Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bridging The Cultural Divide

Looking through these readings I was reminded of two intersecting videos, the first a sketch from the comedian Louis C.K about "white trash" from a performance a few years back and the other a video by the comedian/ actor/ performance artist Andy Kaufman from the early 1980s. What's strange now is how different the two videos are, while Louis C.K. appraisal of white trash is funny and seemingly neutral, Kaufman's assesment of the working class is deeply disturbing, though this likely has more two do with the comedians than does the issue of classism, it's interesting none the less.

Louis CK in positioning himself as a member of the lower class (which he is not) neutralizes the issue of material wealth class and instead makes class an issue of
local -- he uses "white trash" to describe people from "upstate" rather than those of less substantial means and what begins as a conversation about wealth ultimately becomes device when taking about geography.

What Louis CK is particularly good at, is separating himself from his comedy. By reporting the assertions of society, rather than his own views, he implicates us all. In doing so the responsibility is either spread among us all or transfered to another (abstract) group entirely. As a result his humor remains funny without making him seem to antagonistic or personal.

This separation from subject puts him in an odd critical position and forces us to reconsider the power structure implicit in any kind of evaluation of the other.

That relationship is played up in this video from Andy Kaufman in which he becomes the unquestionable oppressor in a highly antagonistic, confrontational video which is funny only in its incredible unease. Unlike Louis CKs video which is funny and neutral, this video is highly disturbing in a way that immediately makes the viewer uncomfortable. Here Kaufman villainizes himself and helps us sympathize with the underclass only through his own spectacular oppression.


  1. Not especially important, but perhaps worth mentioning: the Louis CK clip is from Skirball.

  2. It's strange to me that Louis CK refers to residents of upstate New York as being white trash since i feel like we don't normally associate that region as being hick-ish. He also brings up an excellent point by saying that the term "white trash" is the only racial term that people don't get offended at, not even white people.

    Kaufman's video was very political charged with a strong message and i couldn't help but feel, like you said, uneasy when watching it because he didn't assume the same, friendly, "i'm on your side" attitude that Louis did. Kaufman is a nutzo.

  3. Yes he is and I can tell you --being a native new yorker displaced upstate for the last few years --that it is as hick-ish as anything you'll find down south.

  4. Fantastic juxtaposition of the two videos. The Kaufman video made me really uncomfortable, while I laughed out loud at the Louis CK place. I wonder if both comedians were coming from the same place, that is, trying to make a positive statement about class politics. Louis CK does it by emphasizing his own class position as working class, but Kaufman does it by taking the metanarrative of class to its logical conclusion: that rich people are better than poor people, and that the bodies of the poor become literal commodities. I think the latter makes us more uncomfortable, not only because Kaufman is very confrontational, but because he combines it with breaking taboos of gender and violence as well, while saying out loud things that may be implied in popular discourse but are never said.