Jon Hamm, Mary J Blige, Ashton Kutcher, Sacha Baron Cohen

PopChips, NBC, Burger King, Paramount Pictures

Now that Ashton Kutcher's racist PopChips ad has been pulled, I've gotten to wondering: Is doing racially charged comedy, such as blackface, ever OK?

—Vegas is Boring, via the inbox

Well, there sure seems to have been a resurgence of it lately, if you include Jon Hamm's appearance on 30 Rock; Mary J. Blige's ill-advised Burger King commercial—which, while not meant to be racially charged comedy, ended up being just that—and, yes, Ashton Kutcher's epic fail. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, who is well known for shock comedy, is taking flak for a possibly bigoted portrayal of a dictator.

But if you think this is the last time we'll see racially dangerous japery, you're probably wrong. Why? Because, from what I am told, sometimes this kind of stuff actually is acceptable.

Joining me to help out on this answer is Nsenga K. Burton, a Ph.D. and pop-culture critic who has written on hot-button topics many times for the Root and other outlets.

The general rule of thumb when it comes to comedy like this? Context, Burton says.

If the core of the joke is about racism, or ignorance, or how horrible a stereotype is, the comedy may work.

That's why you didn't see a flood of outrage over Hamm's blackface gag on 30 Rock. The point of the joke was the racism of American television.

"The thing with 30 Rock is, it provided context," Burton points out. "In that episode, they are poking fun at the industry. There's a difference between doing that, providing that context, versus just throwing on some blackface and going to a Halloween party."

But if the laugh is about someone's race, the way someone looks, or the way a minority supposedly behaves, it is not cool. That's why Kutcher's tin-eared attempt at humor offended.

Finally: The Dictator. It may be too soon to say whether Baron Cohen's latest project will prove more offensive than funny. But Burton notes that the main character, a Middle Eastern dictator, may be a type of brownface without the makeup.


"Because [Baron Cohen] isn't exploding a stereotype," Burton points out. "He's supporting it."

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