General Larry Platt’s “Pants on the Ground” and the Intersection of Race and Comedy

In the middle of January, American Idol scored a huge ratings win when they decided to air a tryout clip of an elderly black man named General Larry Platt, singing his original composition “Pants on the Ground.” The song took off and is now a part of American pop culture…at least for the next few months.

The first time I saw the clip I couldn’t help but feel torn. I felt joke discomfort: the uneasiness I often get when someone makes a joke that I sense is not quite right, yet I still feel like laughing. “Pants on the Ground” does seem inherently absurd and there is something really adorable about Platt. Yet how should we feel about the way American Idol used his clip? Does it encourage us to laugh with Larry Platt? After watching several different Platt appearances, I’m still not sure if Platt is funny because he’s trying to be, or just by accident. If we’re laughing at Platt instead of with him, how much of this is about race?

Reader Gavin Jones sent us an email about Platt, lamenting the way Platt was the butt of jokes on Youtube and the late-night show circuit. Gavin says

It just seems like we live in a Bizzaro world where the more virtuous artists are fake blonds, singers whose subjects are ultimately selfish, and Soulja Boy types, and someone like Larry Platt is somehow not legitimate. Simon Cowell said he had a ‘sinking feeling it would be a hit’. Mary J. Blige couldn’t stop laughing DURING his audition. I wonder how her (and all of our lives) would be different if he didn’t exist. SOMEONE, ANYONE should mention some of this after one of those clips or in some commentary.

In a greater sense I wonder how much this has to do with race. Obviously there’s no immediate way to quantify that but it’s curious that of all the thousands of applicants to American Idol over the years, the only objects of ridicule are William Hung and Larry Platt.

What rankled Gavin is particular is that Platt is actually a hero in Atlanta, thanks to the work he’s done for the civil rights movement. From Yahoo:

But Platt is not just some William Hungian TV clown angling for 15 minutes of YouTube fame. His real legacy in fact extends all the way back to the ’60s, when he was a teenage crusader for the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia…The man was even honored with his own holiday in Atlanta, Larry Platt Day, on September 4, 2001, for his “priceless and immeasurable contributions to society” and “his great energy and commitment to equality and the protection of the innocent and for his outstanding service to the Atlanta community and the citizens of Georgia.”

On that fateful day, the Georgia General Assembly declared: “For the past 40 years, Larry Platt has given of himself in service to the people of the City of Atlanta, the State of Georgia, and the nation…Larry Platt merits the highest recognition for his many valuable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and his dedication to the struggle for equality and human rights.”

Platt was actually a student of Martin Luther King Jr. back in the day, which makes the timing of his sudden fame quite interesting, given that next Monday is MLK Day. In the early ’60s when he was only 16 (see the 16-year-old Platt in the photograph here; he’s the one on the far left), he worked with activist groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to fight racial segregation in the South. He was even beaten while participating in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” protest march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama.

While Jimmy Fallon might not have recognised Platt’s proud history, The View (surprise!) did. In the clip at the top of this post, Platt performs “Pants on the Ground” on MLK day with a picture of MLK pinned to his outfit, and Sherri tells the audience about his history, then Platt’s nephew talks about how proud he is of Platt and what an inspiration Platt is.

But even if Platt’s accomplishments are becoming better known, this still doesn’t answer the question – when we see “Pants on the Ground” and laugh, why are we laughing and what are we laughing at?

So often when we see people of colour do comedy in spaces that are not anti-racist – or not controlled by people of colour – the framing of the scene encourages us to laugh at the person of colour, not with them. Think William Hung. Think Long Duk Dong. Think Virginiaca*.

Part of the joke discomfort that I spoke about earlier has to do with context and audience. Some jokes that I would happily laugh at in the comfort of my home, make me feel uncomfortable or even unsafe when I am in an environment where others don’t share my racial politics. We’ve talked about “in house” jokes before with reference to Bernie Mac. So often the appropriateness of race-based comedy depends on who the joke is for. In a discussion about Russell Peters vs Esther Ku, I argued that Peters’ jokes are funny because they are clearly made for an audience of colour, while Ku’s jokes are just plain offensive because they are about Korean people, but for white people.

Along with the fact that [Ku's] jokes are offensive (and not really funny), they send the message that audiences of colour are not important enough to write jokes for. In fact, all they’re good for is the butt of jokes. Just like ye olde status quo, Ku’s jokes place white folks at the center of everything.

Peters on the other hand talks about relationships between Indians and Chinese folks, between Indians and Jamaicans, between Indians and Latinos. More than this it really seems like Peters is simply trying to make people like himself laugh. There’s something sorta subversive about the fact that he’s playing to himself, instead of pandering to an audience that doesn’t share his experience at all.

When we hear a large group of non-black people or white people laughing at General Platt – do you think it was a coincidence that it was Sherri, rather than Elizabeth who did most of the interview with Platt? – it’s very different from when we see black folks laughing at “Pants on the Ground.”

Last weekend I went to a massive step competition, with a DJ battle in the middle. One of the DJs slayed the crowd when, in between the usual repetoire of club hits, he dropped “Pants on the Ground.” The entire crowd stopped dancing to sing along at the top of their lungs. When I wondered (via email with the Racialicious team) whether the exuberance in that moment was based in affection or mockery, Andrea had this to say:

But affection and mockery can coincide in the same communal laughter, Thea. For example, some older Southern Black folks, in quoting the Bible, say “God is not marked.” The actual quote is “God is not mocked.” When my moms and I go into giggles about it, we’re laughing at the pronounciation (stemming from our educational privilege, which is, more than likely, higher than those older Black folks we’re giggling about), but have a deep affection for the folks who said it because we understand those elders helped get us to this historical moment, as imperfect as it is.

I suspect the same dynamic may be at play with what happened at the step show, affection through the laughter. But I also wonder about context: Jimmy Fallon and other white late-night hosts mocking Platt may be construed differently than, say, an all-Black party laughing at and dancing to the song.

What is sort of nice about Platt is that, whether or not he intended to be comedic, it seems like a lot of audiences are reacting towards him with affection and joy, more than contempt; even though his overnight success may also be based in the fact that laughing at men of colour (or even elderly men) is just par for the course in our culture.

What do you think – is Platt funny because there is just something inherently delightful about his routine, or do we just like to laugh because it maintains a racial hierarchy where people of colour are always the fools?

*In the case of Virginiaca, we are actually encouraged by Keenan Thompson to laugh at a group of colour to which Thompson doesn’t belong: black women.