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Now that's (not) funny

by Mellissa Martinez

My eight-year-old son Felix has recently started watching a Disney show called Mr. Young. As the dialogue from the TV flows through our living room, I loosely follow the story of a 14-year-old prodigy who returns to his hometown to teach at his former high school.

After a few episodes, however, I found myself wanting to march in and turn off the TV. The janitor, Dang, who lives at the school, speaks with a profoundly stereotypical Vietnamese accent, yelling grammatically-flawed one liners in a high-pitched tonal sing-song voice…“there are worse thing to marry than duck!”

Felix cracks up whenever Dang appears and I feel the need to step in and gently lecture about respecting everyone’s differences…especially when it comes to language. I realized, however, that I am guilty of the same thing.

Over the years, I have found myself laughing heartily at George Lopez’s rendition of his aunt’s Chicano cadence, the entire accented cast of “The Simpsons,” and Margaret Cho’s impersonation of her Korean-speaking mother.

Comedians have been using accents for years to get laughs. Consider Gilda Radner’s Jewish-Italian lingo as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Trevor Noah’s rendition of a Russian naming cuddly creatures (like ‘puppy dog’ and ‘bunny rabbit’) but still sounding harsh, and Robin Williams’ accents for just about anyone. In an online Ellen DeGeneres clip, Robin Williams can be seen performing 17 accents in two minutes, including Austrian, Italian, Yiddish and Malawian. The audience, of course, was in stitches.

So, if accents are funny to a lot of people, why does it feel wrong when we laugh? The obvious answer is that stereotypes about groups who are discriminated against are harmful. If laughing at someone’s pronunciation causes a group of people to feel shame, then I certainly don’t want to be a part of it. Most of us who do find ourselves laughing at an accent on screen would never imitate one ourselves—that’s not funny.

In the 90s when we laughed at Lisa Kudrow’s posh-white-lady or fake British accent on Friends, it felt pretty harmless as posh white women aren’t the target of discrimination. As the accent begins to imitate groups from racial or geographical origins that have suffered precisely because of stereotypes, it gets less clear. I always laugh at Saturday Night Live’s “Black Jeopardy” precisely because of the actors’ exaggerated use of language. Yet, sometimes, mid-laugh, I stop and think: wait, should I be laughing at this?

Imitating an accent is referred to as “language crossing” in the field of sociolinguistics. Some might do it to mock and distance themselves from a group, but another well-documented reason that people do it is to show solidarity with the group. I suspect this is why it feels okay to laugh as George Lopez or Margaret Cho imitate people they love. If they are coming from a place of closeness and kinship, perhaps this gives the audience license to laugh along in solidarity, as a daughter or nephew would.

One linguist writes that a student shared a video in class, which depicted Asian-inflected Englishes including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Cantonese, Thai, Filipino and Indonesian. The students from China and Singapore laughed heartily while those from the U.S. sat quietly unsure of how to respond, trying to be polite and certainly not laughing.

Actors face a dilemma when it comes to this topic. Fresh off the Boat actress, American Constance Wu, works with two dialect coaches to perfect her Taiwanese-English accent. She said, “an accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. But there aren’t jokes written about it. It’s not even talked about. It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents…not watering down the character is choosing authenticity over safety, and I think that’s bold.”

This sentiment has been echoed by the creator of the show, Eddie Huang, who based his memoir on his own experience growing up in an immigrant family. He said, “It’s really weird when dominant culture comes to tell you what to be mad about. Don’t tell me what needs to be offensive to me.”  His character’s one-liners are indeed funny. When the mother (played by Wu) prepares her son for natural disasters, she instructs:  if we get separated, try and join a white family. You will be safe there until I can find you. There are no grammatical errors in this line. Despite this, most would agree that Wu’s accented delivery is a distinct component of the humor.

Aziz Ansari, Indian-American actor and comedian, who also writes about his life as an immigrant, refuses to do an Indian accent on screen. He says, “white people were probably never asked to fall into a relatively offensive stereotype the second they got to their auditions.” One reason he cast his own dad to play his on-screen father in Master of None is because all who auditioned for the part were faking an Indian accent. In an interview, he quipped “it felt like they were making fun of my dad, that’s messed up.”

It’s important that we recognize the power of an accent. Linguists remind us that language represents prestige. How we talk can make us sound smarter, more authoritarian, or less educated.

One article explains that different intonations—regional or foreign—signal different types of people. In animated Disney films, the villain almost always has a foreign accent and stupid characters often have a southern accent. These are messages that we learn from childhood.

Does cultural sensitivity dictate that we stop laughing at every comedian or TV character who uses an accent? Honestly, I don’t know the answer, but continue to ponder the best way to educate my children with empathy.

Ironically, when I approached Felix and asked him why he thought that Dang was so funny, he responded “because he is a super good martial artist who does awesome tricks and teleports all over the school.” He didn’t even mention the way that Dang speaks.