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It’s Okay To Laugh: “That’s Racist With Mike Epps” Tackles The Taboo, With Humor

Mike Epps talks to Co.Create about hosting the AOL Originals web series and playing Richard Pryor in the upcoming Lee Daniels biopic.

It’s Okay To Laugh: “That’s Racist With Mike Epps” Tackles The Taboo, With Humor

That’s Racist with Mike Epps isn’t so much about pointing fingers as it is about getting people to talk honestly and openly about racial stereotypes, and it does so with humor.

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Hosted by comedian and actor Mike Epps, who will play Richard Pryor in the upcoming Lee Daniels-directed biopic, each episode of the AOL Originals web series begins with a joke that plays on a racial stereotype. Case in point: An episode of That’s Racist titled “Jews Are Cheap” opens with one you’ve likely heard a thousand times: Why did the Jews wander the desert for 40 years?

Punch line: Someone lost a quarter.

Groan.

Here’s the joke that kicks off the “Asians Can’t Drive” episode: How do you blindfold an Asian woman?

Give her a steering wheel.

And “Black People Love Fried Chicken” starts with: Why did the chicken cross the road?

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Two black guys were chasing him with biscuits.

As downright stupid and offensive as they are, the jokes lead to more in-depth discussions of racial stereotypes. In each episode, Epps has candid conversations with people impacted by this kind of thinking, including an Asian driving school instructor and Muslim film and television actor Mousa Kraish, whose frustration you can feel when he says he is regularly offered the roles of “terrorist #1” and “terrorist #2.”

Epps also takes to the streets to find out whether average people buy into stereotypes, and he meets up with a panel of comedians, including Helen Hong and brothers Randy and Jason Sklar, to trade quips.

Insights from academics like Amir Hussain, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, and Marcia Dawkins, professor of communication at USC Annenberg, are interspersed throughout each episode, and they share some eye-opening revelations on the origins of stereotypes and dispel them, too.

With new episodes of That’s Racist rolling out on AOL March 2 (“The Irish Are Drunks,” “Mexicans Are Lazy,” and “Black People Can’t Swim” among them), Co.Create talked to Epps about everything from using humor to ease into the exploration of racial issues to how he feels about playing Pryor on the big screen.

Co.Create: So many discussions having anything to do with race, especially the ones we see on television, get heated and accusatory. This web series is different. People aren’t afraid to talk openly, and no one’s getting angry. Do you think it helps that you break the ice with humor?

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I do. Because I am a comic, I think, made it light. It made it real light and put a different twist on it.

What made you interested in hosting this series when the gig was offered to you?

I said yes because it was so different. I’ve never seen anything like it. What a great time to drop something like this with all the tension with the police and the racial stuff. I’m like, ‘This is a good time, and this is a good topic to drop to ease a little pain, to ease it up out here.’

And I will let my kids watch this. I don’t let my kids watch too many things, but it’s also a show that’s educational. A person that watches it might say, ‘Oh, I never knew that.’

Tackling race and racial stereotypes has been important to you throughout your career as a standup.

It has. I’m from Indiana. I’m from middle of America, so I think middle-Americans, we’re just a little bit more vocal when it comes to that, and I talk about everybody. I talk about my race. I talk about every other race. I’m an equal opportunist. I try to balance it out, and I do that on purpose so people will say, ‘Okay, he talks about everybody.’ Some of the jokes–they’re not nice jokes. But I’m a comic, and I’m trying to make you laugh. I’m not really trying to be your friend up there.

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Speaking of balancing it out, the web series touches on many different racial stereotypes.

Right. Nobody was exempt, and nobody was safe. We went for everybody.

A lot of people like to declare, ‘I’m not racist,’ and maybe they truly believe they aren’t, but do you think it is possible that everybody—even well-meaning people—are racist to some extent?

Well, if you’re the opposite of something, I think an opinion will occur, and if you’re sitting around with a group of your own, and an opposite comes up in a conversation, I guarantee you there’s got to be at least one…if there’s seven people sitting there, at least one person is going to say something.

And that’s better than everybody going silent. I’d rather somebody crack a joke than somebody bring up a certain race and then everybody just looks at each other and grunts, and goes silent. It’s worse. It’s like, ‘Wow, what are you thinking, to say nothing?’

So you think it’s important to talk about race and just put stuff out on the table—even if it is offensive—without fear.

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Yeah. It is. It’s hard to expose someone that’s already exposed themselves, that’s already put it out there, and once you put it out there, you get the truth. I don’t think silence is golden anymore with social media, and the way things work. The best thing to do is put it out there and let people devour it. Let them digest it the way they’re going to digest it.

It’s interesting that you are doing this web series, and you are playing Richard Pryor—actually, let me clarify this, you played Pryor in Nina, the upcoming Nina Simone movie, and you are also going to play him in the Lee Daniels film. Pryor was famous for talking about race. He threw the doors wide open back in the day. Now, you are leading a conversation about race.

Yeah. It’s so parallel because Richard Pryor was no holds barred. He would say whatever came to his mind. I remember when Barbara Walters said, ‘Well, what if I call you the N word?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to punch you out.’

I said, ‘What? You’re going to punch Barbara Walters?’

Richard Pryor was definitely an icon, man. He was just as powerful as Martin Luther King and them if you ask me. I mean, he was a revolutionary. He was a storyteller. He was kind of like a hero for black people.

How do you feel about getting to play him not once but twice and really exploring his life in the Lee Daniels movie?

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Man, I mean, it’s amazing. I’m shocked, and I’m scared. I’m nervous, and I’m excited. I’m all of that in a ball of one because this is a role that is groundbreaking. It’s a life changer. It’s changed my life.

Have you started shooting the film?

No, I haven’t started shooting it yet. We’re waiting on Lee Daniels. He’s working on the script. You know, Lee Daniels is a perfectionist as you can see from all the great movies that he’s done.

Back to That’s Racist: new episodes come out this month. Is that it, or is it possible that you might do even more?

I don’t know. Right now, we’re looking at the numbers and seeing how people like it. We’re getting good feedback, and, hopefully, we can go all around the world and do it in Bali, Japan, Africa. Let’s go all over the world and interview people about stereotypes because I’m pretty sure there’s a lot going on that we don’t know about.

When I have traveled abroad, I have met people who have insisted that Americans are more racist than anyone, but I think there is plenty of racism all around the world. What do you think?

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I agree with you. I think America … I think it’s because we have the media, it perpetuates [the thinking] that we’re more racist than other countries, but I’ve been to Paris, and they’ve been snooty and turned their nose up at me. Hell, they wouldn’t let Oprah Winfrey in the store over there. Like you said, it’s all over the world.

You are a successful comedian and actor, but even with that success, have you experienced incidents in recent times where you’ve thought you were treated a certain way because you are a black person?

Yes, of course. Hollywood ain’t the best place for a black man–not when it comes to being chosen and selected for movies. There’s only a handful of us that get opportunities. I always say, ‘A black man in Hollywood is equal to and as paramount as a black man in a hockey game.’ You know what I mean?

Might you do an episode of That’s Racist on biracial stereotypes? So many people who are biracial get all sorts of comments on not being black enough or Asian enough or whatever it is based on their heritage.

I think that is a great topic. I hear about those people complaining all the time. ‘I’m not black enough. I’m not white enough. I’m right down the middle. I’m an Oreo cookie.’ It’s a great topic. That’s something that people deal with.

I don’t know if you have ever watched Finding Your Roots, it’s a genealogy show on PBS hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., but there is an episode where they were talking about how people are much more mixed when it comes to race than they realize. If you do DNA testing on pretty much anyone, you will find there is something in their background they had no idea about. People who assumed they were 100% black discover white relatives, people who classified themselves as white had Asian ancestors. It’s almost impossible to classify yourself as one thing.

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Yeah. People like to use the race thing like it’s picking sides. ‘Let’s choose a side!’ It’s a bandwagon thing. People just do it.

Before I let you go, is there anything you really want people to know about That’s Racist?

I want everybody to know that when you’re watching the show, enjoy it, have a great time–understand that it’s for you to enjoy, and it’s to educate you.

About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com.

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