Little Freddie.’ My dad was Fred. Very simply, I was a huge Tito Puente fan. I’ve seen him play live four times. He always did the same act and told the same jokes, putting his elbow on the timbales.” He remembers deciding, “Oh, I’ll do that as a character. It’s a weird process. You never think about the reasoning behind it. Or I never did.”

In the early 1950s, Buddy Hackett’s “Chinese Waiter” routine utilized exaggerated “ah so” speech patterns and catapulted the Catskills comic to national stardom. In addition to the dialect performance, Hackett made use of a rubber band around his head, to create the appearance of slanted eyes, in nightclubs and later in his recreation of the bit in the 1953 movie-musical Walking My Baby Back Home. As a child, my parents and I loved this piece—the ritual of going to a Chinese restaurant was an all-too-familiar custom for my Jewish family, as I imagine it was for Hackett’s. But for Kondabolu, the routine is an egregious offender on his power scale. Fred Armisen, who can invoke some cultural connection by virtue of his father’s Asian heritage, is again more reluctant to cry foul. “We don’t know what his upbringing was,” says Armisen. “I don’t know what he was raised around. Maybe there was something in his world where he had an Asian experience.” But upon serious examination, what seems clear to me is that this and other “Yellowface” performances such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Peter Sellers in Murder By Death are problematic due to the chasm between these kinds of reductive caricatures and the lack of real representation during those periods.

In discussing the “Chinese Waiter” routine with Kondabolu, I asked if he could recognize any artistic merits or broader comedic influence, as I have long felt it was an ancestor of SNL’s classic Greek dialect-dependent “cheeseburger cheeseburger” sketch 25 years later. He would not go so far as to say that he finds Hackett’s piece funny, but he did state generally that, “things can be funny and wrong. It’s not like those things are mutually exclusive. In fact, when things are racist and funny, they’re more dangerous. That’s how propaganda works.”

As for the later Greek diner piece, Kondabolu believes my comparison to be a false equivalency, once again due to degrees of power and whiteness. I then brought up Richard Pryor’s multi-layered stack of political incorrectness that is the stuttering Chinese waiter bit from his still beloved 1979 Live in Concert film. Did the fact that the routine came from a highly regarded comedian of color make a difference to him? Without hesitation, Kondabolu said “no,” because Pryor was “recreating the power structure of Asians being a joke.” He added, “Pryor is a genius, like all my heroes are geniuses, but that doesn’t mean they’re infallible.” He went on to postulate that Pryor might have grown and shifted beliefs over time, as he did about the use of the N-word after his trip to Africa.

Karate Kid fans might be surprised to learn that Mr. Miyagi himself, Pat Morita, was a pioneer of East Asian representation in stand-up comedy. A first-generation American born in California to Japanese immigrant parents, he and his family were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. So it might seem ironic that when he began his comedy career as an adult, he chose to adopt the nickname “The Hip Nip.” Morita’s opening line in a 1965 appearance on The Hollywood Palace was, “Whoa these lights, they make my eyes squint.” The mention of Morita’s stand-up elicited extreme ambivalence from Hari Kondabolu. “Oh my God, it’s so complicated. It’s groundbreaking and at the same time, by today’s standards, very counterproductive,” he said. “But back then it was productive. The first wave always just has to exist.”

Kondabolu relates this to a comedy hero of his, Russell Peters. Peters, Kondabolu said, rejects criticism of his use of dialects within his work, asserting, “How could I be hacky? I was the first one.” Kondabolu explored these themes almost ten years ago in his short film Manoj (“I hate that it’s still relevant,” he said) and continues to do so in his forthcoming TruTV documentary The Problem with Apu—in which he’ll address concerns with the long-running Hank Azaria-voiced Simpsons character.

As someone who has laughed at the great masters of dialect comedy, I can now more clearly see our growth. I can also see my own through a new and sharper lens, as I am now the father of a 9-year-old daughter adopted from Bogota, Colombia. I have come to view my family as immeasurably enriched by the inclusion of her cultural identity, as our larger American family has always been bettered by the ascendence of immigrant cultures. Not everyone will agree, as we all have highly individuated ingredients from which we construct our identities. And not everyone will come to the same conclusions, as we also have a great diversity of comedic sensibilities. But as we evolve, so must our comedy. As more artists of different backgrounds bring their authenticity to the creation of comedy, the two-dimensional eventually deepens and becomes three on the continuing path towards greater empathy and understanding. Still, I do not think that means we should tear down the historic monuments created by our comedy ancestors. Like the literal, architectural monuments of the past, I believe they must stand—so we can study and appreciate them for what they are. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should go back and live in them again.

Fred Armisen and Ramon Rivas II both extolled their appreciation of Andy Kaufman’s ambiguously dialected “Foreign Man,” which was later the basis for his character Latka on Taxi. “Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man made people like immigrants more,” Rivas suggested. “Nowadays that would be great, because there’s so much hate for immigrants.” But Kondabolu, finally, offers this for all to consider. “Broader representation isn’t just good because it’s fair,” he said. “It’s good because it’s true. We’ve missed a large piece of the truth in our art and our history.”

Dan Pasternack is a writer and a producer. Follow him on Twitter.

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