I like what the British comedian Stewart Lee said about political correctness, he said it was basically institutionalized politeness and I like that a lot. I don’t like political correctness being used as a way to hide things – like if you just say something because it’s the politically correct thing to say –
Yeah but Germans will say things just because it’s the politically incorrect thing to say
What just to shock?
No just to be cool, I think
I mean, to me it’s like: If you’re saying something that is kind of fucked up, and you’re in a group of friends, in a closed space – and the context is clear, well, that’s one thing – I say all sorts of things to friends and the context is clear – but if you bring it to the outside world, then you’re just being a dick, you’re expecting other people to just assume that it’s cool. So, at the bare minimum, it’s impolite. But also: just dealing with that kind of stuff as an oppressed group? It wears you down. You feel “less than.” When you constantly hear certain jokes or certain comments, either because someone’s ignorant or because they just want to make jokes, or they want to shock – well, it’s exhausting.
Yeah, it’s exhausting
People laugh about microaggressions being a sign of oversensitivity but it’s not just one comment or one joke, it’s the death by a million paper cuts, you know?
Honestly though, here in Germany, we’re like twenty years behind or something, nobody’s even talking about microagressions or anything, we’re reading our kids these children’s books with the German N-word in it and the German N-Word isn’t as bad as the English one but still.
I read Huckleberry Finn as a kid and the N-word is used predominately in that book and I don’t think it shouldn’t be read – I think it should be read. But can you have a discussion about the word after reading the book? Can you have a critical discussion? Because when I read that book, I was shocked by that word, and it wasn’t really explained to me why it was used and why it was allowable then and why it shouldn’t have been –
They have this kids’ book in Germany, Die Kleine Hexe, The Little Witch, I don’t think it’s famous in America. It’s read by really little kids, and it’s nothing to do with slavery or anything, nobody’s gonna start discussing the history of slavery afterwards. The N-word’s just totally irrelevant to the story.
Don’t you guys have this Native American character Winnetou? And that’s given rise to this whole sub-culture of Germans dressing up as what they think indigenous Americans looked like? And have conventions with teepees and everything.
It’s just so messed up! We’re talking about victims of a genocide, colonial genocide? If you were to assume any group would be sensitive to the victims of a genocide, you’d assume it would be Germans! But no. It’s such an absurd thing to see! I’ve seen the images! It’s a mockery! That was the sign to me that Germany wasn’t the progressive society I thought it was to me.
I wanted to talk to you about Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, like they have this word in German Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
What does it mean?
It means like working through your past, confronting your past. And Germans think they have kind of done it about the Nazi stuff. Well, they’ve tried to do it. And it seems to me like Americans have done a Vergangenheitsbewältigung about slavery and colonialism and that better than the British or the Europeans have?
It’s so funny – I thought it was the opposite! When I go to London, I went to an exhibit about slavery in the Docklands and it was paid for by the city – and like, talking to people in Britain, like even people who seem to have quite backwards opinions on some things, seem to have a general idea of what colonialism has meant. I mean, even the fact that the Germans have a word! I have actually made jokes like when I visit Berlin, when I flip around the TV, all the channels are showing some kind of documentary – people are actually trying to confront their past. And you know, for years Germans were ashamed of waving their national flag. And in the US, we don’t do that. We don’t confront our past in that way, we don’t question ourselves in that way. We still have a team called the Washington Redskins! We haven’t confronted our past at all. The difference is that the Americans never lost. And the victors write history. And so Americans don’t need to confront their history. And you know, maybe I am being superficial – maybe I just have really low standards? But I just think even just having a word is a great thing!
I always thought the Americans were a bit further ahead than us in Europe, it seems to me like you guys are always banging on about slavery, is that just because it’s only clever Americans who visit Europe?
Maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s because we have these racial tensions that exist in our country that we can’t ignore it. We have slavery and then Jim Crow and then segregation and then wealth disparity? And then, you know, white privilege.
People in Europe don’t even admit white privilege is a thing, like loads of Germans don’t think white privilege is a thing. Some British people do. But most Americans do, most Americans admit that white privilege exists.
I don’t think most Americans admit that white privilege exists! I don’t agree with that sentiment at all. I think maybe if you’re talking about Americans with a certain amount of education you could say that – and we have these videos of police brutality which cannot be denied. But generally the idea of white privilege, like the idea of microaggressions, is met with a lot of mockery. People say things like: but how can white privilege exist if we have a black president? A statement which is obviously, you know, absurd.
Let’s talk about Mindy Kaling and her show The Mindy Project, she seems to get criticized ever such a lot
What’s happened to Mindy Kaling is the same as what has happened to Amy Schumer – she’s been put on a pedestal. And it’s not their fault! The trouble is, people of color and oppressed groups have a very limited number of representations. White males dominate the world, they dominate the money, they dominate what gets depicted. So when a few of us actually break through, all the pressure is on us to do everything. And it’s not fair! It’s not reasonable! Criticism is fine, but really, you know, the answer is not for this person to be cancelled – but let’s bring up the next person! We need to create our own work. I mean, of course I was upset when I was growing up, how racist TV was and no response. And then when I was going to comedy clubs, all those racist jokes and no response. There was never a response. And then when I got old enough, and I wrote my own comedy, I decided: I was going to be my response. And you know, as much as I think criticizing people is fine, as much as I think criticism is an acceptable part of art, at a certain point it just becomes noise. You know, the criticism I hear of Mindy, she’s doing this, she’s doing that, she’s doing this, she’s not perfect? Well, maybe she’s doing her. And maybe you don’t like every aspect of her. And maybe that’s okay, because she’s only doing her. And maybe one day – and one day, by the way, isn’t ten years away, or twenty years away. One day is maybe, like tomorrow. Maybe one day we’ll have a comedy show with a queer poeple of color couple. Do you know, even ten years ago even five years ago I never would’ve thought we could’ve had a comedy show starred in written by and created by a South Asian woman? And people say why do you only date white guys? Well maybe that’s because she only dates white guys. She can’t represent everyone! But maybe someone-else can tell that story. There’s enough people out there.
It will be your first time performing in Germany, won’t it? In Germany people think of comedy as pure entertainment, like our most famous German comedian, Mario Barth, he fills out stadiums and he’s literally just an entertainer. Do you see comedy as more important than that, more important than just being entertainment? Do you think comedy can be educational?
I think all media, all culture, all art – and I think comedy is an artform – has the potential to shape. All language, all expression, all art is political. Whether you say something political or not. And there’s room for light entertainment, you know? There’s room for clowns and silliness. But I do feel there needs to be some kind of balance. And you know, for example, the Mindy Project? Is it political in that all the jokes it makes are political? Absolutely not. But is it political in that it has a dark-skinned Indian woman existing? Yeah, definitely. But I think that comedy also allows for certain topics to be discussed in a new way because people’s defences are down. People are laughing so they’re willing to forgive more. And comedy also allows for an image of the future to be discussed. Comedy allows you to discuss the future without sounding like a politician or an activist because you’re doing it with laughter.
Having said that, it’s not my intent. My intent is to make people laugh. I want to entertain. I am an entertainer. My intention is to be the best comedian and entertainer possible, and make people laugh through sharing my point of view. My point of view happens to be a politicized point of view. Because that’s who I am. People sometimes say to me: Why are you a political comedian? But I’m not, I’m a political person! I don’t have an agenda. If I wanted to do something with an agenda, I’d stop doing comedian. I need to make people laugh. That is my ultimate goal.
Biggest comedy heroes?
Margaret Cho was my first comedy hero, I remember seeing her on TV when I was 14, and my mom was a huge fan too, and I remember seeing her and she was the first person I saw performing comedy who wasn’t either black or white or Latino. And so I felt a lot closer to her and she really inspired me. Her voice is a different voice.
My biggest influence at the moment is Stewart Lee, the British comedian Stewart Lee. I really love what he does in terms of content and form.
A shorter version of this interview was first published in taz