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  • To Be Real: Truth and Racial Authenticity in African American Standup Comedy by Lanita Jacobs
  • Katelyn Hale Wood (bio)
To Be Real: Truth and Racial Authenticity in African American Standup Comedy. By Lanita Jacobs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. 224 pp.

Lanita Jacobs’s To Be Real: Truth and Racial Authenticity in African American Standup Comedy investigates how the comedy club provides a space for performers and audiences to explore what “real” Blackness means in the early twenty-first century. Jacobs ponders this question of racial authenticity from the seat of the stand-up comedy fan and from the perspective of the curious and detailed ethnographer. The subjects of the book are Black comics (both mainstream and not) who frequent Los Angeles comedy clubs and who use the stage to untangle the complexities of Black citizenship in the United States. The chapters of To Be Real are, for the most part, divided by catastrophe—in either the United States or, on a smaller scale, the comedy scene itself. Jacobs investigates how Black comics in Los Angeles responded to 9/11, the Iraq war, and Hurricane Katrina, as well as how white comedian Michael Richards’s deeply racist rant at the Laugh Factory in 2006 motivated the club’s subsequent attempt to censor comics.

Jacobs documents Black “comics who dared to say something . . . on the fraught imperatives of racial authenticity—itself nuanced by other complexities such as gender, sexuality, class, education, and so on” at these pivotal moments early on in the new millennium (22). For eight years, Jacobs conducted ethnographic field work at comedy clubs and festivals in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, interviewed many comics she watched perform, and videotaped stand-up routines for future archival analysis. As [End Page 301] comedic performances and stand-up sets are ever-increasingly mediated through streaming services and social media, Jacob’s firsthand accounts of comedy clubs and the experiences of comics and audiences within them provide scholars with a useful example of comedy ethnography. Jacobs studies the connections among groups of folks coming together for a laugh along with the many contextual factors that explain jokes as a balm for Black communities at the start of the 2000s.

Chapter 1 details how Black comics in Los Angeles grappled with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Jacobs argues that the Black stand-up comedy she documented revealed the inherent double consciousness of Black life in the United States, grappled with ambivalent patriotism, and remarked on palpable anti-Arab racism in the aftermath of 9/11. In her research, Jacobs noticed that Black comics repeatedly contended with their own relief over being less racially profiled while Middle Eastern and South Asian people became targets of violent white paranoia. As a linguistic anthropologist, Jacobs focuses on how comedians employ language and how audiences react to word choices, turns of phrase, puns, and more. She pays particular attention to what she considers “humorous” uses of the n-word. As a white author, I do not see it as my place to evaluate how Jacobs considers the n-word in comic discourse. I recognize this might provide a less detailed account of the text, but throughout the book, Jacobs analyzes the word and the various ways comics employ it onstage to solidify, challenge, and complicate notions of racial authenticity, and so I encourage readers interested in this topic to read Jacobs’s thoughtful analysis firsthand.

In chapter 2, “Why We Gotta Be Refugees,” Jacobs moves between what she calls the A and B sides of Black comedy, closely reading the investments those sides have in racial authenticity. Following Hurricane Katrina, Jacobs found that “empathy remained a relentless subtext” in stand-up comedy about the disaster and that “comics both enacted and appealed for it in all sorts of ways” (50). The A-side of Katrina humor articulated despair over the event with a tough love tone, while the B-side showed care and encouraged Black people to draw on their long-standing survival strategies. Rod Man Thompson, for example, did a half-joking, half-preaching set at the Comedy Union just weeks after Katrina: “Katrina, that’s a Black ass...