Last June, Clara Chiu of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (Stewart Kwoh’s group) told me they’d been approached by documentary filmmakers to appear on camera for a discussion about race and the media. She thought I’d be appropriate for it. When I found out it was for one of the four specials comedian Chelsea Handler was doing for Netflix, it gave me pause.
First of all, as much as I’ve battled networks, disc jockeys, movie studios and people who’ve done racially insensitive things involving Asian Americans, I’ve rarely called anyone racist. Chelsea Handler? She was racist.
Back in 2007, she appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and came on guns a-blazing attacking Angelina Jolie for always adopting children from foreign countries. Handler asked the audience if the activist/actress was “anti-American” for not considering kids from the good ol’ U.S. of A and got them all riled up.
Then she started picking on Pax, a three-year-old kid Jolie had just adopted from Vietnam. “He probably doesn’t even realize he’s Asian yet! He certainly doesn’t know he’s going to be a horrible driver… or that he’s going to be amazing at doing nails!” The audience laughed.
In 2005, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had also adopted Zahara, a girl from Ethiopia. Yet Handler didn’t target her with stereotypes about black people. If she had, the NAACP would’ve protested outside E! Entertainment, where she was about to start her talk show “Chelsea Lately,” asking for it to be cancelled.
I told Paula Madison, executive VP of diversity at NBC, about it, and she was livid. She had a one-hour meeting with Leno, his producer, and the head of standards and practices. Madison told them in the future if a guest says something that off-color, they don’t have to air it; they can tape an additional segment in its place. And she wanted to know when they would have Handler on the show again because she’d be watching.
Months later when she did appear, the snarkiness was gone; she was on her best behavior. She even apologized to the producers for putting them in a difficult position.
Before I agreed to be part of this Netflix project, I asked the producer who contacted me who had final cut on the documentary. She said Handler, the executive producers, and Netflix. I knew I had to raise the 2007 incident (I’d be a wimp if I didn’t), though I knew if she wanted to, the comedian could edit my attack in a way that made me look bad. But what choice did I have? I had to give it my best shot. I said yes.
We met at a downtown hotel: Amanda Susskind of the Anti-Defamation League, Dr. Darnell Hunt representing the NAACP; Samy Chouia of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; and two old comrades, Sonny Skyhawk of American Indians in Television and Film and Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
During the hour-and-a-half discussion about race and humor, Nogales told Handler when he saw how she treated Chuy, a Latino dwarf on her show, he got upset, thinking he was going to have to write her a letter of complaint. But when he watched succeeding shows, he realized she had a great deal of affection for Chuy, so Nogales felt she was balanced.
In the middle of another subject, I raised my criticism of her 2007 “Tonight Show” appearance. I pointed out the double standard in choosing one target she thought she could get away with (Asian) vs. the one she couldn’t (black). Handler said she’d done jokes about black people too but didn’t know specific jokes about Ethiopians. I said the joke inferring many Vietnamese work in nail salons was particular to that community, but the “bad drivers” stereotype was a more generic Asian one. So she could’ve done a generic black joke about Zahara. She understood.
The host tried to make excuses, rationalizing, “Well, he asked to be a celebrity,” so it was fair game!
“He asked to be a celebrity?!” I retorted, disbelieving what I’d just heard. “He was three years old! He was adopted by a celebrity! He didn’t ask to be one! Chelsea, that was mean!”
“Three years old?” asked Nogales. “Chelsea, that’s going too far!” “Yeah,” Sonny Skyhawk agreed. Overwhelmed by the reaction, Handler threw up her hands as if being attacked by a stampede of buffalos.
In my unbiased opinion (note sarcasm), the two most animated discussions we had during that session was that joke and recounting my 2001 debate with Sarah Silverman on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” over her use of “chinks” in a joke on Conan O’Brien’s talk show. I felt they had to use at least one of them for her documentary but worried about how it’d be edited.
On Jan. 18, a day before returning to L.A. from my month-long vacation in my hometown of Hilo, Hawaii, I was about to put out an email reminder for the monthly MANAA meeting and wanted to verify when Handler’s documentary was going to be released so I could tell our followers when to look out for it. I came across an L.A. Times article on the series, and it was surreal to see my name in print followed by quotes of what I’d said in my argument with Handler. Apparently she did use it (it was released the following Saturday along with documentaries on marriage, drugs, and Silicon Valley).
As I might’ve guessed, Handler didn’t include her ridiculous statement that a three-year-old boy chose to be a celebrity, nor did she show the three of us piling on top of her (figuratively!). But I articulated my grievance against her well and made the point that a three-year-old didn’t deserve her attack.
Our introduction at the 17-minute mark was kind of suspicious: Michael McDonald (“MAD TV”), sitting around a table drinking with Handler and other comedian friends, said he hated seeing “unfunny m*therf*ckers” sitting around a table trying to decide what was funny or not (“That’s worse, to me, than racism”). Cue War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and silent introductions of our panel sitting around the table looking serious.
Surprisingly, I was shown smiling and laughing a lot — more than anyone there — so even though I was aggressive against the host, I think I came across as a balanced person who wasn’t so uptight that he couldn’t make jokes on other topics. The panel makes a reappearance at the one-hour mark (the whole thing runs 1 hour and 9 minutes).
To her credit, Handler talks to every minority group you can think of and rather than try to prove how funny she is at every point of conversation, actually listens and lets people from all walks of life explain their way of looking at the world and how it looks back at them. She has an extended conversation with Rev. Al Sharpton, who actually comes across well, raising many points you probably haven’t considered. She journeys to a former slave plantation, lets a white supremacist reveal himself, and listens as two Native Americans talk about the problems facing their community, including the highest dropout rate of any group.
After talking with Jim Gilchrist, the Minuteman who’s been trying to keep illegal Mexican immigrants out of the United States, Handler looks sad on the limo ride home, saying she wished she could get a hot air balloon filled with Mexicans and dump them on this side of the border just to piss him off. In other words, she’s sensitive to the plight of at least some minorities.
But when she talks to two young Central American food vendors, she admits, “I don’t like Asian guys. I’ve never dated them.” One of them volunteers that a couple weeks ago, she met an Asian guy and was shocked she was attracted to him. “I feel bad for Asian guys ’cause who is?!” Handler added, to laughs from both.
Huh. So we’re supposed to feel for them when they’re sometimes stereotypically mistaken for maids, yet they’ve just stereotyped every Asian guy (except one so far) as unattractive? OK, you’re losing my empathy here.
On a drive around Los Angeles, Handler’s obese black friend Loni (no last name) says she’s never considered dating Asian men because they supposedly have small penises. Honey, small penises should be the least of your concerns.
And of course, when it comes to racial jokes, Handler and her comic friends (including Margaret Cho) believe anything is fair game and as we saw, Handler will even defend attacks on three-year-old Asian kids who “asked for it.” Inevitably, it’s a bit incongruous.
“Chelsea Does… Racism,” executive produced by Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmakers Morgan Neville (who won the Oscar for “Twenty Feet From Stardom”) and Eddie Schmidt, is available on Netflix.
Arigato Department: Thanks to fellow Rafu columnist Phil Shigekuni for asking me to speak at the annual installation of officers lunch for the San Fernando Valley JACL last Sunday. It was great meeting a bunch of progressive folks (and a surprising number originally from Hawaii!), talking to those I’ve met before, and seeing how invested they are in the way Asian Americans are portrayed in the media.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.