Tony Rock proves there’s a way to crack on marginalized communities without being destructive.
The easiest jokes to laugh at are oftentimes about people we know. Things only go left once audiences get the impression jokes are being made about communities comedians are largely unfamiliar with.
BET’s latest endeavor, Black Card Revoked, a game show inspired by a card game of the same name, deserves our attention as an example of what exactly makes jokes about marginalized people palatable: familiarity and understanding through lived-in experiences.
On the other side of the ignorance making Dave Chappelle an imperfect author of transgender jokes is the shorthand that makes Tony Rock the perfect comedian to host Black Card Revoked. It’s safe to surmise Rock’s scholarship on the subject of pop cultural blackness is what has him firing on all cylinders for BET, almost like a supercharge from the sun, powering his kryptonian ability to naturally clown anyone.
Speaking to that ability, on a rare rainy day in Southern California, Rock explains to me in order for Black Card Revoked to work “the host has to be quick-witted. The contestant’s answers dictate which way the comedy goes. You have to pick up on what they say, and sometimes what they mean by what they say, and make that funny on the spot. And I think I have a unique ability to be funny in a very short amount of time.”
If Black Card Revoked proposes an appropriate formula for delivering inappropriate jokes, a part of that formula, equal in importance to understanding what you know, is a genuine desire to discover what you don’t.
Revisiting Chappelle as an example of this formula at work, the controversial comedian and folk hero for aggrieved artists everywhere built his legend over a decade ago through astute observations of race, class, and a twisted culture of fame. That legend felt all but infallible until recently, once it became clear Chappelle narrowly understands transgender women to be white men who wish to “cut their dicks off,” thus revealing an unfortunate lack of interest in grasping what it means to be transgender—an indifference that one could argue conflicts with his otherwise unending curiosity with what it means to be black, rich, and famous. Naturally, that conflict is one of ego and that curiosity is one of self—a consequence of his prism of identity.
Black Card Revoked, however, for better or worse, is made possible through white supremacy’s need for blackness to be defined in order for it to be understood. As black folks internalize those terms, white folks display a sometimes admirable, other times problematic desire to peer outside of their prism and study the black experience in ways Chappelle has seemingly never employed to investigate the trans experience—as understanding that experience is wholly inconsequential to the jokes he tells about it.
“Some things are considered fundamentally black,” Rock jokes. “Sweet potato pie, we consider that black. Talking in a movie theater, other people consider that black…it’s a quiz that tests your quote unquote blackness, but white people can play too. They even have a grasp on certain things that are considered black. They know what to stay away from, like the N-word or touching a sister’s hair.”
To be clear, a relationship in which some black folks feel comfortable having some white folks join in on a game wherein blackness is either affirmed or revoked is one that’s based in alliance. Rock jokes that white allies like Michael Rapaport or “any white rapper…except for Lil Pump” would do great on the show. That alliance—that familiarity through experience—is what makes a show like Black Card Revoked acceptable, in that people are being laughed at but not picked on. Chappelle has yet to prove such an alliance to queer folks, and thus, he’s yet to provide that community such an assurance.
At the end of the day, Black Card Revoked, premiering Thursday night 10/9c, is a Viacom game show—meaning it won’t be revolutionary, its foundation for fundamental blackness will be littered with tropes, and it probably won’t last longer than three seasons. But thanks to a mutual understanding between its host, its participants, and its audience, it’ll be funny without being offensive, as all sides will play their position.
Just weeks into January, comedy in the new year has already been marred by millionaire comedians joking out of pocket, without a fuck to give concerning who understands what. But before we end our conversation, Tony Rock humbly delivers an all-inclusive sales pitch to the masses:
“When you hear a group of black people talking and you don’t understand what they’re saying, or you wish you knew a little bit more about why they’re having such a great time in this conversation that you know nothing about, that’s Black Card Revoked. When you hear us talk about albums that you’ve never heard before and we have such enthusiasm about rappers you’ve never heard of, or songs you’ve never heard of, or movies that we quote line-for-line that you’ve never seen, that’s Black Card Revoked. Any curiosity you may have about the black lifestyle—fashion, hair, Timberland boots—that’s Black Card Revoked. Watch Black Card Revoked, and learn more about the black experience…and why it’s so much fun to be black.”