Ziwe, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes and Joel Kim Booster joke about race : Code Switch What makes a great joke about race? In the first of two episodes, Code Switch talks to comedians Ziwe, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes and Joel Kim Booster about their favorite race joke they tell: What's its origin story? Why is it so funny? And what does it say about race in America?

Three comedians share their thoughts on what makes a great joke about race

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Just a heads up, y'all - this episode includes some mature language, which means there's probably going to be some cussing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

B A PARKER, HOST:

I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: All right, Parker. So if I asked you who Jennifer Schulte was, would you know who I was talking about?

PARKER: Probably not. Is she an actor or something?

DEMBY: I mean, she is an actor in a sense. OK, OK. So if I told you she was BBQ Becky...

PARKER: Oh, she's the lady with the shades.

DEMBY: Yes. You know exactly who I'm talking about - like, you could conjure up her face, her backstory.

PARKER: Yeah. I can see her clear as day in my mind's eye, with her sour expression and her sunglasses on, holding the phone to her face.

DEMBY: Yeah. Like, in that cell phone video that went viral that made her famous - or infamous, I guess - she was calling the police on some Black folks who were having a cookout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER SCHULTE: Yeah, I'd like to report that someone is illegally using a charcoal grill...

DEMBY: You know, in a public park, as you do. And of course, she started bawling when she was confronted. She told the cops that she was scared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Police station, hi.

SCHULTE: Don't touch me.

Hi. I called about 2 hours ago about someone that's illegally grilling with a charcoal grill...

PARKER: That was such a ridiculous moment. And I'm glad that we could, you know, laugh at it because there's another timeline in which that whole situation goes left - when the police show up and draw their weapons.

DEMBY: Yep.

PARKER: And then we're talking about that video for completely different reasons.

DEMBY: Yeah. I remember how people, at the time, kept commenting on how they were glad it only ended in her crocodile tears. And, you know, people just started getting these jokes off. So when she was getting roasted, it was, like, this moment of catharsis, you know what I mean? And not to get all sociological about it, but humor is one way people transmit and affirm shared cultural values.

PARKER: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Like, jokes are a really important way that we say to each other, like, this is the kind of stuff we like. And when we roast you, we're sanctioning some stuff that we don't like, and this is what awaits you if you decide to move this way - like in the case of BBQ Becky.

PARKER: Yeah. And it feels like social media has supercharged this. Like, we're just consuming so much disturbing stuff so fast now, and there are so many more platforms for us to collectively laugh to keep from crying.

DEMBY: Yeah, and there's been so much good dark humor on social media over the last few years about all the things that afflict us right now - right? - like late capitalism and the coming climate apocalypse and skyrocketing inequality. So on our next two episodes, we felt like, all right, we should chop it up with some professionals - comedians, that is.

PARKER: And we wanted to talk with them about how they talk about race because who knows more about laughing to keep from crying?

DEMBY: And speaking of how social media supercharges all this stuff, we want to introduce you to our first guest.

ZIWE FUMUDOH: I am Ziwe. I do iconic things for a living.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Iconic things like what?

FUMUDOH: Iconic can mean anything. You know, people consider Martin Luther King an icon, but others consider Robert E. Lee an icon. So it kind of wavers between the two extremes.

PARKER: (Laughter) So she bridges the gap.

DEMBY: (Laughter) For those of y'all who don't know Ziwe, she has a show on Showtime called, appropriately, "Ziwe."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: And if there's a kind of throughline in Ziwe's humor that I can identify, it's that she's kind of fascinated with people's hypocrisy around race.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

FUMUDOH: (As character) American Girl Doll: Imperial Wives Collection - introducing our newest doll, Tina - a modern Black capitalist who uses social justice language for profit. Look at her tweet on her little iPad. She loves to speak for all Black people. American Girl Doll: Imperial Wives Collection - in stores now.

DEMBY: Ziwe has been doing comedy for a while, but she really, really blew up during the early part of the pandemic, right when we were all locked down for real, and she would be having these conversations with celebrities - or quasi-celebrities - on Instagram Live.

PARKER: Yeah. And quite a few of the people she was interviewing were talking to her as part of their apology tours because they had some recent faux pas about race.

DEMBY: Right. And Ziwe is basically instigating - like, she's nudging them to tell on themselves.

PARKER: Like that time she was talking to influencer/maybe scammer lady, Caroline Calloway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROLINE CALLOWAY: Those are my favorite authors. James Baldwin...

FUMUDOH: You read James Baldwin?

CALLOWAY: Yes.

FUMUDOH: What specific James Baldwin?

CALLOWAY: Are you kidding me? I'm - I feel like I'm the only white person ever who read "If Beale Street Could Talk" before it became a movie.

FUMUDOH: You're giving yourself too much credit, but sure...

CALLOWAY: I really am. I really am. I'm like - can you see my halo above my head?

FUMUDOH: You work.

CALLOWAY: Like, I am the perfect white savior.

DEMBY: So that is the energy and the sensibility that she brings to her Showtime show. And I'm not going to lie, Parker. Like, I was kind of shook coming into this conversation with Ziwe.

PARKER: Why?

PARKER: Because I thought she was going to bring this same energy in our conversation towards me. Like, she has this very unnerving ethic. She's kind of jumpy. She's very attentive. Like, it feels like she doesn't blink at all. The whole time she's talking, she has either, like, a really flat expression or a big smile on her face, but she's, like, very tuned in. And, you know, it's like - watching her interview people is like watching somebody in an exam with a very genial, alert proctologist. And I was just worried about being on the business end of that. So I asked her about that shtick.

FUMUDOH: I think that's part of the profession of comedy. I mean, you are just being an active listener and reacting to your audience in real time. So I'm just really present, honestly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FUMUDOH: But this comedy that I've created is derived from my experiences, where you're just living your life, minding your business, and someone will approach you and say absolutely wild things, and you're supposed to react with a very demure, respectful manner. And so years of conditioning have taught me how to hear wild things and say wild things without really sort of tipping my hand. But I've definitely, like - I think - I'm not - that's not unique to myself. I think that there are people - Black women, specifically - around the world, around the country, who can speak to living their life at, like, a work function, and someone randomly, like, telling them about the Black friend that they had as a kid. And you're like, sir, this is a Wendy's. Why are you telling me this? And so that is reflected in my work, but it's not specific to me, maybe.

DEMBY: We want to play you a sketch that is playing off of some of these dynamics.

FUMUDOH: Sure.

DEMBY: In this skit, you're sitting in a classroom with a bunch of parents who are vocal opponents of critical race theory.

FUMUDOH: Yeah.

DEMBY: Y'all are playing charades.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

MAUD: Swim, flow...

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #1: Tommie Smith and Jean (ph) Carlos at the Olympics.

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #2: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #3: Oh, my goodness.

DEMBY: And one woman...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #1: That's not a good charade term.

FUMUDOH: Come on, Vito.

DEMBY: And she's doing some kind of wheels-on-the-bus situation with her hands. It's very kind of - I was like, where is she going with this?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

FUMUDOH: What is happening?

MAUD: (Laughter).

FUMUDOH: Mona is begrudgingly...

DEMBY: And then, in the next round of charades, one parent takes another parent sort of - and walks her across the room, which is supposed to symbolize Jim Crow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

FUMUDOH: You can tell us. You can tell us.

VITO: Jim Crow.

FUMUDOH: Jim Crow?

MAUD: Jim Crow - that - come on.

FUMUDOH: Wait, what?

MAUD: Why is Mona standing there (laughter)?

FUMUDOH: What does that have to do with her standing over there?

VITO: Separate.

MONA: Separation.

FUMUDOH: Oh, separate - like, separate but equal.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

FUMUDOH: What is the outrage about critical race theory - it seems sort of sudden - like, a post-2020, like, uprisings. And so obviously, like, one of the first jokes about critical race theory is you can't even explain the premise of critical race theory without talking about race. And so if you're thinking about, OK, let's get critical race theory out of schools, how do you teach, like, a huge chunk of American history without talking about race or? And so with charades - that's a game that requires no speaking at all.

DEMBY: Do you think about how certain jokes might land with different audiences? Like, so much of your comedy is kind of high context. Do you wonder how people who may not understand the controversy metabolize the humor that you're trying to pull off here?

FUMUDOH: So I really live at the epicenter of combining high concept and low concept, right? People will have very different reactions, and they will have the confirmation bias in what they see for their own perspective. And they can be totally the opposite. So I can't control how people consume my work. I just put it out there. But I usually say that - whenever you're learning, cut it out. That's boring, right? My goal is to make people laugh - first and foremost, right? The education, whatever you take from that, that's your business. That's your prerogative. But I want to make people laugh.

DEMBY: In that same episode where you did the charades with those anti-CRT parents, you also interviewed Charlamagne.

FUMUDOH: Yes.

DEMBY: He is one of the hosts of "The Breakfast Club," which is a very popular radio show, if y'all don't know. And Charlamagne - you know, sort of a provocateur. He has this whole barbershop conservatism thing happening, you know what I mean? He wrote the book, "Black Privilege," which is everything you expect when you hear something like that. We're going to play a clip of him on your show where you compare the idea of reparations to punching somebody in the face.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

FUMUDOH: But then it's like - let's say I get paid $5 a day to punch you in the face, and I punch you in the face every day for 10,000 days, and I make $50,000. And then on the 10,001 day, I say, I will not punch anyone in the face.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: What if I give the money back?

FUMUDOH: So would you say to this camera that you're pledging to donate a hundred percent of your salary to Black women's reparations?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: A hundred percent?

FUMUDOH: A hundred percent.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I will pledge that I will help Black women make a lot of money.

FUMUDOH: That's so vague.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: No, I do it now. I mean, I got - number one, I got four daughters.

FUMUDOH: Yes.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: That's No. 1. And I'm married to a beautiful Black woman.

FUMUDOH: OK, so you have a wife and daughters.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Yes.

FUMUDOH: Brave.

(LAUGHTER)

FUMUDOH: So in the visual element, there's a headline that says, feminist icon has daughters and wife.

DEMBY: Yes.

FUMUDOH: So it's so many different levels. But what my interview show allows is to see guests in their most vulnerable moments, even if they're being acutely cautious and calculated in their answers. That sort of calculation is also honesty. It is to say, I have this question; I know that society has these rules for how you should answer these questions, and I'm going to abide. That says something about a personality as well, right? And so I think that my interview show offers, like, vulnerable, honest people, and you're getting quotes from them that have never existed on television before, right? - because that's a testament to the structure of the show and the line of questioning.

DEMBY: Has anyone ever said something that was, like, truly surprising to you?

FUMUDOH: So I have no expectations when I go into interviews.

DEMBY: OK.

FUMUDOH: I have no expectations, honestly. So everything that my guests say are surprising. I have no idea how they're going to answer any of these questions. In fact, the premise of the show is that the questions are impossible to answer. And so once you get past that, suddenly we're in this really interesting, unique space where anything goes and anything can happen. And again, you're watching, like, fresh, surprising, like, really radical comedy.

DEMBY: And, I mean, to your point about getting people to be revealing and getting them to answer questions, some of the questions you ask are really straightforward and simple but also really deceptive. They're traps.

FUMUDOH: Yeah.

DEMBY: Like, one question you come back to a lot was how many Black friends do you have?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

FUMUDOH: How many Black friends do you have?

DEUXMOI: Um.

GRACE KUHLENSCHMIDT: Um.

CALLOWAY: Um. Very many.

KUHLENSCHMIDT: Six close Black friends.

DEUXMOI: I don't have any Black friends, to be honest.

FUMUDOH: What are you talking about?

DEUXMOI: You - one.

DEMBY: Or what do you qualitatively like about Black people?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

FUMUDOH: What do you qualitatively like about Black people?

ALEXIS HAINES: (Laughter) This one's hard. There's no right or wrong answer - right? - you either say...

DEMBY: Why did you choose those questions?

FUMUDOH: Totally. I mean, it's wild 'cause those are objective questions that have no answers. But what's interesting is those two questions came out of the 2020 Instagram Lives I would do with celebrities during, like, the uprisings. And people kept saying the same answer, which is four to five friends. And I thought that was such a weird trend.

DEMBY: Between four and five, yeah. Like, what is...

FUMUDOH: Four to five...

DEMBY: Yeah.

FUMUDOH: ...Like, that's - certainly we can all have four to five?

DEMBY: Why do you think that people, knowing that they might be cast in an unfavorable light in a way that a lot of, like, celebrity interviews would never do - why do you think they decide to talk to you?

FUMUDOH: So we prep all of our guests. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not hog-tying people and putting them in the basement and then putting a camera in front of their face as I, like, berate them with really, really stressful questions. They're willing participants, and I think you'd have to ask each guest 'cause it differs. You know, some people are a fan of my comedy. Others are - just want to talk. Others, you know, are really brave and want to be honest. And so I think that that's not a question that I could answer. In the way that every guest reacts differently to questions, every guest has a different reason for why they're in the room.

PARKER: I'm kind of blown away that they prep these guests, and then they still come onto her show and say this stuff that they say to her into a camera.

DEMBY: Right?

PARKER: Like, shout out to their bad publicists for gifting us with all this fodder for comedy.

DEMBY: Shout out to bad publicists. Ziwe was telling me that she spends most of her time talking about race and politics on her show because this is the stuff that shapes how and who she can be in the world.

FUMUDOH: You know, there's this Langston Hughes essay called "The Negro Artists And The Racial Mountain." And basically, it's, like, this contention with, like, do you have to be a Black artist, or can you just be an artist - right? - or is, like, the element of Blackness, like, a part of what makes your art so specific to you and your culture, and can you actually separate those things, or do you want to separate those things? And so I think with my work, I don't necessarily think about it in terms of, like, I am the comedian talking about the hard-hitting truths. To me, my work is more of, like, a trauma response. Like, the work comes from the internal experience of existing as a Black woman in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Ziwe is the host of "Ziwe," which airs on Showtime. Thank you so much for rocking with us.

FUMUDOH: Thanks, guys.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. After the break, we'll hear from more comedians on how they think about race.

ANJELAH JOHNSON-REYES: Early in my career, when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ay, mija. My mom doesn't call me mija.

DEMBY: That's after the break, y'all. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

PARKER: Parker.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. We're going to queue up our next professional jokester.

JOHNSON-REYES: I am a stand-up comedian, an actress, an author, a dog mom, a wife, a sister, a friend, all those things.

PARKER: That is a very elder millennial bio.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Yup, just a long list of social roles and jobs.

PARKER: Right? And I'm going to add one more. Do you remember Anjelah Johnson-Reyes when she was on "MAD TV"?

DEMBY: Yeah, of course.

PARKER: Yeah, it was a sketch comedy show that helped launch the careers of Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Orlando Brown.

DEMBY: And a lot of Anjelah's comedy is about her identity. It kind of plays on the way that people struggle to place her or the way she doesn't always fit in. Like, she's Mexican, but her name is Anjelah Johnson. You know what I mean? Like, she's kind of ambiguous to a lot of people. And the joke Anjelah shared with us is from her Netflix special, "Not Fancy."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "ANJELAH JOHNSON: NOT FANCY")

JOHNSON-REYES: Like, for instance - OK? - there is a hierarchy in the Latino culture. We don't talk about it, but it's there. There's all kinds of different Latinos, right? Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadorian, Cuban, Colombian, Dominican, Blahlalavian (ph), Lalalavian (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: All kinds of us, right? And, like, my husband, he's Puerto Rican, OK? Any Puerto Ricans here tonight?

(CHEERING)

JOHNSON-REYES: Hey, all seven of California's Puerto Ricans came out tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: My husband, he's Puerto Rican - right? - so he thinks Puerto Ricans are at the top because they have J.Lo.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: All right. We get it. Team Puerto Rico - one point. Well played. Me, I'm Mexican, OK? Any Mexicans here tonight?

(CHEERING)

JOHNSON-REYES: So pretty much everybody else.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: OK. I'm Mexican, so I think Mexicans are at the top because we have the best food.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHNSON-REYES: These are just facts, you guys. Google it if you want to.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: We're not even, like, the best in the Latino foods. Like, we jumped into regular food category. You know what I mean? Like, ask any of your friends what their favorite food is. Nine out of 10 times, they're going to go, oh, favorite food - pizza, Chinese and Mexican. They don't say Latino.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: Oh, I like Latino food, all-encompassing Latino food. No, bro. They say Mexican.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: That's what's up.

I feel like I recognize it even more when I got married because my husband is Puerto Rican, and I'm Mexican. And that - we always would battle with each other. And I remember when he first came to meet my family for the holidays and my family was asking him, hey, what's the difference between Mexican food and Puerto Rican food? Like, we'd never even heard of Puerto Rican food. Like, they didn't even know. So they were like, what's the difference? And he was like - this is what he said to my entire family. He goes, it's like Puerto Rican food is more, like, high quality (laughter). And we were all like, what? Like, record scratch. Like, excuse me?

DEMBY: But shout out to mofongo, though. What? Come on.

PARKER: What is mofongo?

DEMBY: You live in New York, and you've never had mofongo? All right, so mofongo is, like, a stew with, like, plantain fritters in it. It can have seafood. It can have pork. You know what I'm saying? There's a lot of stuff in it. It's, like, savory. It's just - Parker, we need to get you some mofongo.

PARKER: Yes, please.

DEMBY: Anyway, I digress.

JOHNSON-REYES: He didn't mean, like, maliciously, I think. I don't know what he was trying to say, but he cannot eat Mexican food 'cause he always gets an upset stomach when he eats Mexican food. So I think he was speaking from his own personal experience. But anyway, so my husband and I would always battle about Mexican things versus Puerto Rican things - how they would do things in their culture, how we would do things in our culture. And we'd go back and forth. So that's kind of how that started me talking about this topic of the hierarchies. It's, like, something I knew was always there, but it definitely became heightened once my husband got involved in the situation.

DEMBY: Anjelah says - OK, normally, you know, she's on Twitter, just, you know, getting these jokes off or whatever, and people will respond, and then, you know, everything kind of dies down. But she said when she posted this clip from her special, it really hung around.

PARKER: You know, I remember an old CODE SWITCH episode when a guest said something like, maybe what it means to be Latino is to argue over what it means to be Latino. And this sounds like one of those arguments.

DEMBY: Yep.

JOHNSON-REYES: Every single day, till this day, I still get comments on that video of people arguing with each other over who has the better food. Like, you know, where did rice and beans really start - in Mexico? Or - you know what I mean? And it's like, oh, my gosh, it's just a joke, you guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: It's a joke, but it also kind of rings true.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah, for sure. Like, Anjelah said she saw the audience was really getting it when the joke was something that they can relate to. And her comedy evolved. Like, one of the things she told us was that it took her a long time to get to a place where she felt like she could be honest about her insecurities, about her identity.

PARKER: That requires some vulnerability.

DEMBY: Absolutely. And she jokes about that in the Netflix special. Like, she has that bit about ranking Latinos, but it's followed by her riffing on feeling like she's falling short. And it's a kind of falling short that we've talked about a lot on this podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "ANJELAH JOHNSON: NOT FANCY")

JOHNSON-REYES: I may think Mexicans are at the top, but I'm not the top Mexican. I still don't speak Spanish. I know. I wish I did. Any other Latinos here that do not speak Spanish? Where you at?

(CHEERING)

JOHNSON-REYES: See? I'm not the only one. Air-fives.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: Where are the Latinos at that do speak Spanish? Where are you guys at?

(CHEERING)

JOHNSON-REYES: Oh, congratulations.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: You're better than us.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: I bet you put it on your resume, too, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: Bilingual - Spanish and English, happy face, happy face.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON-REYES: Well, good for you. Felicidades.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: So, of course, like, offstage, you might be insecure about the fact you can't speak Spanish around people who speak Spanish. Like, we get that. But onstage, she was like, yo, this is actually, like, kind of a functional storytelling dilemma 'cause, like, you know, she can't really resort to a lot of cliches that she would have used as a shorthand, so her audience, they be like, I'm Mexican with a Mexican family, because she said none of that stuff is actually true.

JOHNSON-REYES: I grew up wishing I was more Mexican than I felt that I actually was, and that's because I didn't speak Spanish fluently. I lived in a different part of town, a different neighborhood that wasn't full of Latinos. It was, you know, very diverse. And I feel like I always wanted to be something more - more Mexican than I felt I actually was. And when I first started stand-up comedy, I would portray myself as what I wanted to be, as what I wished I was, as what I thought people expected of me. So even though I didn't speak Spanish - my parents don't speak Spanish - early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ay, mija. My mom doesn't call me mija. My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, hey, girl. She talks like me. You know what I mean?

Like - but when I started to gain my own point of view, my own perspective, and be vulnerable with my insecurity about the fact that I don't speak Spanish, I could feel people connecting and relating, not only the people in the audience who were like, oh, yeah, me too, I don't speak Spanish, too, but the people who just relate and connect with authenticity. They were like, don't be who we want you to be; be you. That's what we're responding to is authenticity. We're responding to truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: That was Anjelah Johnson-Reyes. Her Netflix stand-up special is called "Not Fancy." And our last comedian tonight - I kind of feel like Joe Torry on "Def Comedy Jam" saying that, you know what I mean?

PARKER: Talking about elder millennial.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Our last comedian this episode is Joel Kim Booster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOEL KIM BOOSTER: Any visible minority can relate to this, though, is that the thing is, is, like, when you're a visible minority, everybody wants to pathologize, like, everything you do to the rest of the group. And it's so stressful. Like, I went to a house party recently in LA, and there were three other Asian people at this party, and none of us knew each other. We were all brought there, sponsored by a different white friend. And...

(LAUGHTER)

BOOSTER: ...And yet every single one of us - and I'm not shitting you - we all somehow arrived to this party wearing something with the Tasmanian Devil on it.

(LAUGHTER)

BOOSTER: And I was like, oh no, what have we done...

(LAUGHTER)

BOOSTER: ...You know? Like, I called us all into the kitchen. I was like, somebody's got to change. We're creating a new stereotype for these people. But it was too late. There was already people walking around the party like, yeah, I guess it's the year of the Taz...

(LAUGHTER)

BOOSTER: ...You know, like, Chinese astrology, it's different from ours.

DEMBY: So Joel has been kind of everywhere lately.

PARKER: Right? I loved him in "Fire Island."

DEMBY: Yes, me too. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun.

PARKER: Right? I love how it's this modern retelling of "Pride And Prejudice," and it follows a group of gay friends who are doing their yearly summer trip to party on this island off the coast of New York.

DEMBY: And Joel doesn't just star in "Fire Island;" he actually wrote "Fire Island." I also found out during this that he wrote for "Big Mouth," which was like one of my favorite shows ever. Anyway, back to this joke about the Tasmanian Devil shirt. When we talked to Joel recently, he told us that that all actually happened.

BOOSTER: You know, like, it wasn't like we all just showed up in a red shirt. It was that we showed up in something - like, I'm not a big "Looney Tunes" fan. I'm not sure that the other three were big "Looney Tunes" fans. It just was, like, this - like, and that is comedy, like, literally lightning striking twice somewhere. Obviously, there wasn't a white girl walking around the party saying that, like, she thought it was the year of Taz, you know? But, like, somebody did ask if that - if Taz was an important part - like, somehow became an icon in Asian American culture. So, like, it was a figuring out a way to, like, take what was real and then heighten it enough to make it absurd and funny.

It's the silliest way for me to sort of communicate that experience to audiences that might not understand what that is like of the worry that - and the anxiety around being a minority - especially a visible minority - that is constantly worried that you are not representing, you know, the rest of the group well because of, you know, this, that or the other thing. And it just is, like, sort of the most absurd, you know, version of that.

PARKER: Yeah, I know a lot of people will feel that part where he's talking about being all worried about representing the rest of the group, you know, the rep sweats.

DEMBY: Yes. And, you know, this particular anxiety for Joel, as the expression goes, is something he arrived at honestly. So he's the adopted son of white parents. And so as a kid, he was isolated and he was lonely. And he kind of really was representing the rest of the group.

BOOSTER: You know, I was the only Asian person a lot of people knew for many years before I moved to Chicago and before I moved to New York. And it was something that, like, sort of kept happening to me over and over again. I'm not even sure I was fully aware of it until much later in life.

But just the constant pressure of, like, any time I'd do something, they'd be like, oh, yeah, Joel's doing - Asians love X, Y, Z, you know? Or, you know, when I was learning to drive - and I am still a very bad driver, and I have jokes about that, too, that talk about, you know, just, like, the pressure of, like, being a bad driver while Asian and seeing the look in people's eyes while you're on the road of being, like, oh, of course, it's an Asian person who almost cut me off there. And then feeling this pressure of, like, oh, my God, I just solidified, you know, a decade's worth - a half-a-century's worth of stereotypes about Asian people for that one person, and they're going to go away, and who knows what narrative is happening in their head? And...

PARKER: The representation trap.

DEMBY: Yep, yep.

PARKER: And to anyone who feels this, we feel you.

DEMBY: Yeah, we feel you, which you also - you know what I mean? You got to let that go.

PARKER: Yeah. I mean, it's a game you can never win. You're not going to make anybody who thinks Asians are bad drivers reconsider by showing them that you're a good driver.

DEMBY: Listen; there's a bunch of reasons to become a better driver. You know what I mean? Like, not dying. Proving people wrong should not be on that list. But back to Joel. He did let a lot of that go when he went on a trip to Japan.

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BOOSTER: It was Tokyo. I went to Japan for a friend's birthday. And it - I cannot describe to you what happened to me there, which was for the first time in my life, I was just another face in the crowd, you know? And I didn't realize the weight that I was carrying around with me every day in America, just worrying about, like, you know, what people - people in public seeing me do certain things. Like, if I'm jaywalking, are they going to think that all Asians jaywalk now, you know? And, like, it was so freeing to just sit on public transit in Tokyo and just - and not have that worry because, suddenly, like, you know, people weren't seeing me as an other. They were just seeing me as another person.

DEMBY: And Joel said - OK, this weird coincidence in which three grown people somehow showed up at the same party in their finest Looney Tune drip helps illustrate how a lot of this really dumb stuff we panic over because it has much higher stakes.

BOOSTER: I think that, like, anybody who walks around in this country who looks different understands that experience, you know? They, like, see themselves reflected back in that experience. And it's, like, little things, you know? Like, there are certainly versions of this story that are more fraught - you know, like the driving thing or - you know, there are bigger versions of this phenomenon that happen that are more dire and more sort of, like, nerve-wracking for people of color especially.

PARKER: It's interesting to think about how differently each of these comedians is approaching this stuff, and you can hear how their personal stories shape their comedy.

DEMBY: Yeah, and something each of them seems to be saying is that, like, it's really important that we find a way to joke about all of this and that you can't be didactic about it, even if you want to push people. I mean, here's Joel again.

BOOSTER: Well, one of the big reasons why comedy is such an important medium to tackle some of these issues is that to be a good comedian, you sort of have to stay two steps ahead of what's going on in the discourse now. I want to be starting a new conversation that hasn't happened yet.

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DEMBY: That was Joel Kim Booster. He's a comedian and the star and writer of "Fire Island." His latest Netflix special is "Psychosexual." And, y'all, that has been our show. You can follow us on IG and Twitter at @nprcodeswitch. I'm on Twitter at @geedee215. Parker is at @aparkusfarce. If email's more your thing, ours is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever y'all get your podcasts.

PARKER: You can find our newsletter at npr.org/newsletters. This episode was produced by Diba Mohtasham and Summer Thomad. It was edited by Dalia Mortada, Steve Drummond and Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: And shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's Christina Cala. That's Jess Kung. That's Kumari Devarajan. That's Karen Grigsby Bates. And that's Alyssa Jeong Perry. As for me, I'm Gene Demby.

PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

PARKER: Hydrate.

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PARKER: Hey there. Just wanted to give a quick shout out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you. And thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.

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