Aparna Nancherla, Brian Bahe and Maz Jobrani talk race and comedy : Code Switch When a comedian of color makes a joke, is it always about race, even if it's not about race? In part two of our comedians episodes, Code Switch talks to comedians Aparna Nancherla, Brian Bahe and Maz Jobrani about how and why race makes an appearance in their jokes.

What makes a good race joke?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1118915672/1119123243" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Gene, did you know that I had a little comedy career situation?



Wait. I did not know this, Parker. Tell me more.

PARKER: Well, I mean, it was really only one summer.

DEMBY: I mean, that still counts. One summer - that's more than most of us have.

PARKER: Yeah. It was, like, this one summer in film school, and I was an intern at Comedy Central. And I was actually one of these things called a Rocktern, which - it was called that because it was a program created by Chris Rock after he said he was tired of only seeing white people in these writers' rooms for TV shows. We never met Chris Rock, by the way.

DEMBY: You never met Chris Rock.


DEMBY: But I'm assuming you and all the other Rockterns were brown, right?

PARKER: We were people of color, so yeah. And we were very conspicuous. And there would be these, like, intern lunches with comedians like Larry Wilmore and Aasif Mandvi, which was awesome. And they were supposed to be these pep talks, but it was mostly about, like, how messed up the comedy game was.

DEMBY: Oh. I mean, you know how it goes. They're, like, seasoned vets. They've seen a lot of things. They try to, like, make sure you go into it with your eyes open. You know what I mean?

PARKER: Yeah. So that summer, like, we used to go to a lot of stand-up shows at bars in the evenings, and I would always sit in the back because, whenever I'd sit up front, the comedian, who was usually, you know, white or non-Black, would point me out for an off-color joke - pun intended.

DEMBY: Wait. What would they say?

PARKER: I mean, they would be doing crowd work, right? And so there was a truly distressing number of fried chicken jokes, Gene.

DEMBY: Really - like, fried chicken, really? That's so lazy and so corny. Like, in the 21st century, you're making - whatever.

PARKER: Yeah. And like, it's really hacky, and I felt embarrassed for them. But if you're a person of color trying to come up through the institutional comedy ranks - whether it's, you know, TV writers' rooms or big improv troupes or whatever it may be - you just have to eat a lot of this stuff.

DEMBY: Or not - which is, I guess, why you left, right?

PARKER: Which is why I left. Oh, and by the way, you're listening to CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: Yes, you are listening to CODE SWITCH.


PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. And we've been talking to some comedians about how they talk about race on stage.

PARKER: Gene, before we keep going, important heads-up to our listeners - this episode has some mature language.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm. That's right, y'all. We working blue today. Come on. And, y'all, we've been talking to some comedians about how they talk about race on stage, and we're going to talk to a few more this week. And one thing that keeps coming up in these conversations - and it's maybe something that's specific to stand-up comedy and maybe improv, too - is how the audience is part of the architecture of the joke, right? The way that the comic presents themselves to their audience - you know, their persona or whatever - and the way the audience perceives them - that's all part of this dance that they're doing on stage in real time, and it's been really fascinating to watch how each of these comedians has decided to do that dance with their audience.

PARKER: Yeah, it tells a little bit about them, right? Like, in our last episode, Ziwe was kind of this gleeful agent of chaos.


ZIWE 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: And Anjelah Johnson-Reyes was kind of genial and self-deprecating.


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


JOHNSON-REYES: Oh, congratulations.


JOHNSON-REYES: You're better than us.


PARKER: Like, to go back to the dance metaphor - Anjelah couldn't do Ziwe's dance.

DEMBY: Exactly. And Ziwe can't do Anjelah's. And even though they've crafted these personas - like, those personas are not completely theirs, right? Like, they're still kind of shaped by what the audience expects of them, and that's based on how they look or how they sound.

PARKER: Yes. In fact, our first comedian this week talked about this very explicitly. Her name is Aparna Nancherla.


PARKER: A lot of y'all might know Aparna from "A Simple Favor," "Mythic Quest," or as voice actor, you know, of "Fairview" or "BoJack Horseman."

DEMBY: Man, shout out to "BoJack." I love "BoJack."

PARKER: Right? And she has this great joke from her comedy album, "Just Putting It Out There" that's about being typecast in an acting class. And they do this exercise where everyone has to stand up while the class decides which celebrity you look like. And the joke's a little long, so settle in.


APARNA NANCHERLA: We started with a very handsome, like, all-American football-player-looking youth. Like, you know that one line male models have that kind of sticks out of their underwear that's just like, uh oh, genetics worked out?


NANCHERLA: He was just made out of that line.


NANCHERLA: Like, every part of him was that line. So we start with him. And immediately, people were just shouting over each other. They were just like, oh, Josh Hartnett, Ryan Reynolds, Jon Hamm, success. Everything is yours.


NANCHERLA: And I was like, that's totally fair. It was an accurate read on him. And then we slowly kept moving around the room. We got to, like, a curvy, sexy redhead. Immediately, same reaction - it was just like, Christina Hendricks, Amy Adams. Here's just money. Take it. You don't need a class. Go have a career. And I was like, again, totally fair. It was, like, slowly moving around to me. I was like, do your breathing exercises. It's going to be fine.


NANCHERLA: You know, like, from your stomach - not your throat - and...


NANCHERLA: ...I was like, it's 2013. There are laws now.


NANCHERLA: There's at least going to be a couple options.


NANCHERLA: So it got to me. There was just, like, a long silence. And I was like, why is this happening?


NANCHERLA: And then someone goes, that chick from the office?


NANCHERLA: Like a question - like, does she exist?


NANCHERLA: Did we dream her?


NANCHERLA: Bigfoot? Like...


NANCHERLA: She has a name, you know - Mindy Kaling. She has her own show. She's had it for a while - "The Mindy Project." But I was like, fine, we all know who you're talking about. She has a very amazing career - a talented person. I'll take it as a compliment. Another long silence - and then someone goes, Aziz Ansari.


NANCHERLA: I'm pretty sure that's a man...


NANCHERLA: ...Based on his general type, with the beard. I feel like the beard's there...


NANCHERLA: ...If you look for it.


NANCHERLA: But, again, you know, work is work. They're doing amazing things with chin wigs now.


NANCHERLA: I was like, another amazing career - I'll take it as a compliment. And that's two, let's keep it moving. But then someone went, science.


NANCHERLA: What? That's not even a person.

DEMBY: That's so bad, but that's real funny. That's...

PARKER: Gene. I know it - but so bad. Well, Aparna told us that she didn't want to make jokes about race when she first started out, but it just kept being a thing for her.

NANCHERLA: It wasn't something I really leaned into, but I felt like this story was maybe the first time that I kind of was like, oh, yeah. Like, I know my identity plays a pretty big factor in, like, my place in this industry and, like, how I'm perceived on stage or, like, as an entity in, like, entertainment.

PARKER: Yeah. Aparna told us she's trying to invite the audience to think about this stuff by giving them a little benefit of the doubt.

NANCHERLA: Because it happened to me, I didn't feel like I was just, like, making some sweeping statement about - all people are misinformed about minority representation on screen or something. It was just like, well, this is an example of how this shows up in my industry via my life.


NANCHERLA: It's funny 'cause there's, you know, things inside your community that you're like - can I even air this publicly, like, to a mixed audience? But then it is like they almost feel included by you bringing them in a little more to your own experience versus what sometimes happens with race, where people feel, like, attacked, or you're automatically vilifying them for not getting your lived experience.


NANCHERLA: That was Aparna Nancherla. Most recently, she was on the show "Search Party" on HBO Max, and you can hear her voice everywhere.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. After the break...

BRIAN BAHE: Being a person of color on stage - every joke is about race.

PARKER: That's after the break. Stay with us.


PARKER: Parker.

DEMBY: Gene.


DEMBY: All right, Parker, who's up next?

PARKER: No - who's on first? See what I did there?


DEMBY: Boo. Just boo. Boo. Boo. Tomato, tomato, tomato. Now I see why that...

PARKER: No, we don't boo. We don't boo.

DEMBY: ...Comedy career ain't work out. No, you deserve all of the tomatoes. Get the hook. Yank her off the stage.

PARKER: Respect. Respect. Eh.

All right, our next comedian is Brian Bahe. He's an Indigenous comic, and he has some feelings about those formal recognitions of Indigenous lands that people sometimes hear before events or meetings.


BAHE: I think it's cool that, like, land acknowledgements are becoming more commonplace or whatever. But I do think there is, like, a time and place for those, you know? And one of those times and places is not on Zoom. Like...


BAHE: During, like, hardcore quarantine, I was working for, like, this company. And during our weekly, like, staff check-in meetings, the head of HR, who was, like, a 50-year-old guy, not Indigenous - he started doing, like, land acknowledgements during those Zoom meetings. And there was, like, one meeting where he was just, like, yelling into his microphone from, like, his five-bedroom home in upstate New York. He's like, sorry. I can't figure out how to turn off my indoor waterfall. We are on Lenape land.


BAHE: I'm just like, this isn't how it's supposed to go.


BAHE: I feel like land acknowledgements are going to get co-opted by corporations like gay pride. You know, there's going to be like land acknowledgements by like American Express or whatever. And - but I am like dreading the day that I walk into a Warby Parker and there's like a huge banner and it's like, we're on stolen land. And then like right below that, it's like, you know what else is a steal? Two frames or $49.


BAHE: I guess I will walk out of there with four frames, you know.

BAHE: A deal is a deal.

BAHE: I get it, Brian. I'm a sucker for a glasses deal, too. I might relent.

DEMBY: So when we talked to Brian, he told us that this joke came out of the Great Awokening of 2020.

BAHE: I wrote this piece for McSweeney's, which is like a satire website, and it was all just like fake land acknowledgements. Like, one is for, like, a luxury condo. Like, one is for, like, the Washington Football Team.

PARKER: And from there, he decided to build it out as a longer bit.

BAHE: Yeah. I think it was a result of, like, post George Floyd's death, people or organizations were just trying to check off a box. And I just wanted to call that out in a way, because I - it seemed like no one was really pointing out that land acknowledgements should be sacred. It shouldn't be something that's just, like, tacked on at the end for optics. And even, like, after - a few months after, somebody's, like, tagged me in a tweet. They're like, @briahbahe, just saw that like some police department did a land acknowledgement. Like, that's beyond parody in a way. Like, that's like an Onion headline.

DEMBY: That's so funny. Like, I'm just imagining a cop doing a land acknowledgement while he's reading you your rights. Like, you have the right to remain silent, and this is Piscataway land. But, you know, just because Brian is Indigenous and, you know, he makes a lot of jokes about it, it doesn't mean that he wants his comedy to just be about that, which is sort of the point that Aparna was making earlier.

BAHE: But I don't want every joke to be about race. But I also think that, like, being a person of color on stage, every joke is about race in a way, whether or not it's stated. Even the jokes that aren't about race are about race.

DEMBY: You can hear Brian's jokes about race and other subjects at venues throughout New York City. He's also been on Comedy Central's "Stand-Up Featuring."

PARKER: Gene, you interviewed our final comedian.

DEMBY: I sure did. His name is Maz Jobrani.

MAZ JOBRANI: I am a standup comedian and an actor, and I have a podcast. I do a lot of things.

DEMBY: As we're doing this, I was remembering, Parker, that Maz was on one of our very, very first CODE SWITCH episodes way back in the day, if you want to dig in the crates. It was an episode actually with Aparna Nancherla, who we heard about in this podcast. They were talking about the politics around pronouncing your - I'm doing air quotes here - your difficult ethnic name.

JOBRANI: So I get Maz. I've had Maize (ph). I've had things like that. The last name I get is, instead of Jobrani. I get Jabroni (ph), yeah, which is like a wrestling term.

PARKER: Right.

JOBRANI: So, yeah, I get it all.

DEMBY: So Maz has a podcast called "Back To School With Maz Jobrani." He's been on shows like "The Colbert Report," shows like "Grey's Anatomy." And his joke for us is about the January 6 insurrection.


JOBRANI: My favorite day was January 7, when those guys who stormed the Capitol, they wouldn't let them on the airplanes. You see those videos? If you go watch, it's the best videos. They're at the airport crying, they're going, is bullshit, man. I have my boarding pass. And it shows my meal. And they're not letting me on the plane. I was watching it. Welcome to my world, motherfuckers. I go, by the way, when they didn't let the Muslims on the plane, we didn't cry, right? We just walked away. OK, fine. I will just hijack the next plane.


JOBRANI: You know, when you look at that hypocrisy, when you look at how just blind that is to reality, as someone who comes from a Muslim country and having seen what happened after September 11, there was a whole no-fly list. And I know people who had nothing to do with September 11 whose names all of a sudden were names that would raise a red flag.

DEMBY: Right.

JOBRANI: Versus these guys who actually went and committed a crime by entering Congress, by trying to overthrow democracy. And they have the nerve the next day to go to the airport and say, I picked my meal. It's vegetarian. Really?

DEMBY: There aren't a lot of details about January 6, but, like, one of the funniest details that stuck with me was how so many of those people got popped, like, by the FBI, by the feds later because they just, like, looked on the internet. Like, they didn't cover their faces. Like, that was like how much impunity they were moving with.

JOBRANI: It's absolutely nuts. And anybody who is a person of color will understand how, you know, listen, when somebody who's, you know, a Muslim or a brown person commits a violent act, the whole community is on edge going like, oh, my God, this person's committed this act. And there's going to be repercussions against the community.

DEMBY: The - I hope he wasn't Black. If you hear about a shooting or whatever, like, I hope he wasn't Black. Yeah.

JOBRANI: Yeah. And these guys who stormed the Capitol, they twisted it. Like, they stormed the Capitol. And that same day, their leader, Trump, was saying thank you to the patriots. So part of the joke I do, I go, when I was watching these guys storm the Capitol, as I'm going, oh, my God, they have terrorists, too.


JOBRANI: I'm sorry, patriots.


JOBRANI: That's what white people call their terrorists - patriots. White people got funny names for their criminals. Terrorists become patriots. Killers become lone wolves.


JOBRANI: The fuck's a lone wolf? It's a white guy who killed somebody.


JOBRANI: So, yeah, it really is this thing that you're saying. They're almost - you know, the people who stormed the Capitol, at least - they were proud of it, you know, and they took it from another lens. They didn't think, oh, we should hide. Oh, my God, what did I do? I got carried away. No. They said, no, we were trying to save democracy by storming the Capitol and chanting hang Mike Pence and kill Nancy Pelosi. And so to expose that hypocrisy, I think you try to do it in a joke form.


JOBRANI: A lot of them have been saying that they didn't mean to storm the Capitol. They got caught up in the moment.


JOBRANI: What kind of bullshit - privileged bullshit excuse, right? What kind of - I don't know about you guys, but I've never been outside of a bank...


JOBRANI: ...Just using the ATM, had a bank robber run by, made eye contact. Let's do this shit, motherfucker.


JOBRANI: Go in front of the judge - Your Honor, I didn't mean to do it. I got caught up in the moment.


JOBRANI: I was going for $20, decided to go for 20,000. What the hell, you know?


JOBRANI: What are you going to do? Look, there's so much going on in the world right now between people just trying to pay their bills, to entertainment on social media, to whatever it is. There's so much people get distracted by that you can't assume that everybody knows every detail of, let's say, January 6. And so, yeah, you got to paint the details before you go into the punch lines. And I think - by the way, depending on where you are in the country, depending on what kind of an audience you have - I've done that before where there's been audience members who I think were pro-January 6.

DEMBY: They were January 6 adjacent.

JOBRANI: Exactly. I've had those people in my audience, and I could see them, like, turn red with anger. So the way you handle it if somebody really gets that angry - I've just been like, you know, listen, what a great country we live in that you're able to have your opinion. I'm able to have my opinion. And I go, I only have two more Trump jokes. So if you want to stay, you can. If you don't, you're welcome to leave.

DEMBY: What makes comedy a good medium for talking about things like this...


DEMBY: ...About race, about racism, about politics?

JOBRANI: You know, I was on a panel once with D.L. Hughley, and he said, comedy is like giving people their medicine in orange juice. And so I think there's something to that, that if you give it to them with laughter, if you give it to them without preaching, they laugh, and they accept it, and then they think about it. And I think that being someone who was born in Iran and seeing the lack of freedom of expression in Iran, I really value the freedom of expression in America. In Iran and in a lot of other countries where you have an authoritarian state, they don't want any jokes about their leaders because they know the jokes will expose that the emperor doesn't have his clothes on. And so I try to emphasize that we should lean into the ability to make fun of our leaders, and our leaders should lean into being made fun of because ultimately that shows a certain level of security in the actual system of democracy that we live in, where jokes aren't going to overthrow Joe Biden.


DEMBY: Especially during the early days of the war in Iraq, there was this whole debate about the value of comedy, like, the value of making fun of powerful people, whether satire was good, like, whether it was useful or whether it sort of placated people - that it might in some ways sort of, like, narcotize people from, like, being angry. What do you think about that?

JOBRANI: Yeah. I don't know if that's true. I know that I can't pick up the phone and be like, yo, Donald, let's have a sit-down. I got to point out some stuff to you. And I know that there's a lot of people who are the same, that I can't reach. So what can I do? I can make fun of them. I can hope to expose some of what's going on in a hypocritical way and make people at least feel a sense of relief. But I don't think that we should stop telling jokes because, oh, it's going to placate people.

DEMBY: So how do you find fresh ways to talk about race in your comedy? And are there any ideas or approaches to talking about race in your comedy that you find really compelling or especially useful?

JOBRANI: I think that, you know, sure, there's some stereotypes that you still hit on to get a punchline or a laugh. But I try to just talk about what's going on in my life. You know, I'm married to an Indian woman, so we're a biracial couple.

DEMBY: Me too.

JOBRANI: I try to talk about my kids being biracial. They're born in America, so they're American. I think those things lead to telling real stories. I mean, as much as we feel like, oh, we're past that time when, you know, let's say, the stereotype of Muslims being terrorists, right? You might think, well, that's old. That's tried. It - you know, come on. But then here goes my son. He goes to sleepaway camp last summer. He's only 13. And he says the kids there are calling him Abdul and telling him to go to - back to Africa.


JOBRANI: And I'm going, what? First of all, that's the wrong continent. And then, secondly, I asked him - I go, what'd you say back to them? He goes, I told them I'm going to blow up their house. I go, way to go, buddy. I mean, that's an old stereotype, but it basically takes their making fun of you and diffuses it. Look, it took a long time for African Americans to stop being cast as whatever it was - criminals and start being cast as the FBI agent.

And similarly, a lot of cultures, once they come to America, it takes a while for us to go away from those other parts and start getting the parts where, oh, that girl is just a doctor or whatever that is. And there are shows along the way. There are comedians along the way that help to show that there's many colors to us. But I think by just being a comedian of color on stage, that's, I think, reaching our goals. Just by being from that background and being on stage and talking about stuff that has nothing to do with your ethnicity helps break those stereotypes.


DEMBY: Well, thank you so much, Maz. I appreciate you taking the time out to talk to us.

JOBRANI: Thanks for having me.

DEMBY: That was Maz Jobrani. He's a standup comedian. He's an actor. He does a lot of things, as he said. He's also the host of the podcast, "Back To School With Maz Jobrani."

PARKER: Gene, it feels like we've come full circle.

DEMBY: How so?

PARKER: Well, where Aparna talks about how at first her comedy didn't need to be about race and just kind of ended up that way, and then Maz talks about how hopefully in talking about race, he'll finally have the chance to not talk about race.

DEMBY: But Brian Bahe was saying something a little bit different, right? Like, he was saying, even if I'm not making a joke about race, it still kind of is a race joke because, you know, who he is and who he is on stage and how people perceive him.

PARKER: All right. Bear with me, Gene, but this makes me think a little bit about Bill Cosby.

DEMBY: Oh, Lord. OK.

PARKER: OK. I know. I know. Forgive me. I'm sorry. But Cosby, like, actively avoided making race jokes for most of his career, but so much of the commentary about his comedy became about how he was, like, the Black comedian who didn't joke about race. So race was still kind of the elephant in the room.

DEMBY: Yeah. Which is, I guess, Brian's point. And I guess it goes back to that idea about the audience being part of the mechanics of the joke, the way a joke works. Like I kept thinking about how differently these same jokes that the comedians we talked to today might land in a room where, say, everybody that Maz is talking to is Iranian, or everyone that Aparna is talking to in her audience is South Asian. Like, even if everything stays the same, their deliveries are the same - you know what I mean? - the faces they make are the same, they just become different jokes in a different room.


DEMBY: Like, maybe the audience is giving them some reaction. In all these really important and subtle ways, it's a different bit, you know?

PARKER: Yeah. Like, OK. Something I took from a very brief comedy career is that in order for a good joke to work, you kind of need two things. Like, you need the audience to kind of share some understanding with you and the things or people you're referencing or whatever.

DEMBY: Right, right, right.

PARKER: And the joke needs to give the audience something to do.

DEMBY: Something to do - like, what do you mean by that?

PARKER: Well, comedians are always trying to make their audience co-conspirators in some way. So whether it's, you know, Chappelle who wants his audience to be complicit in his trolling, like, he says something transphobic, and then he laughs at his own joke, like a little kid who's caught saying something mischievous.

DEMBY: And then he's, like, giggling at the fact that he got them to laugh at something that they probably wouldn't laugh in a different context or that someone else couldn't say.

PARKER: Yeah, but, like, for all comedians, like the people we talked to, the laughter comes from letting the audience connect the dots, not from you walking them all the way to the punchline. And so I think what seems so neat and so brave about what the comedians like the people we spoke to - not like Chappelle or Cosby because ugh - but they have to just constantly assume that they can stitch together some understanding with a room full of strangers, and then those strangers will want to do a little work with them.

DEMBY: I mean, damn, when you put it like that, that sounds mad hard to pull off.

PARKER: Yeah, man. That's why I'm on the radio and not doing stand-up.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. You can follow us on IG @nprcodeswitch. I'm on Twitter @geedee215. Parker is @aparkusfarce. If emails more your thing, old timer, ours is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to this podcast on NPR One or wherever else you 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 and Steve Drummond.

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

PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

PARKER: Hydrate.


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 the 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.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.