UCLA Class Analyzes Rise of "Hegemonic Humor"

Latino activists say there has been an increase in anti-Latino humor on mainstream TV, moving the rhetoric from the fringes of political debate to front and center. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports on a UCLA professor who's devoting a class to what's called "hegemonic humor."

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: "Hegemonic humor" is humor done by the powerful at the expense of the powerless. You hear it on primetime TV. In this episode of "Family Guy," there's a house full of superheroes who all appear to be Latinos.

Landlord: Hey, Mexican Superman, can I talk to you for a sec? When you signed the lease, you said there was going to be like five of you living here.
Mexican Superman: Oh, no. They're not all living here, they're just visiting. [Sound of car horn playing "La Cucaracha"]
Mexican Batman: Hey, Mexican Superman, I got the keys made.
Mexican Superman: Hey, Mexican Batman, get out of here.
Mexican Batman: What, I got like 60 keys!

Guzman-Lopez: Hegemonic humor's also found on late night TV, done by Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, and on this episode of "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

Jimmy Kimmel: We're back, this is Evan O'Dorney, he's the National Spelling Bee Champion, for now, but he's not going to be facing a 13 year old kid now. You're going to be facing a fully grown, fat, hairy man, now, Evan. That is the challenge ahead of you. We're going to square off in the fourth annual Jimmy Kimmel Live Spelling Bee.

Guzman-Lopez: The fat, hairy man is a Mexican known as Guillermo. He's dressed in a bumblebee outfit and delivers the spelling bee words, in this case, the word "eligible."

Guillermo: El-abu.
Evan O'Dorney: I can't hear you. En-ah-mood?
Guillermo: El-yabu.
Kimmel: This is a real Mexican standoff right here. [Audience laughs and applauds]

Guzman-Lopez: UCLA linguist Otto Santa Ana has compiled these and more than a hundred other clips. He's teaching an undergraduate class on anti-Latino humor.

Otto Santa Ana: Brenda, Monica, Mayra, Judith, Adriana, Carla, and Lydia.

Guzman-Lopez: The class ended the quarter recently. Santa Ana lists which students signed up to present their class projects. Third year student Monica Hernandez studied "Ugly Betty," a TV show whose main character is Mexican-American. Hernandez quoted one of the show's producers.

Monica Hernandez: "The show has a lot of attitude, a sense of humor, and high quality. It portrays in a very positive way Latin American culture. It sets aside stereotypes in a very positive way."

Guzman-Lopez: But Hernandez concludes "Ugly Betty" perpetuates old stereotypes. Betty's sister is a single mom. Her father is an illegal immigrant who started out working in restaurants. Hernandez was a fan of the show, and then, she studied it more closely.

Hernandez: I kinda feel like, gosh, I can't believe I've been watching this for the past year and, all these stereotypes are here and I was never able to see them before. But I don't really know if I'm going to stop watching the show just because of it.

Guzman-Lopez: The point of the class, professor Santa Ana says, is not to demonize the humor. It's to find out why it makes people laugh. Senior Deanna Levesque studied Michael Scott, the boss on the TV show "The Office."

Deanna Levesque: He is ignorant and may seem prejudiced because he has misconceptions on race, gender, and sexuality.

Guzman-Lopez: So the boss comes off as sexist, racist, and homophobic. The show's funny, Levesque says, because the character's so oblivious to his behavior. The targets of his improper behavior come off as smarter than he is, so, she says, "The Office" has a redeeming value. A few students disagree. Immigration's become a major political issue, professor Santa Ana says, and popular culture's picked up on that.

Santa Ana: I want my students to understand, I want to understand, why our society is laughing at immigrants, and what the consequences of this laughing at the most vulnerable people in our society.

Guzman-Lopez: Laughing at newcomers is nothing new, says Tom Inge, a researcher of American humor at Randolph Macon College in Virginia.

Tom Inge: As each new group comes, you know, we make fun of them, then they somehow figure out a way to turn this humor to a benefit or to a profit somehow, and then become assimilated, and then we take on the next group.

Guzman-Lopez: This kind of humor is an escape valve for social tensions, Inge says. That it's targeting Hispanics doesn't worry him because Latinos are assimilating and gaining positions of power. UCLA student Monica Hernandez says the most valuable thing she's learned is how to dissect a joke.

Hernandez: Just recently my uncle told a joke, I don't really remember it, but you know, everyone in my family started laughing, and I laughed too, and I chuckled, but at the same time I was kind of like, wait a minute, that's not right. He's making fun of, you know, Latinos, and we're Latino, and it's– I mean, I just didn't, I didn't enjoy it after the fact.

Guzman-Lopez: That doesn't make her humorless, Hernandez believes, just a more informed consumer.

George Lopez: Jack In The Box is run– they should put Mexicans, more Mexicans in the commercial, because when you go to Jack In The Box, that's all who's there ... You pull up to the drive-through. Welcome-to-Jack-In-The-Box. Can I help you? [Audience laughs and applauds] I'm sorry? Welcome-to-Jack-In-The Box. Can I help you? [Audience laughs] Is this Jack In The Box Chad?