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Old 01-09-2020, 05:51 AM
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Comedy foreign accents and racism


I make a few scambaiting videos on YouTube, mainly about email scams, most of which originate from countries in Africa.

A very frequently-asked question I get is "Why don't you real the emails in a funny Indian accent?"
(People are asking this because the majority of *phone-based* scams seem to be from call centres in India - and baiting these scammers is the predominant form of the scambaiting genre on YouTube now - but what I do is not the same)

But I feel like the 'comedy Indian accent', especially when it is done specifically to lampoon the supposed mannerisms of a race or culture from the outside, is sort of nearly all the way alongside blackface in terms of how (un)acceptable it is. It was accepted in the past, but it belongs in the past.

Thing is, I have quite inconsistent feelings on this depending on who is the target nationality, but I think a lot of that comes back to the intent of the piece - for example, in the British comedy 'Allo 'Allo! British, German, French and Italian accents are all used as comic devices (and the accents are absolutely essential to the material as the characters all speak English, but those speaking with an English accent cannot understand those with, for example, a French accent), but it seems like this was all harmless comedy. Was it, or do I just have a blind spot for this kind of example?
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Old 01-09-2020, 06:03 AM
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Originally Posted by Mangetout View Post
I make a few scambaiting videos on YouTube, mainly about email scams, most of which originate from countries in Africa.

A very frequently-asked question I get is "Why don't you real the emails in a funny Indian accent?"
(People are asking this because the majority of *phone-based* scams seem to be from call centres in India - and baiting these scammers is the predominant form of the scambaiting genre on YouTube now - but what I do is not the same)

But I feel like the 'comedy Indian accent', especially when it is done specifically to lampoon the supposed mannerisms of a race or culture from the outside, is sort of nearly all the way alongside blackface in terms of how (un)acceptable it is. It was accepted in the past, but it belongs in the past.

Thing is, I have quite inconsistent feelings on this depending on who is the target nationality, but I think a lot of that comes back to the intent of the piece - for example, in the British comedy 'Allo 'Allo! British, German, French and Italian accents are all used as comic devices (and the accents are absolutely essential to the material as the characters all speak English, but those speaking with an English accent cannot understand those with, for example, a French accent), but it seems like this was all harmless comedy. Was it, or do I just have a blind spot for this kind of example?
No, you've just illustrated once again why punching down vs punching up (or sideways, really, in the case of 'Allo 'Allo) is a real thing.

So, recent example - Romesh Ranganathan can get away with putting on a fake "Oh My Golly-Gosh" accent at the Royal Variety. Rob Beckett could not.

Where I find a bit of a grey area in UK comedy is regional accents, because there's often quite a classist slant to someone doing e.g. Scouser or Glawegian. But not always. I tend to judge case-by-case.
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Old 01-09-2020, 06:06 AM
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Our sensitivities change over time. I wasn't alive when blackface was all the rage, but I'm not sure it was all that insulting then. Was there a lot of criticism in 1900? I doubt it.

One possibility for this change is the shrinking world. >100 years ago, the average Joe wasn't exposed to as much variety and diversity as now. Perhaps hearing a foreign accent on stage was quite a different experience than today. Improved communications has re-melted our pot.
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Old 01-09-2020, 06:47 AM
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Our sensitivities change over time. I wasn't alive when blackface was all the rage, but I'm not sure it was all that insulting then. Was there a lot of criticism in 1900? I doubt it.
Possibly because no one gave a shit what black people had to say back then ?
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Old 01-09-2020, 07:27 AM
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Originally Posted by MrDibble View Post
No, you've just illustrated once again why punching down vs punching up (or sideways, really, in the case of 'Allo 'Allo) is a real thing.

So, recent example - Romesh Ranganathan can get away with putting on a fake "Oh My Golly-Gosh" accent at the Royal Variety. Rob Beckett could not.

Where I find a bit of a grey area in UK comedy is regional accents, because there's often quite a classist slant to someone doing e.g. Scouser or Glawegian. But not always. I tend to judge case-by-case.
Thanks - and I think whilst it's not always possible to know intent, there is a difference between:
"X people talk funny - listen to me talking funny like a person of race X - don't I sound a funny and stupid?"
and
"Here's a funny situation when people with this accent/culture say this specific thing"

- They're both stereotypes, but the latter seems like it would be something the targets could maybe laugh along with; the former is just mockery for its own sake
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Old 01-09-2020, 07:37 AM
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Originally Posted by Musicat View Post
Our sensitivities change over time. I wasn't alive when blackface was all the rage, but I'm not sure it was all that insulting then. Was there a lot of criticism in 1900? I doubt it.

One possibility for this change is the shrinking world. >100 years ago, the average Joe wasn't exposed to as much variety and diversity as now. Perhaps hearing a foreign accent on stage was quite a different experience than today. Improved communications has re-melted our pot.
I'm old enough to have seen The Black And White Minstrels on TV. It just seemed at the time that it was a thing that happened - if anyone was concerned about it at the time (and I can imagine people probably were), their voice was nowhere heard in the media or popular culture. Casual, but quite overt racism was popular in all forms of comedy - and standup comedians such as Jim Davidson performed material on stage and TV containing all manner of racial slurs, and nobody did anything, because nobody seemed to think anything needed doing.

Only over time did the world gradually change- looking back with today's eyes, it's quite horrific, but at the time, there was a sort of collective ignorance just accepting it all - a collective ignorance that we were all both conditioned by, and contributing to.
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Old 01-09-2020, 07:40 AM
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Originally Posted by Mangetout View Post
But I feel like the 'comedy Indian accent', especially when it is done specifically to lampoon the supposed mannerisms of a race or culture from the outside, is sort of nearly all the way alongside blackface in terms of how (un)acceptable it is. It was accepted in the past, but it belongs in the past.
I think you're right. The point is the obvious idiocy of the scam, not the fact that the scammers (however idiotic) are [insert ethnicity here], which putting on a "comedy" accent (which most people can't do as convincingly as they think anyway) just draws attention to.
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Old 01-09-2020, 08:22 AM
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I think you're right. The point is the obvious idiocy of the scam, not the fact that the scammers (however idiotic) are [insert ethnicity here], which putting on a "comedy" accent (which most people can't do as convincingly as they think anyway) just draws attention to.
Yeah, on that latter part, I'm pretty sure I'd end up also insulting at least the Welsh, and probably others too (for some reason, bad comedy Indian accents often morph into bad comedy Welsh)

Last edited by Mangetout; 01-09-2020 at 08:22 AM.
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Old 01-09-2020, 09:02 AM
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I agree with you. I think if you read a stupid scambaiting email in a 'comedy' Nigerian (say) accent, the message would shift towards "look how stupid this person is because they are Nigerian" - which is not the point at all. That's what would make it racist - you would be using the accent of a whole bunch of people, many millions of whom are presumably extremely intelligent and decent people, to imply that was a part of the stupidity of this particular scammer.

But yes, context is important and things change over time. I recently (in passing) quoted from the famous Fawlty Towers "The Germans" episode (first broadcast 1976). Then I found it on YouTube to rewatch it for the first time in years, and found it much more cringeworthy than I'd remembered. I mean, in a way it's OK because the Germans are portrayed as intelligent (most of them speak excellent English, for a start), kind, polite, and extremely tolerant, in contrast to Basil Fawlty's completely crass behaviour - which in itself is sort of 'excused' by him suffering from concussion. But I suspect a lot of the audience are laughing with deranged Basil, not at him, and it wouldn't fly today.
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Old 01-09-2020, 03:29 PM
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I guess Mangetout isn't interested in buying my collection of Bill Dana albums.
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Old 01-09-2020, 07:20 PM
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So many issues in comedy seem contentious but overwrought. Multilingual guys like Russell Peters and Trevor Noah are hilarious at doing different accents. So is Stephen Colbert or Maria Bamford.

But they are comedians. If you use a different accent, it will detract from your message. And, like comedians, some people won’t find it amusing and take offence. Others won’t understand it or watch the rest of the video. It’s a big risk, and not by itself particularly amusing or clever. The world has progressed since Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
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Old 01-10-2020, 12:22 PM
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Mangetout, I've watched a few of your scambaiting videos, though I guess I'm in the minority in that they're not my favourite content on your channel. I usually prefer your more show-and-tell (and taste) type videos. I am skeptical of the concept of "punching up vs. down vs. sideways", both for reasons of freedom of expression (I don't feel there should be subjects out of bounds for comedy) and because determining who is privileged and who isn't in a particular situation can be very hard and subject to acrimonious debate. What someone would consider punching up, I might very well consider punching down. So I don't feel it's a very useful heuristic.

As you point out, the messages you get usually come from West Africa (or the Middle East, sometimes from Southeast Asian countries), not India. The only way I would consider faking an Indian accent when reading the messages to be a useful and funny device would be if it obviously came from India, used clear English Indianisms, and especially if the scammer claimed to be British. You already do this to some extent, pointing out that a scammer who pretends to be British uses syntax that a native English speaker would never use. In this case, it would be a case of "yeah, we know where you're really from". Even then, I'm not sure I'd recommend it unless you can make a very convincing accent. And frankly I think my opinion would be similar in the case of other national accents. To be honest, it's better (and way funnier) to have Italian musicians write songs about the emails you get.
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Old 01-10-2020, 08:54 PM
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Originally Posted by Dead Cat View Post
But yes, context is important and things change over time. I recently (in passing) quoted from the famous Fawlty Towers "The Germans" episode (first broadcast 1976). Then I found it on YouTube to rewatch it for the first time in years, and found it much more cringeworthy than I'd remembered. I mean, in a way it's OK because the Germans are portrayed as intelligent (most of them speak excellent English, for a start), kind, polite, and extremely tolerant, in contrast to Basil Fawlty's completely crass behaviour - which in itself is sort of 'excused' by him suffering from concussion. But I suspect a lot of the audience are laughing with deranged Basil, not at him, and it wouldn't fly today.
I can remember watching this episode when it was first broadcast in the US in the 70s, and I was definitely laughing at him, not with him. Basil Fawlty was a moron. That was like the whole point of the show.
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Old 01-10-2020, 08:58 PM
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So many issues in comedy seem contentious but overwrought. Multilingual guys like Russell Peters and Trevor Noah are hilarious at doing different accents. So is Stephen Colbert or Maria Bamford.
I think about when Trevor Noah does accents: the taco truck guy, Nelson Mandela, the French asshole at the snake show, etc. His accents are funny, but they're not there to reinforce stereotypes. The taco truck guy isn't some stereotypical Mexican, the French guy is a jerk but not really in a specifically French way, Nelson Mandela is Nelson Mandela, not a stereotyped South African.

The more the accent plays into a stereotype, the thinner the ice you tread on. Also, the less funny the joke. People asking for a funny Indian accent for a scammer aren't exactly requesting a revolution in comedic ideas here.
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Old 01-11-2020, 08:29 AM
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I agree. If the accent IS the joke, it probably isn’t much of a joke. An accent can enhance a joke which is already funny. But it would probably be misinterpreted.
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