Netflix and Hulu recently caved to the Woke mob by pulling more than a dozen episodes of popular TV shows that feature characters in blackface.
Included in the list of shows no longer available for streaming: four episodes of NBC’s “30 Rock” and three episodes of NBC’s “Scrubs.” An episode of NBC’s “The Office” was edited to cut a scene that featured blackface, and an episode of NBC’s “Golden Girls” also got pulled. Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” apologized for wearing blackface in a skit back when he was on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
It’s ironic that NBC fired Megyn Kelly from the “Today” show for merely discussing on a current events program whether blackface is always inherently racist or if it could be acceptable in some contexts, especially considering that NBC apparently has a long and recent history of using blackface in its programs. It’s also weird that it took almost two years after Megyn Kelly got fired for those episodes to finally get pulled.
In their zeal to purge potentially offensive and racially insensitive content from their libraries, both streaming services also pulled the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode of NBC’s “Community.” That was a mistake.
This is not a defense of blackface as a comedic device. It’s an argument that this particular episode was not racist and should therefore be restored.
That said, anything can be funny if done properly, even if inappropriate. And there’s also a strong argument to be made that none of the episodes should have been pulled even if they are now considered offensive, but that’s not the focus here.
Minor SPOILERS ahead.
“Community” is an NBC show about a study group at a community college that ran from 2009 to 2015. The show was created by Dan Harmon, who later created the wildly popular animated series “Rick and Morty.” But unlike that hit show, “Community” constantly struggled in the ratings (despite a great cast and terrific writing). The ratings sunk so low that after five seasons it was booted from the NBC lineup and the show finished its sixth and final season on Yahoo Screen (a failed attempt by Yahoo to get into the streaming game.) But the show is now enjoying a resurgence as people discover it online.
In Season 2 Episode 14, the study group gathers to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The intro establishes this as the most important game of D&D that has ever been played – a game with the power to save a life. Senor Chang (played by Ken Jeong) shows up in pitch black makeup with a white wig and pointy ears, prompting Shirley (played by Yvette Nicole Brown) to ask, “So we’re just going to ignore that hate crime, huh?” Chang dismisses her by saying “I’m a dark elf, or a drow.”
That’s it. That’s the entire reason the episode got pulled. But here’s the thing: he isn’t wearing blackface. Blackface was historically used in minstrel shows to portray black people in a derogatory way, and it was undeniably racist. But that’s not what is happening in this episode. Chang is cosplaying as a mythical being from a fantasy game (specifically the character Brutalitops the Magician). He isn’t making fun of anyone. It’s no more offensive than someone painting their face green and dressing as the Wicked Witch for Halloween.
Sure, it intuitively feels wrong seeing the character covered in black makeup because it is so close to blackface. But his cringey obliviousness is precisely part of what makes it funny. And more importantly, the situation feels true to the universe these characters inhabit and the relationships they’ve established. The joke isn’t shoehorned in for the sake of a cheap laugh. Context matters.
Chang might be oblivious to how his costume is perceived, but the other characters clearly understand the connotations. Even Chevy Chase’s character, Pierce Hawthorne (a character who frequently makes cluelessly racist comments himself) calls Chang out, referring to him as “Al Jolsen” (a singer notorious for his use of blackface) and later “Blackface.”
“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is one of the best episodes of the entire series. It is right up there with other fan-favorites like the “Modern Warfare” paintball episode and the bottle episode “Cooperative Calligraphy”. In addition to being funny and having the courage to make a risky joke, the episode takes unexpected turns and has a serious emotional arc. It’s great storytelling. It’s a shame that Netflix and Hulu pulled the episode without applying critical thought.
Ironically, “Community” was one of the most diverse sitcoms on TV when it aired. It featured an ensemble cast portraying a wide range of ages, genders, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. (The main cast includes Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase, and Jim Rash.) Those distinctions were sometimes commented on, but never defining traits. Each of the characters were well-developed with their own distinct personalities. They were also friends who enjoyed spending time with each other.
The episode didn’t cause an uproar when it first aired nine years ago, but Ken Jeong seemed aware of changing attitudes and what was coming. In a 2019 discussion with the cast, Alison Brie said that “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is her favorite episode. She then reminded everyone in the audience that Jeong wore “blackface” in it, to which he responded, “Oh really? You’re going to bring that up now? In 2019? Really?”