Friday, December 4, 2009

A Cultural Artifact

I came across this old Letterman clip via Facebook today. It seems to me a rather striking artifact from a bygone age.

What I mean is, the whole conceit of the interview is based around humor that is no longer really acceptable on a show like this. The first gag, for example, is about Murphy and Cavett being gay lovers. From there, the humor quickly shifts to jokes about the idea of a white guy being friends with a black guy.

Deadpan, Cavett says he and Murphy met on the street when both were collecting Coke bottles to return for the nickel deposit. They hit it off, he says, because their backgrounds were so similar. The joke seems to be that Cavett is the ultimate white guy (indeed, Murphy laughs about how blindingly white Cavett's skin is) and thus an unlikely buddy for Murphy.

There are jokes about "Negro talk" and dreadlocks, all seemingly made safe, I guess, by everyone's assurance that Dick Cavett is a sophisticated liberal, quite above any risk of being racist. Eddie Murphy gamely plays along, getting in his own digs at Cavett along the way, though he pointedly doesn't laugh at certain remarks.

Near the end of the interview, Cavett pulls out of his sock a tube of "Darkie Toothpaste," which he says he bought in Bangkok. Murphy takes over at this point, mocking the blatant racism of the toothpaste and suggesting that its sellers should be punched in the face.

I suppose Cavett would say that he brought the toothpaste on the show in order to mock it, too. But the whole logic of the segment strikes me as antiquated and backwards. It's like, "We've got a black man on the show, so we have to make jokes about his blackness and his differentness." And the differences between Cavett and Murphy are cast in familiar, stereotypical ways. Ultimately, the piece emphasizes the gulf between whites and blacks in America.

It's debatable whether that gulf has closed at all in the quarter century or so since this clip aired. But it does seem to me that our culture no longer jokes about race in quite this way.


Matthew Frederick said...

Nice analysis, Frank.

Eddie Murphy's running gag about how Cavett does rude things to people but gets away with it - "Hey! It's Dick Cavett!" - reinforces your point as well. Since Cavett has liberal cred, well he can act like a lout to people.

What a funny, confrontational, and uncomfortable clip. I can't stop thinking about it. Truly an artifact in every sense of the word.

framiko said...

Good point about the underlying implication of Eddie Murphy's gag. It's dizzying to consider the subtexts and masks he uses in this segment.