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Laugh Lines

The Baltimore Sun

In his trademark deadpan delivery, comic Larry Lancaster tells the audience at Magooby's Joke House that underachieving African-American men like him are ambivalent about Barack Obama's election to the highest office in the land.

"A lot of black guys have mixed feelings about Obama being president," Lancaster says. "Now, we have no more excuses. Every time someone says, 'Hey, Tyrone, how come you don't have a job?' we can't say, 'Damn, The Man is holding me down.' "

Lancaster switches roles, enacting the part of Tyrone's heckler. He takes a small step forward on the stage and flips one palm out dismissively. His tone becomes suffused with sarcasm:

"Oh, really? Then how come we got a black president? You're The Man now. Are you saying you're holding yourself down?"

When Obama took the oath of office on Tuesday (and Wednesday), he altered not only the political and social landscape of the United States, but the comedic one as well. If humor and satire are predicated on the notion of the oppressed speaking truth to power, it suddenly has become more difficult for comedians to portray black Americans as beaten down. Because the public heavily supports the new president, professional comics are treating Obama with uncommon restraint. They're wrestling with who gets to poke fun at the nation's first black president - and how.

"Obama is reconfiguring the narrative of black people as victims," says Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California. But Jacobs-Huey, who is writing a book about expressions of race in stand-up comedy, warns that discrimination didn't magically disappear with the inauguration.

"We have a temporary reprieve from racial profiling," she says. "But there's no doubt that racism still exists, and that people are still being disenfranchised."

As Lancaster, 39, tells his African-American fans: "Now that Obama is in office, it's not like every day is going to be National Negro Day. Finally, we have a black president. But we all still report to white supervisors."

Comedy has long tested the bounds of racial dialogue and understanding. The mix has erupted several times in recent years. Don Imus lost his job as a radio shock-jock for eight months after making racially insensitive comments that he said were an ill-advised attempt at humor. Michael Richards, best known for playing Kramer on Seinfeld, retired from stand-up comedy after being caught by a video camera hurling slurs at black hecklers.

African-American performers have always had an easier time talking about race than white funnymen. Race-based comedy reached new heights in the 1970s with Richard Pryor; more recently, Chris Rock and Bernie Mac found new limits to test.

Lancaster is hunting for those new boundaries when he asks the audience at Magooby's in Parkville to rearrange their mental picture of the country's new chief of state:

"Can you imagine Barack as a pimp?" Lancaster asks. "He's smo-o-o-th. No lady would be safe. He makes everything he says sound presidential."

Lancaster rattles off a few standard pimp pick-up lines - he heard more than one in his former line of work as a guard in the Maryland prison system. But he intones the come-ons in Obama's modulated vowels and precise enunciation:

"Ladies, you need to make your next move, your best move. Get rid of that zero, and get with a hero."

The crowd laughs hard.

Because Lancaster is black, at Magooby's he got away with depicting the 44th president in an unsavory light. Someone such as The Late Show's David Letterman probably could not.

"I can't think of any of the white comics we monitor who could go there," says Donald Rieck, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Not even Stephen Colbert, and he pushes the envelope on those things."

According to data collected by the center, which is based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Obama was the target of 769 jokes told in 2008 by late-night television hosts. That was about half the jests lobbed at the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, and two-thirds of the comic arrows aimed at President George W. Bush. It's worth noting that the five hosts of the late-night shows monitored by the Media Center - Jon Stewart, Colbert, Jay Leno, Letterman and Conan O'Brien - are all white males.

"Race is such a hot-button issue in our society," Rieck says. "The writers for these shows have to be careful. They don't know how to play it. Black comedians are more comfortable talking about blackness than white comedians."

The content of the jests was just as tilted as the overall numbers.

"The jokes about [Sarah] Palin, Bush and McCain were personal," Rieck says. "They were about McCain's age, and Sarah Palin's past as a beauty pageant contestant and about her aw-shucks, Annie Oakley quality, about her shooting wolves from a helicopter. The jokes about Obama were about things outside his control, like his deification by the media during his trip to the Middle East."

Partly, Obama has remained immune because it's hard for comics to get a grip on him. He is a model of self-control and has yet to exhibit any humorous foibles. Saturday Night Live, which has set the standard for satirizing presidents ever since Chevy Chase did pratfalls as Gerald Ford, has struggled to find a way to play Obama for laughs. The show was criticized last fall for having a Venezuelan and Japanese comic, Fred Armisen, play Obama in tan makeup.

"Obama is a brilliant speaker and he's very handsome," says Mickey Cucchiella, 40, co-host of 98 Rock's morning show, Mickey, Amelia & Spiegel. "Luckily for comics, Obama has Dumbo-sized ears."

Symbol of hope

Obama also has become a symbol of hope at a time of war on two fronts and a tattered economy. Humorists carefully monitor the mood of their audience and may be picking up that their jaundiced perspective won't go over well with a crowd wearing rose-colored glasses.

As Cucchiella, who is white, puts it: "You can't truly mock someone you venerate."

Experts trace the roots of comedy in the U.S. to the minstrel shows that flourished between 1830 and 1910, in which whites performed in blackface. These shows were, at one time, the most popular entertainment in the U.S., according to documentary filmmakers Darby Li Po Price and Teja Arboleda, and they perpetuated degrading stereotypes of mammies and other stock characters. In the 1930s, African-American actor Lincoln Perry became a millionaire by portraying for laughs a character called Stepin Fetchit, "the laziest man in the world."

"Black performers had to embody certain stock characters before a white audience," Jacobs-Huey says, "but they would then lampoon those same stereotypes before a black audience."

So from its inception, comedy in the U.S. was tinged with race. And from its earliest days, it has been subversive, the province of the downtrodden.

"Historically, comedy has appealed more to a working-class audience than to the upper class," says Price, who teaches ethnic studies at two California colleges. He and Arboleda made a film about multiracial comics called Crossing The Line that has been broadcast recently on PBS stations.

"The upper classes favored tragedy and serious narratives, which tend to uphold the dominant social norms," Price says. "In comedy, the audiences side with the comic more if he's attacking people ... higher up the social ladder. It's a different class culture."

A place for Gerard

It's easy to trace the modern-day incarnation of the buffoon from the minstrel shows to a drug-addicted character named Gerard whom Lancaster, a native Baltimorean, performs for an African-American audience at Melba's Place in Waverly.

But the Gerard character never appears at Magooby's, where the audience is predominantly white.

"It would be like going blackface in front of a white audience," Lancaster says. "Certain jokes I won't do. First, a white audience won't catch the nuances. Or if they do, they'll misinterpret them."

For their part, white comics have to tread cautiously when commenting about minority cultures. Cucchiella is steeped in local mores; he grew up in Baltimore and lives in Baldwin. But he won't perform his race material unless his audience includes a sizable contingent of African-Americans.

"I don't like to make fun of people who aren't there to defend themselves," he says. "That isn't a comedy act. It's a Klan rally."

Before the election, one of Cucchiella's signature routines was a joke about a racial epithet.

"I haven't done that bit since September," he says. "I've been struggling with it, trying to figure out how to change it, how to grow it up. I've never once had a black person object to that joke. But Obama has generated so much pride in the black community, and I'm afraid that if I do that bit, people will misunderstand my intention."

Cucchiella is committed to finding a way to lampoon Obama without giving offense. Stand-up comedians have license to criticize the nation's leaders, and for many it's their reason for existing. "I'd hate to think that Obama is off-limits," Cucchiella says. "He's my president. I voted for him. I'm not offended as a white person if a black comic makes fun of George Bush. The president isn't white, black or Hispanic. He speaks for all of us. I will eventually figure out a way to use him as material."

More leeway for blacks

Lancaster thinks that black comedians will always have more leeway than their white counterparts to mock Obama.

"There are certain figures in history whom we as a people are enamored of, and who we claim as our own," he says, and then ticks off a few: "Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King Jr. And now, Barack Obama.

"If you're going to take shots at one of them, you better know what you're doing. People better not sniff out that you're coming from a racist place. If they do, you won't be able to hide behind being a comic."

The closest that Lancaster comes to making fun of Obama himself is when he takes the 44th president to task for selecting Joe Biden as his running mate.

"Why would Obama pick such a highly qualified and attractive person as his successor, when he knows there are people in this country who want to shoot him?" Lancaster asks.

"Me - I'm selfish. I'd have picked Flavor Flav. It would be the first time in history that the vice president got assassinated before his boss."

You can read a lot into that joke. Lancaster gets a lot of mileage from his comic juxtaposition of two very different images of black men: Flav, a rapper known for his on-stage clowning and garish costumes, and Obama, the dignified, cerebral former professor of constitutional law.

Society has become accustomed to the former, Lancaster seems to be saying. That's an image that has been around for quite some time - since at least the 1830s.

But the second guy? That image is newer.

Sometimes, progress can be measured one punch line at a time.

larry lancaster

Age: 39

Residence: Baltimore

Raised: One of 10 children

Occupation: Stand-up comic

Education: Graduated from Carver High School of the Arts in Towson

Military service: Served in the U.S. Army in the Persian Gulf from 1989-1992

Preparation for stand-up: Worked as a guard in the Maryland prison system from 1992-2006

Catch him at: Most Sunday nights at Melba's Place, 3126 Greenmount Ave.

Personal: Single, one daughter and one son

mickey cucchiella

Age: 40

Residence: Baldwin

Raised: Lauraville Occupation: Stand-up comic, co-host of Mickey, Amelia & Spiegel on 98 Rock.

Education: High school drop-out

Preparation for standup: Digging ditches, managing Baltimore-area bars (including Hammerjacks), telling jokes between sets of a garage band

Catch him at: 98 Rock (97.9 FM) from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays, or at www.shortmick.com

Personal: Married, one 5-year-old daughter, and two sons, ages 4 and 2

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