Entertainment Industry and other works

by Ellen Gillingham

The Black Nerd: How Donald Glover Exemplifies American Humor

A compelling argument can be made for Donald Glover as the hardest worker in entertainment today.  Donald Glover is a young American actor, writer, comedian, and musician.  He started with Derrick Comedy, an internet sketch comedy group from New York University.  Presently, Glover plays Troy Barnes on the NBC sitcom Community.  The creator Dan Harmon discovered and offered him the part after attended a showing of a film created by Derrick Comedy, Mystery Team.  Glover’s stand-up special aired on Comedy Central on March 19, 2010.  One year later, Glover taped a one hour comedy special Weirdo for Comedy Central, in which we see many humor theories at play.  The superiority, machine, incongruity, and release theories all apply to many works of Donald Glover.

Weirdo starts with a taxicab scene, as Glover is on his way to the show talking to the driver about how his mother is seeing his stand-up for the first time.  This shows Glover as relatable and honest.  The viewer sees that his comedy starts with the facts.  Humor must be true in order for us to laugh (Morreall).  This candid scene and personal story show Glover’s values and personality.  This scene creates a connection for viewers like me, who also find family important, so Glover becomes relatable.  In addition, the viewer sees Glover laughing as the taxi driver yells out the window at another driver.  The aggression is as Laurence Mintz writes, part of how humor makes us feel good (Mintz).  Overall, the scene shows that he is a real person with American values.

Then Glover is on stage introducing his act, saying that is it “not like Community, it’s a lot grosser” (Glover, Weirdo).  The relief theory applies to this statement for those who want to see something new.  Because jokes are a way of expressing taboo wishes and humor mines repressed sources of pleasure in the unconscious, Glover foreshadowing his “disgusting” jokes allows the audience to look forward to the release of psychological tension (Morreall 16).  The audience can expect Glover to take them from

Politically, Glover includes a piece about his support and connection to Barack Obama because he is a “black nerd” (Glover, Comedy Central Presents).  Glover attacks not only actual public figures, but also fictional characters throughout his acts.  Glover is putting the “black nerd” in the spotlight by pointing out their downfalls.  Insulting famous African-American Sitcom figure, Steve Urkel, Glover pokes fun at and spotlights “black nerds.”  Glover jokes, “Urkel was retarded, let’s be honest.  No, he was.  If there was a kid named Steve Urkel who went to your school — dressed like Steve Urkel, eating cheese all the time, always asking this girl named Laura to marry him — you’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, Steve.  His brother hit him in the head with a brick when he was five” (Glover, Comedy Central Presents).  Glover creates a connection to his viewer in how this iconic character was a misfit.  Through this play on others failures, Glover obtains power over the audience as they gain a false sense of superiority over those insulted during the act.

Simultaneously, Glover thanks Obama for being a new icon, replacing Urkel and nationalizing the nerd culture and redefining it to include Glover and Kanye West because they “like strange specific stuff” (Glover, Comedy Central Presents).  The main targets in this joke come from his own weakness, which is his incapability to fit in.  Glover attacks those who society considers “nerds” and he as well as other public figures fit into this stereotype.  Kanye West is a black nerd because “he likes strange, specific stuff.  If you go up to Kanye West and say, ‘Hey, what are your favorite things?’ He’ll be like, ‘Robots and teddy bears.’ That’s a nerd” (Glover, Comedy Central Presents).  It is obvious through the joke that play on the definition of a nerd is enough to amuse the viewer because he is separating out the obsessions of those who society considers outcasts.  In addition, his play on the concept of a “black nerd” lets the audience to feel superior not because of race, but acceptance.  Black nerds are socially “illegal” as the stereotype is that black people follow athletes and rappers.  Rather than continue to force himself to mesh with the black stereotype or establish a strong connection the popular kids, Glover utilizes the machine theory, fully personifying the concept of the “black nerd.”  Incongruously, by Glover exemplifying the exact definition of his “black nerd,” he plays off his own weaknesses.  Glover’s standup alienates others, including him, in order to promote laughter because of imperfections.  However, he does not generally associate himself with many specific political issues.

Except in 2010, he was drawn into racial politics willingly.  In his comedy special, Glover tells the audience how a fan suggested him for the role of Peter Parker in the film, The Amazing Spider-Man.  The campaign only started to see how far new media could carry a message.  Surprisingly, Spider-Man creator Stan Lee allowed Glover to audition.  This situation is funny for many reasons.  It is based on truth and plays on the incongruity theory.  The blogger who made the suggestion did so in a non-serious manor, so it was incongruous that the creator of Spider-Man actually considered Glover for the role of Peter Parker.  Because the more specific you are, the funnier the statement is, Glover’s joke is extremely funny (Friend 90).  He references the specific blog, film, and forms of communication in the situation.  Politically, the joke is about getting a black person into a prime position in the superhero index.  Glover was infuriated by how racism can “make kids feel like they do not exist” (Glover, Best Of Hard Knock TV).  Glover inspired a black Spider-Man comic book series, even though Stan Lee cased a white Spider-Man in the film.  Therefore, he did do something positive for the black nerd community after all.  His work is based on putting others, including himself, down for the benefit of the crowd leading to a high success rate.

After that, Glover does a longer piece on kids.  He shows how kids do not have empathy yet, so they are terrible people.  In explaining this, he applies machine theory by acting in exaggerated ways representing terribly misbehaved children.  This leads to his comparison of babies to AIDS.  The joke starts with incongruity theory as Glover “would much rather have AIDS than a baby” (Glover, Weirdo).  One would expect the opposite because AIDS is disease with dreadful symptoms, while children can be considered a blessing and our future.  Glover persists with how similar the two are: “expensive, you have them for the rest of your life, they’re constant reminders of the mistakes you’ve made, and once you have them you pretty much can only date other people who have them … The only difference is you can’t go to jail by accidently dropping AIDS” (Glover, Weirdo).  “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees” (Friend 80).  The viewer is surprised at the number of connections between two things that are mostly different.  Glover is especially surprising in listing the benefits of AIDS over a baby, which people normally would not expect.  By communicating this in a joking mannor, Glover creates a nonserious mindset for the audience.  The humor recipient understands that in this context, they “need not be critical of discrimination against the targeted group” (Ford and Ferguson 81).  Thus, people are less likely to see the situation as one in which they may offend the group.

Glover’s comedic creations of American humor show through evidence of truth and the superiority, machine, relief, and incongruity theories; one can effectively communicate a message, while amusing an audience.  His message that one should always be oneself despite societal pressures is something to live by and an important reason to take humor seriously.


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