At the risk of revealing my true nature as an undeniable millennial, I’d like to start my post with a quote from The Fault in Our Stars author John Green: “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.” I think that Tyler Perry, or “Madea” Mabel Simmons for that matter, would whole-heartedly endorse this decision.
What I found most interesting about Perry’s Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings was the premise and structure of the book itself; here’s an almost poetic depiction of a man expressing some sort of Freudian sexual and/or development repression by cross-dressing and assuming the role of benevolent, if not sassy community grandmother. Sure, the claim could be made that he does this purely for the sake of his humor, but with a franchise as sprawling as Madea’s, I have my own personal reservations that there is not some larger force at work. Perry self-proclaims that he manipulates the Madea persona because she “has an opportunity to say everything that [he] can’t say,” yet he also makes the unequivocal claim that he and Madea do not share opinions on many aspects of life [vii-xi].
I’m often skeptical of this sort of bilateral approach to any expression of opinion: if it isn’t truly only meant in jest, then where do the character’s words and viewpoints end and the author’s begin? This brings to mind an especially confusing conversation I once had with my friend concerning ‘The Colbert Report.’ My friend, a relatively staunch republican, was telling about how she couldn’t stand to watch ‘The Daily Show’ because of Jon Stewart’s very apparent liberal bias, but she loved Stephen Colbert and ‘The Colbert Report.’ I was perplexed. I had always had the understanding that the Stephen Colbert who appeared each weeknight on ‘The Colbert Report’ was a brilliantly crafted and impeccably delivered parody of a conservative, right wing evangelist. Yet here was my friend, an intelligent and perceptive person, who so obviously believed this character to be the real, unadulterated Stephen Colbert. I, of course, immediately questioned how she could have made such a grievous oversight and dismissed her statement completely. But, it did make me wonder about my own understanding of who the ‘real’ Stephen Colbert is and how it came to be so certain to me. Can you really deduce what is integral to the core of a person when that person is always pretending to be someone other than himself?
I realized that I had thought of these characters of Madea and Stephen Colbert as examples of the modern Westernization of Victor Turner’s anthropological CLOWN, a mechanism that allows the actor to express their somewhat controversial thoughts and opinions on specific topics in a way that absolves them of guilt or responsibility. This, I think, is too simplistic of a notion on my part, as it is obvious that both Tyler Perry and Stephen Colbert are not just using the character of their clowns to thinly veil their own individual agendas—they often call into question their bias (or what the audience assumed to be their bias) as well. It is hard to say who a clown is, and it would seem that many times the clown may not be fully aware themselves either. Perry, in his epilogue says that, “Laughter is the anesthetic I use to get to everything else” . So in a world of uncertainty and coincidence, we may need the uncertainty and ambiguity of the clown as an anesthetic for the inexplicable.