Meet Esther Ku, the Asian Sarah Silverman

by Latoya Peterson

So, while moderating the Interracial Dating with a Vengeance thread, I was doing my best to save the kittens* when someone brought up Esther Ku.

Alvin, writing on the Hyphen blog, says:

What kind of insecure person makes a career basically being self-racist or self-deprecating and saying how much you hate yourself, who you are, and your family?

He points to this Boston Globe article which gives a summary of Ku’s act:

The Korean-American comedian started with the words, ”I don’t really like being Asian, but I’m kind of stuck with it.” That, at least, received a few titters. But when she continues, ”The only good thing about being Asian, really, is it helps you get into college,” the crowd stays silent. It goes downhill from there as she mines the subject of Caucasians adopting Asian babies.

”Nigerian babies cost like 25 cents a day,” says Ku. ”Asian babies cost a lot more because they pay off.”

As the crowd erupts in pained groans and a smattering of uncomfortable laughs, Ku innocently asks, ”Did I go too far?”

Later in the article, the Globe explains the kinds of problems Ku has with her act:

Ku also once found herself in an uncomfortable situation at a Chicago comedy club. She told the joke about Asian and Nigerian babies.

The underlying message of the joke is a cultural commentary about white people who adopt Asian babies, says Ku. ”How unfair it is that people purchase Asian babies like it’s an investment. I don’t mean to degrade Nigerian babies.”

At the Chicago venue, two African-American women didn’t see it that way. When they heard the joke, they demanded the producer stop the show. The women didn’t get an opportunity to confront Ku later; by then, she’d already left the venue. The comic made amends by explaining the joke to them via e-mail.

”That was,” says Ku, ”maybe the strongest reaction that I ever had doing a comedy show.”

I always find it fascinating when people think that by employing racial stereotypes that are still currently in use they are being novel, or lampooning the stereotype. Now, I understand this is a line that all comedians who deal in race have to cross. They know their intent behind the jokes, but they also have to deal with the fallout from making those kind of statements. We saw Dave Chappelle leave a cultural phenomenon and a 50 million dollar contract based on his discomfort with how his social commentary was being received and interpreted. And Chris Rock stopped doing one of his most famous sketches – Niggas vs. Black People – based on certain people justifying their use of the word with Rock’s routine.

But I still think there is a major difference between cleverly done racial commentary as part of a comedy act and the repackaging of stereotypes. Here is a video of one of Esther Ku’s performances:

(Miso funny? Booooooo!)

Readers, what do you think? Nuanced cultural commentary or advanced stereotyping?

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Aside: There’s a little pet peeve I have and it isn’t specific to one community. I see this all the time, in feminism, in fat acceptance, in other ethnic communities. It’s this kind of line (this one taken from Alvin’s entry on the Hypen blog):

Have you ever heard a black comedian base his/her career on how they hate being Black, how they love watermelon/chicken, and the only good thing about being black is it helps them get into the NFL?

Yes, dammit!

If you are not in the black community and you find yourself trying to ask the question “Would they do this to black people?” the answer is probably yes. You just aren’t privy to it! It’s not your community! Turn on Comicview. Watch Mike Epps’ most recent comedy special. There are way too many people who think that being funny means rolling through a laundry list of racial differences. “Black people do THIS! White people do THAT! My baby momma is trifiling!” Boring, boring, boring. But even some of my favorite comedians do this same playing on stereotypes for laughs. The only difference is that they are actually funny. (To me, anyway.) So while I may watch them, I’m not going to pretend that Katt Williams’ “Never in the history of Niggadom” bits are not problematic – they just aren’t his whole appeal. The same thing with Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle and Wanda Sykes. But for every one mega star comedian playing with the boundaries, there are thousands of hacks trying to push black stereotypes for fun and profit.

*To understand the “save the kittens” reference, go back to that thread and search for the term “kittens.”