LC#13: Nerd Politics — The Black Nerd
On comedy, blackness, and nerd power.
I dedicated the past month to dissecting the figure of the Nerd in a range of media. Some of it was problematic, some of it a bit depressing. This week, I’m closing the Nerd Politics three-parter with a more optimistic take on the Black Nerd — a TV and comedy trope that, among others, has enriched the mediated representation of people of color in the last couple decades. Since we’re here to think about comedy, in this specific article I’m going to discuss some of the self-identifying “black nerd” (or black nerd-adjacent) comics that shaped recent comedy history in the US. It is an admittedly partial sample, but if you are interested in American comedy and stand-up in particular it should be interesting. For more context, do catch up on part-one and part-two of this series, or just do the scrolling thing you do at this point.
Honestly, doing this section is quite a daunting task for me. I’ll probably stop doing it soon, but for the sake of symmetry here’s a tweet of mine that didn’t get any likes and I think deserves better.
Also: have you seen LOL? It’s a show on Amazon that everyone’s talking about and I will probably write about soon. I’ve seen a few editions that were OK (the Italian one was more entertaining to me, for obvious reasons), but I can’t wait for a US or UK version to come out.
“I’m a black nerd and that was illegal until 2003”
— Donald Glover, “Weirdo”, 2012
The quote above comes from Donald Glover’s 2012 Comedy Central special, Weirdo. As far as I know Glover hasn’t done that much stand-up since, and if you didn’t remember him from Community you most likely know him as rapper Childish Gambino, or for his critically acclaimed series Atlanta. He wasn’t wrong though: apart from Obama (a black nerd himself, according to Glover) 2012 was a pretty big year for alternative black voices in US comedy. That was the year shows like Key & Peele and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell came out, as well as Baratunde Thurston’s book How to Be Black. In their own ways, all the comedians involved approached American society and their own identity differently compared to earlier generations.
Up until the turn of the millennium, representations of African-Americans within the comedy world could often be divided in two categories: they either celebrated community life in predominantly black neighborhoods, emphasising the specifity of their cultural expression, or they indulged in problematic self-stereotyping for the sake of white audiences. Interestingly, within the same year (2000) Spike Lee directed two films that showed both sides of the coin: The Original Kings of Comedy showcases four critically acclaimed stand-ups with a cult status in African-American communities, while Bamboozled narrates the tragic parable of a black TV producer who wants to challenge the racist dynamics of American television but winds up reinforcing the worst stereotypes imaginable. The fact that Spike Lee made two comedy-related movies in such a short time may be indicative of how urgent comic representation was culturally at the time.
Let’s go back to the nerds, though. By 2008, the year of Obama’s election, a range of alternative comic voices had been developing in the shadow of mainstream acts like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle (or even TV shows like The Boondocks or The Daily Show). Some of them came together in The Awkward Comedy Show, a comedy special directed by Victor Varnado and featuring him plus four other black comedians (Eric André, Hannibal Buress, Marina Franklin and Baron Vaughn). The group was initially named “The Awkward Kings of Comedy”, an explicit reference to the Spike Lee special (so explicit they had to rebrand the format), but the style of all the participants was very much antithetic to the confidence showcased by Bernie Mac, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey. The tagline to the DVD reads in fact “Comedy, plus Blackness, to the Nerd Power” — a formula that proved quite innovative and, ultimately, successful. While the special itself may have been relatively small within the media lanscape of the time, the comedians involved went on to do great things: Hannibal Buress and Eric André have become two of the most recognizable comics out there (the latter has a show and a movie out), Baron Vaughn recently hosted a Comedy Central comedy show about new black comics, and Marina Franklin went on to act in several famous movies.
As mentioned above, by 2012 the Black Nerd was becoming quite representative of a cultural change in the US comedy landscape. Beyond the great diversity of styles among the names mentioned, generally comedians who identified as “blerds” were putting out work that challenged pre-existing stereotypes about African-Americans, but also many notions and expectations about race in America.
In a way, this meant a blurring of the differences between “black” and “white” culture — or maybe, rather, a combination of the two. If Donald Glover defined Kanye West and Barack Obama as black nerds because they liked “weird and specific shit”, the movie DOPE reformulates this definition into liking “white people shit” (a category that in the movie includes Glover himself as a cultural reference). Directed by Rick Famuyiwa, the coming-of-age comedy features three young black nerds growing up in Inglewood, CA and struggling with all the things you would expect from a coming-of-age comedy — sex, bullies, money, college admission — with a refreshingly Black Nerd-twist. DOPE received generally positive reviews, however its use of stereotypes did attract some criticism. Desiree Bowie, for example, interestingly argues the film did break lots of common stereotypes for the main characters — the main kid is a computer-savvy, 90s hip-hop-obsessed Harvard hopeful, while his friends are a black lesbian and a Guatemalan geek — but it still juxtaposed them against a multitude of other one-dimensional black stereotypes. The author is also skeptical about the characterization of a series of cultural elements — college, Donald Glover, the band TV on The Radio — as “white”.
If the figure of the White-and-Nerdy rapper discussed last time defines itself in contrast with African-American stereotypes (thus in part contributing to reinforcing them), the Black Nerd in US comedy is then usually defined in relation to both “black” and “white” culture. The Black Nerd solution, often, is remixing both terms.
In this respect, comedian and tech enthusiast Baratunde Thurston also mentions the uncomfortable relationship of the “Questionably Black Person” with white culture in his humorous memoir How To Be Black, where the author addresses stereotypes in an attempt to “re-complicate blackness”. In conversation with fellow “blerd” and comedian W. Kamau Bell, Thurston evokes the suggestive image of a LEGO™ Negro Identity Building Set, for which he imagines a catchy ad: “Tired of being pressured by black people and others to fit their idea of blackness? Don’t wear the ‘right’ clothes? Don’t listen to the ‘right’ music? Don’t commit the ‘right’ crimes?”. The set promises to liberate the buyer, granting them the power to be whoever they want to be while maintaining a strong sense of blackness. Within the same conversation, Kamau Bell also references the technicity of the Black Nerd identity as assembling his own version of blackness, through an eclectic mix of pop-cultural models. Glover also proposes a similar operation in Weirdo: the comedian laments the widespread expectation that an African-American should care about the Blaxploitation classic Shaft, a movie he wouldn’t mind seeing remade with Michael Cera as the lead, and he also re-enacts Chris Rock’s iconic bit “N****s vs. Black People”, replacing the N-word with “vampires”.
Beyond the right to indulge in the more leisurely fringes of geeky subcultures, the recurring reference to Barack Obama as a black nerd, or at least a black nerd idol, points to another aspect of the figure: the empowering potential of nerdness, with implications that can be overtly political.
In the TED talk above, Baratunde Thurston addresses in fact his love for both technology and comedy, openly touching upon their political potential. In this respect, Baratunde references Obama’s use of comedy shows like Between Two Ferns to present his health care policy, empasizing that it is an amazing moment for comedy, technology, and maybe even politics. Watching the video after the whole Trump/alt-right/Pepe memes thing makes you less optimistic, but Thurston’s framing of comedy as something embedded technologically and politically is not commonplace (and much less in 2014, when the clip was posted).
It may be tempting to associate the rise of “blerd” or “biracial” comedy that blossomed during the Obama era as a reassuring symptom of a “post-racial” society, but it is also worth highlighting that the Black Nerd does not usually reinforce the same color-blindness often associated with the Nerd since RotN. Going back to DOPE’s definition, in fact, the juxtaposition of “black” and “white” culture may result in the essentialization of both terms, but it can also be seen as a sign of social consciousness; furthermore, their combination does indeed “re-complicate” them (to use Thurston’s verb) to some extent. Perhaps the urgency to define and explain a “new” identity label to audiences that were not used to seeing the category represented in movies or series demanded this approach, or maybe it is just that comedy is almost always grounded in some kind of rhetorical simplification and reduction. The idea of the Black Nerd as I have discussed it, it also needs mentioning, is itself just the common denominator between a range of diverse artists who at one point presented themselves using that label, while working in a specific socio-historical context. In many cases (Glover, for one, but also Jordan Peele with his horror movies), those artists eventually moved on to other topics and art forms, adopting more overtly critical attitudes towards racism in America.
To be sure, the cultural changes that are leading to a much richer and nuanced representation of people of color in the US and beyond have been informed by ages of civil and cultural struggles, fought across areas of life and human expression that are far wider than the relatively narrow spectrum of comedy. Self-identifying “black nerd” comedians definitely played a part in this and, in terms of the “nerd politics” discussed in the previous two editions of this newsletter, they often embodied a more socially and politically aware version of the Nerd of 1980s comedy lore. However common the term may be now, it did make a difference in comedy.