Thug Notes: Racist Reinforcement of Stereotypes, or Ironic Subversion of Expectations?

Ever since I first watched the Thug Notes analysis of “Othello,” I’ve been feeling a bit uneasy. Even while laughing at the thoughtful and Ebonics-laden catechizing, I kept wondering, “Is this racist?”

The series features a cliché black man, Sparky Sweets, Ph.D., simultaneously speaking the dialect associated stereotypically with African Americans, (“Gangsta”-type talk) while performing keen and penetrating literary analysis. The character is brilliantly played by comedian George Edwards. It’s both very funny and very shrewd, so what’s not to love? Why does laughing at it make me feel mildly ill?

Well, firstly, “thug” is a rather charged word, and it’s gained more voltage in the past couple of months as unarmed black men are gunned down and posthumously labeled as “thugs.” Now, the Thug Notes branch of the Wise Crack YouTube channel was started in June, 2013; Trayvon Martin was killed the 26th of February, 2012. I’m not saying the thug stereotype didn’t exist before that dickless, (I tend not to use crude language like that, but how else could I describe him?) wannabe Clint Eastwood-style antihero, Zimmerman, stalked and murdered Martin, but it’s certainly become more prevalent since the general public became aware of the multitudes of extra-judicial killings taking place in this country.

My point is, “thug” is a word with a ton of baggage, and it was dragging around that ugly history well before they decided to call the segment “Thug Notes.” And in simply choosing that name, the problematic question of whether portraying black men as (some) of the white population perceives them—poor grammar and elocution, large gold chains, inscrutable slang—is negatively reinforcing a stereotype that is literally getting people murdered in the streets.

Then there’s the actual content, which is totally hilarious, as well as quite discerning. I guess what makes me uncomfortable is that the humor comes from hearing astute literary analysis from a super “ghetto” black man. The laughs come from the irony, because you don’t expect a person who speaks that way and looks that way to be perceptive.

It reminds me of recordings I once heard in a US History class of some early black-face performers, getting laughs from a crowd, speaking in “plantation dialect” – “Ah’s” and “Massa” and the like. The typical character was a freed slave who was now lazy and aimless without someone to crack the whip, speaking in broken English peppered with malapropisms. And thus, the minstrel show was born, all so that white folk could laugh at the silly black man, trying to sound smart. The sad thing about black-face is that after a while, the popularity of the minstrel shows forced actual blacks to perform in black-face as well. And in a way, that’s what comedian Greg Edwards is doing with the character “Sparky Sweets, Ph.D.” – he’s performing in black-face.

But then it occurred to me that maybe this isn’t racist, maybe it’s just ironic re-appropriation. Maybe in playing this character with such intelligence and insight, he’s, I dunno, subverting the stereotype? I don’t quite buy that, but it’s what I want to believe. I want to believe that we’re beyond the entertainment stagnation that was “The Parkers,” “Barber Shop,” etc. – TV and movies designed to reinforce stereotypes that make black people non-threatening. I desperately want to believe that Greg Edwards isn’t playing Sparky Sweets so that white folk can laugh at the silly black man, trying to sound smart.

But I’m not sure if I do.

Even so, I will continue to chuckle at the antics of Sparky Sweets, but I don’t think I’ll ever rid myself of this uncomfortable, nagging feeling that maybe Thug Notes is just part of the problem.

Having said all that, his take on The Hunger Games is fascinating.

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4 thoughts on “Thug Notes: Racist Reinforcement of Stereotypes, or Ironic Subversion of Expectations?

  1. I should start by saying I was not familiar with Thug Notes or the character Sparky Sweets before reading your post, but have since watched several of Greg Edwards’ videos. While your analysis poses some very complex (and completely valid) questions regarding the intent of the humor in Thug Notes, I wonder if you have considered the following; perhaps the humor is neither a modern version of the minstrel show, nor ironic re-appropriation.

    I would suggest instead the humor is the result of the juxtaposition between general literary analysis, and the expectation that it should be done in a very academic and formal fashion; and general use of slang, which we would associate more with an informal conversation. In this equation the fact that the slang chosen is stereotypically associated with African Americans is inconsequential, in regard to the sketch being funny anyway I mean.

    If instead the character used the dialect and mannerisms of a cliche hippie, valley girl, cholo, biker, etc. it would be just as amusing, to me at least. This is because of the subversion not necessarily of stereotypes, but of our expectation of formal vs informal. I imagine many people have different degrees of formality in which they speak or write depending on the situation; the way someone communicates in a text is probably far different from how they would compose an essay. Seeing these applied in a way that is inconsistent with our expectation is where the humor lies.

    I will digress for a moment because those last sentences caused me to think of how amusing it would be to see a book analysis in text form.

    omg animals take over farm w00t! 🙂 #animalism
    fml windmill busted #snowballsucks
    pigs walk uprite #swag
    rip boxer 😦
    pig? man? idk #manorfarm

    My second suggestion is that the humor is also a result very astute oversimplification. The use of slang reduces books of hundreds of pages, and analysis that could be equally as long, to a few minutes of concise dialog. The reason however, that Thug Notes is comedic where as say sparknotes is not, is the select omission of detail and meaning. This of course would only be humorous to someone who has a familiarity with the book being analyzed.

    I haven’t read Othello, so instead I watched a few other videos of books I am familiar with; Animal Farm, 1984, Dante’s Inferno, and Lord of the Flies. What I find amusing is that the explanations Sparky Sweets gives are often divorced from meaning. In Sartre’s commentary on The Stranger, he talks about how analysis can be an “…instrument of humor.” This is what I believe Thug Notes is doing and why it is humorous, or at least part of the reason it is humorous.

    Sartre writes;
    If, in wishing to describe a rugby match, I write: “I saw adults in shorts fighting and throwing themselves on the ground in order to send a leather ball between a pair of wooden posts,” I have summed up what I saw, but I have deliberately omitted giving the facts any meaning — I was being humorous.

    I believe through the use of slang in Thug Notes, the books selected are reduced to the sum of their elements, and so anyone familiar with the books will find this comical.

    I would be interested in knowing if you had considered these points prior to my reply, and what your opinion to them is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael,

      Apologies for my delayed response. I’m certain that I’d initially intended to answer your well-reasoned and insightful comment, but, alas! I was apparently sidetracked by other matters. I only hope that you’ll still see this reply, regardless of the fact that it is two years, five months, and 21 days late.

      I truly appreciate your viewpoint; your keen diagnosis and conclusion is one that, I’m ashamed to admit, had never occurred to me. You have successfully challenged my initial thoughts, astutely highlighting a perspective I’d failed to consider; that is the greatest response I could ever hope to receive on one of my posts .

      I believe your assessment of Thug Notes, as well as your thoughtful investigation of just what makes the series so humorous, is a more valid — dare I even say, “correct” — analysis. It is certainly a sapient suggestion, and one that offers a deeper understanding of Thug Notes’ comedy.

      Thank you, Michael, for your input. I hope that you’ll continue to follow, and enjoy, the hilarious WiseCrack YouTube channel, as well as my blog.

      Like

  2. “The laughs come from the irony, because you don’t expect a person who speaks that way and looks that way to be perceptive.”

    Yeah.. exactly… THATS THE POINT. A fucking toothless redneck would the same expectations and would be just as hilarious. Maybe YOU’RE part of “the problem”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anonymous,

      I won’t deny that you are probably right. Having written this post nearly two and a half years ago, in revisiting it, I’ve come to discover and recognize my rather myopic and problematic initial posits. We are all flawed humans, ones that develop a more nuanced understanding of our world as we grow. I appreciate your bluntly concise comment. Please don’t think too badly of me.

      Like

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