MEL Notes: Just for Laughs: How Race Affects Enjoyment of Ethnic-Oriented Comedy

Posted by on Mar 5, 2016 in MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

This post is written in response to:

Banjo, O.O., Appiah, O. Wang, Z., Brown, C., Walther, W. O. (2015). Co-viewing effects of ethnic-oriented programming. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 92(3), 662- 680. doi: 10.1177/1077699015581804.

 Juliana White is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Marketing, E.J. Ourso College of Business. Her research interests include sales strategy and gamification.

 

The Research

Dr. Omotayo O. Banjo and a group of communications researchers have identified a peculiar effect of viewing racially charged comedy: when seen with members outside of one’s own race, the humor can be substantially less funny. This research titled “Co-Viewing Effects of Ethnic-Oriented Programming: An Examination of In-Group Bias and Racial Comedy Exposure” appeared in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly in 2015. The experimental study used an episode of The Boondocks, an ethnic-oriented comedy cartoon as a stimulus. The episode of focus for the experiment (called “Return of the King”), chronicled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s emergence from a longstanding coma. The legendary Civil Rights leader returned to the present time to take a critical look at contemporary mainstream Black culture—to hilarious effect. But not all study participants found the show so amusing.

Never shying away from controversy, The Boondocks takes a satirical slant and has at times been accused of overt racism, despite the show’s creator, Aaron McGruder, being Black himself. Dr. Banjo and her team of researchers tested participants’ responses to the politically incorrect humor of the show and found that White viewers and Black viewers differed considerably on some key dimensions. Black participants reported significantly more positive attitudes when watching the show with other black viewers than they did when watching the show with White viewers. White viewers’ enjoyment of the show was not differentially impacted by who they were watching it with. This was explained by the researchers through the lens of social identity theory.

The Explanation

Social identity theory holds that intergroup interactions tend to make social distinctions and differences between people stand out. Therefore, the Black viewers who were watching the racially-charged show with other Black viewers were viewing it amongst their own in-group members. However, the Black viewers who were watching the comedy cartoon with White viewers were viewing it amongst different, out-group members. The difference between the in-group response and the out-group response was staggering: Black participants had much more positive evaluations of the show when it was seen with their own in-group members.

The idea that people view themselves in accordance with an in-group or out-group is not an entirely new phenomenon. Many social scientists have found that people tend to favor others who are more rather than less like themselves, which is known as the similarity bias. This similarity bias even translated to people being significantly less disgusted by a sweaty t-shirt when it had their own school’s logo on it (http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/he-aint-stinky-hes-my-brother).

Was it merely the fact that viewing The Boondocks with in-group members increased feelings of similarity toward the other watchers? Or was there some other dynamic at play which made Black participants better able to enjoy the racially-charged show’s humor when viewing it with an in-group?

The Future

The overall findings of Dr. Banjo and her co-authors research were fascinating, but they also raised many important questions. In order to uncover the true effects of in-group and out-group viewing conditions and understand what compels people to enjoy ethnic-oriented comedy programming, the experimental study could be replicated with a different sample and a different minority population—Asian-Americans.

Asian-Americans are often stereotyped as the “model minority” (http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/education/asians-higher-education-model-minority) and are seen as achieving highly in terms of education and financial success. While this may appear to be a decidedly positive image, there are many negative consequences of this stereotype as well. It would be interesting for future research to take the Asian population and see if the in-group and out-group responses toward viewership differed from the Black participants in the original study.

While not as controversial as The Boondocks, a new ABC show titled Fresh off the Boat is a quirky comedy which centers on an Asian-American family in Orlando, Florida. At times hilarious and at times off-color, this show is the perfect stimulus to replicate Dr. Banjo and her colleague’s study to see if the effect holds within a different minority population. I anticipate the same in-group and out-group dynamics will occur amongst Asian-Americans, lending even greater support to the phenomenon discovered in the original experiment.

The Greater Meaning

While it may seem like common sense that people tend to like and feel more comfortable around those who are similar to themselves, there are much greater implications of this effect. Rather than caving into our human instincts and only staying within a narrow circle of similar others, we should make strides to seek out and connect with those who are different. As we move toward a more global society, understanding how our differences can be celebrated instead of feared is of great importance.