In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Ponzi? Not-Ponzi? | Main | Elsewhere »

March 04, 2005

"The Kumars"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My quest for something worth watching on BBC America continues. Last night I sampled "The Kumars at No. 42," a partly-improvised high-concept sitcom about a quarrelsome/loving Indian-English family who run a TV talkshow out of a studio in their backyard.

The episode I watched was energized, rude, and funny. I found it fascinating that nearly all the humor came at the expense of the heavily-caricatured family members: Mom is obsessed by weddings and babies, Dad tells pointless stories and thinks of nothing but money, Grandma embarrasses everyone, and the flashy talkshow-host son is grandiose and vain. The show doesn't hesitate to elicit laughs from Indian accents. I have no idea what the cliches of Indian-immigrant life are, but I roared at many jokes anyway.

My main reflection on watching the show: how much I miss good-natured ethnic humor, and thank heavens for it when it does come around. Ethnic humor used to be -- for better and worse -- a rowdy staple of everyday American life, where it served not just as entertainment but also as a safety valve for the pressures generated by a nation made up of many ethnic groups.

Then came the the '70s, the '80s, the '90s ... Ethnic humor was vilified as insensitive, and then as un-P.C. And publically acknowledging ethnic characteristics became something that only members of the ethnicity in question were allowed to do. Black rappers could make a show of their "blackness" and call each other "Niggaz," but everybody else had to watch their step. A hip Jewish publication could name itself "Heeb" -- but no one who isn't Jewish dares to speak the word in public.

Awkward, awkward, awkward. The old arrangements had their crudeness but they didn't seem to leave everyone feeling touchily defiant, the way our new understandings do. Besides, what's the point? Like sex, ethnic humor will survive any attempt to suppress it. Attempts at suppression can make humor take nasty forms -- and it seemed to me that the ethnic jokes that people did tell (behind closed doors) got nastier and nastier. Perhaps -- and who could have anticipated this would happen? -- people resented the attempts at Thought Control; perhaps their resentment at PC boiled over into the jokes themselves.

New York has been a fascinating place from which to watch these developments play out because the city is an endless parade of ethnic types, if not outright stereotyypes. There's no pretending otherwise: rapper kids use up too much sidewalk space; earnest Asian students ride the subways comparing SAT scores; Jewish children boss their kvelling parents around; WASPs stick their noses in the air and do their best to hide from everyone else ... Yet nicely-behaved people must, they simply must, act as though none of these highly-visible goings-on are in fact taking place.

Like I say: awkward. But perhaps people are ready once again to loosen up about stereotypes and ethnic characteristics. (May we do so cheerfully, modestly, humorously, and respectfully, of course. At least most of the time.) Anyway, I for one am betting that we're ready to set aside these taboos. A few months ago The Wife and I saw a white standup comic do a number where he pretended to be hanging with a posse of white soulmates, who referred to each other as "Crackaz" -- and the young audience laughed happily when the comic got indignant because someone nonwhite dared to use the term. I took that as a sign that at least some young people think our current arrangements aren't much more than an absurd hoot.

And perhaps "The Kumars" is another hopeful sign. The show invites us to laugh at an Indian-immigrant family -- yet there's nothing ugly, oppressive, or exploitative about the exchange. It's OK. It's even fun. Hey: we're in this thing called Life together, and when you come right down to it we're all pretty damn ridiculous. I don't know whether I'll be watching their show again, but I was glad to be given the chance to meet and enjoy the Kumars.



posted by Michael at March 4, 2005


It seems to here has been an American version made of it as well, starring a Mexican family.

I've only seen the Australian clone, that stars a Greek family, and the Dutch that has a Surinamese one. In fact, the show format has been sold to seven countries. But I reckon non of those come even close to the standard of the British original.

Posted by: ijsbrand on March 4, 2005 8:03 PM

Ethnic humor:

Around 1980 I was teaching ESL to a class which was mostly Vietnamese boat people. We had an HS student aide in the class, a pleasant, unpretentious young white girl.

One day she said, "You know, the Vietnamese are nice people and everything, but why do they name their kids by dropping silverware?" (For example, we had a student named Phuong Dong, as I remember).

So was that racist? Well, the reason she was working with our class was because she spoke some Vietnamese. And she spoke Vietnamese because she had a Vietnamese boyfriend. And she was in our high school because in her previous HS the other white girls kept physically attacking her because of her boy friend.

So there's really no way you could call her a racist. She was just kidding around. (But at the same time, a racist could say exactly the same words, and mean them to be racist. But they would have to be accompanied with other stuff.)

So yeah, I think that that sterotyping is often a step toward assimilation.

Posted by: John Emerson on March 4, 2005 8:37 PM

Oh, come on, MB, we all know that the only possible reason for appreciating ethnic humor is to maintain the white male patriarchal dominance of all other races, sexes and ethnicities, which brands you once and for all as a racist, racist, RACIST!!!!!!!!!!

In fact, all forms of humor should obviously be banned. I was thinking that maybe we could keep humor aimed at the white male patriarchy, but you know those white male patriarchs, pretty soon they'd have it turned around and be subtly undercutting the forces of virtue. Nope, a total ban is the only safe way to go.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 5, 2005 2:02 AM

IJSbrand-- Thanks for the info. I should know these things before I go shooting my mouth off! I wonder how the show will work out in different cultures with different casts. It's so performer-dependent that it seems much more of a crapshoot than most. But the concept's great, and maybe that'll help carry it along.

John -- A related story (though it doesn't have to do with ethnic humor): "The Sopranos"? I've got one Italian-American friend who hates the show. Finds it insulting, is this far from wanting a law passed against it. But another Italian-American friend never misses an episode, and talks about the characters as though they're family. Hard to know what to make of these kinds of things. I guess my own preference is for people to show a little less resentment, a little more resilience, and a lot more humor. The effort of pretending that ethnic (sexual, class, national, trade, etc) characeteristics don't exist seems to me to create lots of resentment, and lots of idiocies too. Odd how the PC crowd, who love yakking about the virtues of openness, don't want people being open about these matters.

FvB -- You've seen through my rationalizations and straight to my agenda! Oppress 'em all! Actually, one of the funniest things about setting the white-male-patriarchy up as responsible for all the world's ills is that ... Well, isn't that giving them an awful lot of credit? Which kinda turns them into supermen (if evil ones) ... Which is kinda conceding that they are supermen. Is that really such a smart strategy?

You've got me remembering something too. Back when I was taking acting classes I used to enjoy imagining the kinds of movie roles I'd get a kick out of performing. One of my faves was playing "the white guy" in black movies. I love seeing white people through black eyes, and always thought it'd be great fun to try to bring one of those black-person's-version-of-white-people to life.

And that's another thing: we learn by taking in other people's responses to us. That's simply basic to life. Part of growing is learning to see ourselves through other people's eyes. But if self-expression is all that's permitted and others aren't allowed to have reactions or give feedback -- well, isn't that a situation that promotes immaturity?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2005 11:14 AM

There's no escape from humor, and it's a leveler, so the control freaks always want to suppress it. Their efforts to do so become fodder for more humor, which further weakens their control.

Old joke:

Q. How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. That's not funny.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 5, 2005 11:19 AM

Good points all.

Ethnic humor follows immigration. Check out these Edison cylinders of early vaudeville acts from the turn of the centruy, the height of our last immigration boom. Lots of ethnic stuff, including - horrors! - some minstrel acts! (Gasp!)

(Did you know that even the Marx Brothers were originally an ethnic act? Harpo Irish, Groucho German, Chico of course Italian, and Zeppo the all-American straightman. Dunno Gummo.)

It's only natural that in a melting pot country, populated by recent arrivals who've never left the ancestral village except to get on the boat, there'd be a certain amount of inter-ethnic consciousness. And it's only natural that that awareness would be dealt with in humor.

I don't know why the PC crowd can't be a bit more tolerant of the working classes that they profess to love.

PS - So who did throw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder anyway?

Posted by: Brian on March 5, 2005 1:40 PM


I saw the title of your post and opened it up with a little trepidation; would you "get" the Kumars? Or would you think it offensive? After all, English humour, even when practised by Indians, can be esoteric sometimes.

Of course, I needn't have worried. You got it straight away, and your impressions seem to have been much the same as mine - it's fun, and sometimes hilarious. Certainly not offensive.

So next I wondered whether you'd seen anything of a British comedian called Ali G. I know he's caused a stir with Americans who subscribe to whatever channel his show goes out on, but I'm not sure how widely known he is. He certainly caused a fuss when he first appeared on TV in Britain, and the controversy at the time illustrates perfectly what you were saying about awkwardness.

Ali G's a character who takes all the unattractive or absurd traits of a certain breed of young black urban men and magnifies them to the nth degree. There are plenty of comedians who mock the foolishness of some young white men in Britain, but doing the same to their black equivalents was regarded by some as going too far. Ali G's tracksuits, ostentatious jewellery, gauche sexism, fascination with cars and ridiculous street language was simply too accurate, coming from a white.

The reactions ranged from amusement to outrage. However, it eventually emerged (to the smug self-satisfaction of people like myself who "got" him from the beginning), that Ali G's real name was Sacha Baron-Cohen. Oh, he's Jewish! Well, that makes his humour alright!

How his Jewishness changed peoples' perceptions of his humour only added to the eccentricity of the original anger, in my view. I suppose people who'd watched his programme and declared it "disgusting" suddenly began to laugh along. Although it's doubtful if people who filter their comedy through their principles will ever really get people like Ali G.

Anyway, I think you might like him - he plays his mischievous tricks in equal measure on all types of people, from politicians to preachers. His object is subversion (If I can use that fashionable word about a simple comedian without being ridiculous myself).


Posted by: DaveVH on March 5, 2005 3:04 PM

Many Jewish comedians did "German acts" before being Jewish was cool. It was a genre, like Pat and Mike jokes. (Ten years ago my brother was a bartender at an old-man's-bar and one of his oldest customers told ethnic Irish jokes he heard when he was a kid.

When I was six I really hated the polka "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt", because of my middle name.

Posted by: John Jacob Emerson on March 5, 2005 3:29 PM

Ali G's thing, was very much ethic based humor in the make you uncomfortable "what exactly is he" kinda way, is he black? is he arab? Should i be laughing at this,? Is he actually that stupid? You could tell right away that he put the people he interviewed in the EXACT wrong position that they would ever want to be... you could see people worrying about coming off as very very unPC to him. Then again, those gems he interviewed that were aware enough to see through his schtick also found him funny and gave great interviews. This was lost once he became known, and that ability to spur the moment of "what-the-bleep was lost."
Maybe the fact that he was jewish just made it more palatable maybe to a lot of people. But got that that ethnic humor, is all in the intent of the person who's doing it and the person who's reacting to it, and that's what made him funny... (that might make him a meta-ethnic comedian!)

And i think that's the key to ethnic humor, it's in the intent, which is why some words ARE off limit because they have historical and culturally implicit intent. the "N" words have had a history of terrible intent, which is why you can see the struggle in the black community over whether its ok to "own" the word Nigger. Is the fact that african americans use the word defusing it's cultural impact, or is it used the way it's historically been used as the worst of ephitets. Once again it comes back to intent.

Posted by: azad on March 5, 2005 8:01 PM

I just love the "Kumars", following the success of the show we now have an Indianized version airing on Indian channel Star World called "Batlibois on 43".

I study the "Indian Diaspora", they crack me up funnily and uneasily.

Posted by: Cecilia on March 6, 2005 10:47 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?