Sunday, June 07, 2009

Urban Funnybone

(I'm trying to get back in the habit of writing this blog--more on that to come).

As I'm sure everyone in the urban blogosphere already knows, there were two really hilarious--and insightful--"tourist" videos for Cleveland published on youtube recently. If for some reason you missed them, you can see them both at the following links:

* Video #1
* Video #2

The first video is a little less snarky and a lot more funny. The second one is also hilarious, but its humor is more mean-spirited. The videos generated quite a bit of discussion. Much of the feedback on the subject has focused on (1) whether its a fair depiction of the city, (2) whether the humor is in good/poor taste, and (3) what can Cleveland do to remedy its problems. I think other commenters have addressed these concerns thoroughly, so I'll keep my remarks limited to an analysis of the humor itself. In particular, I'm interested in examining the assumptions of race and poverty that underlie many of the jokes. Consider the following punchlines:

Video 1: A shot of a downtown Cleveland bus stop, where a few dozen people wait for buses. Voiceover: "Watch the poor people all wait for buses."

Video 1: A shot of a guy talking on a pay phone downtown. Voiceover: "Who the fuck still uses a pay phone?"

Video 1: A shot of a downtown sidewalk. A normal-looking guy walks past a drifter-looking guy; the drifter pivots around to follow the normal-looking person, implying that panhandling (or mugging?) is a frame away. Voiceover: "Cleveland leads the nation in drifters."

There are a few common themes to the jokes listed above. Certainly, they're all pretty funny. But they also reflect some serious, depressing elements of life in a depressed city.

Theme #1: Poor people are disproportionately black. Take a closer look at the videos. You'll notice that black people are significantly over-represented in the jokes that poke fun of poor folk. While there are certainly prosperous middle-class black suburbs in Cleveland, there's also a lot of poverty among inner-city black Clevelanders. This is clearly reflected in the videos. Maybe it's a funny punchline, but it's sad too.

Theme #2: Poverty is visible in downtown. Remember, most middle-class Clevelanders do not live in Cleveland. They live in the inner, and now outer, ring suburbs. Their main point of contact with the city itself is downtown, where there are still around 150,000 jobs. While there is plenty of visible poverty in areas outside of downtown, the videos focus on downtown. The depictions of human poverty are very much focused on that portion of the city. Who the fuck still uses a pay phone? Poor people, that's who. At least, that's the implicit point-of-view that makes that line a joke. I'll leave it to you to decide if it's funny.

Theme #3: Poverty implies violence and crime. The Cleveland-leads-the-nation-in-drifters bit shows a drifter trailing after an ordinary resident. The implied message: watch out for those crazy, impoverished drifter folk. They're waiting for any opportunity to mug you. (For more amusement on those lines, go read the lyrics from 'Class' from the Chicago soundtrack).

With all that said, I'm not writing about these particular videos because I dislike them. Quite the contrary: I think they're hilarious. I've watched them many times, and they consistently get a laugh out of me. I lived in Cleveland for long enough to appreciate the dark humor in those videos. But it's worth examining the underlying assumptions and experiences that make those elements of city life into viable jokes. Race and poverty are strong undercurrents in Cleveland's affairs; indeed, in the affairs of many American cities, not just the Rust Belt. The Cleveland tourism videos are a telling example of these unresolved, ongoing issues.


Anonymous Angie said...

I like this post a lot. I actually am one of the few people I know who didn't like that video. Some of the points were funny but a lot weren't. I mean, jobs leaving Cleveland? That's actually very sad. It really makes me sad to see people lined up for food the way you do in Cleveland and Toledo and other mid-west cities. I just thought it was a cheap shot, not very clever or insightful.

My friend said they play that song like every morning on the radio in Columbus. Sheesh.

10:40 PM  

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