Commentary: Joe Biden wasn’t as funny at the Oscars as Chris Rock, but at least he didn’t make an Asian joke

Oscars host Chris Rock, right, introduces three Asian children as Price Waterhouse representatives during a controversial spoof at the 88th Academy Awards.

Oscars host Chris Rock, right, introduces three Asian children as Price Waterhouse representatives during a controversial spoof at the 88th Academy Awards.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Hey, what’s the difference between the acting nominees at this year’s Oscars and that KKK rally in Anaheim?

Answer: The KKK rally was more diverse.

OK, so I’m probably not getting hired to write jokes for Chris Rock any time soon. But I can’t be the only one who thought his material at the Oscars on Sunday night could have used some extra work.

Granted, Rock had a lot of pressure on him. On one side, there were people hoping he would really push the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and make some people uncomfortable. On the other, there were probably plenty of Hollywood figures who were squirming in their seats, hoping he wouldn’t say anything too harsh.

He mostly catered to the latter.

OSCARS 2016: Full coverage | List of winners | #OscarsSoWhite controversy

There were some bright moments, like his echoing of Viola Davis’ Emmy acceptance speech, when he said, “We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors, that’s it.” His introduction of Stacey Dash was Richard Pryor-level surreality. And his reference to Hollywood as “sorority racist” (“We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa!”) was subtle brilliance.


But those moments will likely be overshadowed by cheap jokes that he knew would put the mostly white audience back at ease.

Take, for instance, his wondering aloud why people were talking about diversity now, in 2016. “I’m sure there wasn’t no black nominees some of those years, say ’62 or ’63,” he said. “And black people did not protest.” (A quick fact check: Black people did protest in 1962.)

“We had real things to protest at the time,” he said, apparently doing his best impression of the kind of concern troll that appears in the comments section of every article about #OscarsSoWhite.

“When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about “best documentary foreign short.”

This bit got some of the loudest applause of his opening monologue. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from “sorority racists” across the country: Thank you for saying that for us.

The most unfortunate thing about this joke isn’t that it ignored the fact that we still have “real things to protest” (a message not lost on participants in the #JusticeForFlint event, which also happened Sunday night). It’s that a lot of “sorority racists” who needed to hear Rock’s full message won’t remember anything but that bit, because it’s convenient for them.

It’s something that’s happened to Chris Rock’s work before.

As protests continued in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., it became fashionable among a certain set of Internet trolls to post a clip from “The Chris Rock Show” called “How to Not Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police” into the comments section of any article about police brutality.

Even now, a good portion of recent comments on a YouTube post of the video are focused on Black Lives Matter, Ferguson or Baltimore. A representative comment: “Michael Brown should have watched this.”

Many people will probably remember Chris Rock’s opening monologue the same way they remember Chris Rock’s entire body of work: by selectively picking out the bits that are the most palatable and useful to them (see also: “Niggas vs. black people,” from his 1997 album “Roll With the New.”)

White people laughing only at the parts that make them feel comfortable isn’t a new phenomenon. Dave Chappelle also dealt with it; some say it’s one of the things that led to him walking away from his Comedy Central contract.

Chris Rock probably shouldn’t be held accountable for the selective hearing of people who don’t want to face the reality of a changing America.

But he certainly gave them plenty of ammunition Sunday night.

Deflection about the real aim of #OscarsSoWhite? Check. He suggested that Jada Pinkett Smith was just mad because her husband wasn’t nominated.

Jokes about black people looting? Check. Via a strange pre-taped segment.

As the show progressed, some people who were watching used Twitter to ask why Chris Rock wasn’t talking about all underrepresented people, instead of just black people. This has been a point of concern for a while, as some have assumed that just because the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was started by a black woman, it must be black-focused, though the originator has repeatedly clarified that she was speaking of inclusion for all people.

The argument spun off into a separate conversation under the #NotYourMule hashtag, as people argued over whether black people should need to stand up for other people of color at every opportunity.

And really, Chris Rock shouldn’t have to deal with this criticism: While he may have focused on the lack of opportunities available to black talent Sunday night, he is on record talking about diversity issues in Hollywood that go beyond black and white. In 2014, he wrote in the Hollywood Reporter:

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist — not racist like "... you, ...” racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

That insight was nowhere to be found at the Oscars on Sunday when he made a cheap joke about Asian child labor.

If anyone was offended by a previous joke, he said, “just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,” pointing to the three Asian children standing next to him, one of whom looked to be about 4 years old.

Considering that “Star Wars” droids and Minions outnumbered Asians on stage Sunday night, this was a big misstep for Rock. Not all comedy needs to “punch up” to lampoon only those who have more power than you but telling a racial joke about a kid who can’t even find his spot on the stage is the worst kind of punching down.

Rock didn’t have to skewer Hollywood’s bias at every turn. But it seems reasonable to expect that he wouldn’t simply parrot old, racist jokes.

If you were hoping for a few easy laughs, Rock delivered. But if you were hoping for a meaningful, courageous statement, Rock was upstaged several times most notably by a stage full of survivors of sexual assault.

Introduced by, of all people, Vice President Joe Biden, the group of women and men stood onstage and joined hands as Lady Gaga performed “Til It Happens to You.”

This was an uncomfortable and necessary moment that forced the audience to think about rape culture. The camera zoomed in on the messages written on the survivors’ arms in black lettering: “We believe you.” “It’s not your fault.”

“Let’s change the culture,” Biden said during his introduction.

None of this was funny actually, if anything, those brave men and women behind Gaga provided the Oscars moment most likely to bring a tear to your eye.

Comedy can be powerful, it can change culture, and it can make us cry. But it didn’t on Sunday night.

Some of what Rock said was funny, some of it was offensive as is the right of a comedian. But the history books likely won’t remember his commentary as groundbreaking.

Certainly, he didn’t do anything that Richard Pryor didn’t do better during his opening monologue at the 1977 Oscars. Even Rock’s final line, a quick “Black Lives Matter” delivered with a half-grin and a box of Thin Mints in his hand, came off at worst as a joke, and at best as an afterthought.

A lot of people were hoping that Rock would really knock it out of the park. But given the setting, the demands and his own history, that was probably a little unreasonable.

All the same, it was sad to see him settle for a bunt.

Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.


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