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A not-so-funny story about blackface

Blackface has been around for nearly 200 years and is largely considered offensive and racist. However, some comedians have avoided criticism in the past.

Posted: Feb 14, 2019 7:30 AM
Updated: Feb 14, 2019 7:30 AM

Some of your favorite comedy stars and "Saturday Night Live" cast members have donned blackface and escaped major criticism for it.

That is until recently.

With blackface and its painful past in the headlines, discussion is turning to why the offensive practice has sometimes been played for laughs in entertainment.

Related: This is why blackface is offensive

"Saturday Night Live" was called out on social media after it aired a skit this past weekend that poked fun at Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's current controversy.

There have been calls for Northam to resign over of a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 yearbook page that showed one person dressed in blackface and another in a KKK hood.

The governor denied being in the photo, but has said he darkened his skin to mimic singer Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has also admitted to donning blackface as part of a costume.

In the "SNL" skit, comedian Kenan Thompson, who is black, plays an elected state official who has to stress to a room full of other state officials that it's never appropriate to appear in blackface.

When one of the characters argues that blackface was "funny and cool in the '80s," Thompson's character responds, "It does still count and it was never funny or cool."

Twitter users were quick to point out that "SNL" has its own blackface history, including actors like Fred Armisen and Billy Crystal darkening their skin to play President Barack Obama, Prince and Sammy Davis Jr.

A NBC spokesperson did not respond to CNN's request for comment.

In 2008, Armisen, whose mother is Venezuelan and whose father is of German and Korean heritage, told New York Magazine's Intelligencer column that he wore honey colored makeup to portray Obama, who is biracial.

"There's shading on my eyebrows and plastic behind my ears," Armisen said. "And there's a little bit of something called Honey, a honey color, that is something I would wear when I play Prince."

The show's co-creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels told the Washington Post at the time that "SNL" had auditioned four to five actors to play Obama, including Thompson. Armisen was the best qualified, according to Michaels.

"It's not about race," he said. "It's about getting a take on Obama, where it serves the comedy and the writing. "

Mia Moody-Ramirez, professor and director of Baylor University's journalism, public relations and new media department's graduate program, told CNN she believes there was not as much outcry over some of the "SNL" sketches because of the context in which they were offered.

"I think those representations on 'Saturday Night Live' may be more acceptable because it's not necessarily a negative representation of African Americans," said Moody-Ramirez, who added that she has not seen the skits.

"Traditionally, the blackface instances that have been discussed in the media, black people were portrayed as being lazy or not as intelligent and different facial characteristics were emphasized," she said. "And so that is why those particular representations were negative. As far as 'Saturday Night Live' and depictions of President Obama, I think those may have been more accepted because they weren't necessarily trying to show him in a stereotypical manner. It was for the sake of humor."

Blackface in comedy isn't restricted to late-night shows.

Related: Katy Perry faces criticism over shoe design resembling blackface

In 1986, C. Thomas Howell played a white student who pretended to be black to snag a Harvard scholarship in the film "Soul Man."

Robert Downey Jr. received very little backlash in 2008 when he put on dark makeup for the movie "Tropic Thunder" in which he played Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor who undergoes skin darkening surgery to portray a black character.

Performers, including Ted Danson, Sarah Silverman and Julianne Hough, caught some heat when they appeared in blackface, as did Eddie Murphy and Marlon and Shawn Wayans when they donned light makeup to portray white characters in "SNL" and "White Chicks," respectively.

But while "whiteface" is viewed as portraying privilege, blackface is rooted in racism.

Moody-Ramirez, the co-author of "From Blackface to Black Twitter: Reflections on Black Humor, Race, Politics, & Gender," believes social media has heightened the conversation about blackface.

"Many of the cases that we're hearing about now, they were actually exposed on social media platforms," she said in an interview with CNN. "Social media platforms are very powerful and they are playing a role in getting the word out on what's going on in society as far as blackface."

In an Instagram post on Sunday, actor and TV host Nick Cannon wrote about a resurfaced video of late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel performing in blackface.

"@JimmyFallon @JimmyKimmel you know I'm always on the side of the comedian and never pander to the sensitive, but I feel there needs to be some 'truth & reconciliation' discussions and teachable moments amongst our communities," Cannon wrote in the caption. "I'm ready and willing for the discourse, so who wants to step up to the table first?"

CNN has reached out to reps for Fallon and Kimmel for comment.

Moody-Ramirez said the debate about whether blackface is ever acceptable in the realm of comedy can be answered pretty simply.

"The answer is if you have to think about it and ask if it's okay, then it's probably not okay," she said.

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