Thursday, November 8, 2007

Playlist: Making fun of the Chinese

Racial and ethnic mockery is a cornerstone of American humor. Heck, it may be a cornerstone of world humor, I don’t know. But it doesn’t quite sit well with modern multiculti sensibilities.

In the weeks to come, let’s study some old and new examples of “ethnic comedy” and see if it bothers us. We’ll start with the Chinese.

Everybody knows that Chinamen talk funny, which is always good for a laugh, be you Jew or gentile, black or Hispanic. So click the track titles below and hear professional jokers poke fun at the Chinese.

1. “Chinese Mule Train” – Spike Jones

Bandleader Spike Jones was sort of the “Weird Al” Yankovic of the 1940s and ’50s, except Jones was an expert musical arranger. Instead of parodying hit songs by means of silly lyrics, Spike Jones went bananas with comical sound effects.

Vocalist Freddy Morgan (pictured) specialized in a ching-chongy “Oriental dialect”... most notably displayed on this Spike Jones version of the Frankie Laine hit “Mule Train.”

2. “Signifying Baby Seals” – Pigmeat Markham

Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham was the last of the old-school black vaudevillians. He was so old-school, he continued to perform in blackface in the 1950s.

In this clip, Pigmeat serves as straight man to a comic named Seals. The joke involves a “Chinee detective.” (Not Chinese, Chinee.)

3. “Chinese People” – Rudy Moreno

Just to show you that mocking Asians never goes out of style, here’s a routine from a modern-day L.A. standup, Rudy Moreno. (Who, by the way, did a great job playing a Mexican drug lord – “El Lomo” – in my TV show “Kingpin.”)

Not only do Chinese people talk funny, they tend to be less-than-adequate drivers.

4. “The Original Chinese Waiter” – Buddy Hackett

Ronald L. Smith is the author of “Goldmine Comedy Record Price Guide,” an indispensable reference book for students of American comedy. According to Smith, a young Buddy Hackett made a name for himself on the Borscht Belt with one routine: “The Chinese Waiter.”

This is it... a little slice of show-business history.


Brian said...

Also there is the stuttering chinaman routine by Richard Pryor.

Second bit in.

Schottzie03 said...

"Everybody knows that Chinamen talk funny"

The proper nomenclature is Oriental, dude.

Thembi said...

I'm surprised you left out the classic character from Breakfast at Tiffany's!

memomachine said...


1. Not only do Chinese people talk funny, they tend to be less-than-adequate drivers.

Not to add to any sterotypes but this is somewhat true. Evidently there's a big problem with Chinese drivers in that they have a hard time keeping their eyes on the road while having a conversation with a passenger. They tend to try and look at the person they're talking to.

As an aside my mother, Korean, hit the same exact tree, in the same exact place, doing the same exact thing, with the same car three times in three years. My father, as you can imagine, shouted "God D**n it! Stop driving on this d**n road!".

Note to self: laughing uproariously after a car accident and in the presence of parents is a *bad* idea. :)

2. He was so old-school, he continued to perform in blackface in the 1950s.

I keep forgetting how weird that era was. An African-American wearing blackface in an act. That's pretty odd.

Edshugeo The GodMoor said...

There was an argument that blackface served the same purpose as as clown makeup for portraying broad comical situations in front of a live crowd (no close-ups pre-television). Then again blackface performers were not silent the way clowns tend to be (I think).

British comedian Lenny Henry (of Jamaican descent) started out on a "minstrel" show in the late 1970s, apparently in blackface himself.

I was gonna mention the stuttering Chinese. I remembered it as Eddie Murphy for a second or two.

Comedians tend to mock Cantonese rather than Mandarin. Though I speak (or understand) neither, I hear a noticeable difference.

Wanda said...

Oh that Breakfast at Tiffany's is classic. Though Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon has got to be up there too. Nothing like a 5'10" white man spending half his time crouching in a movie to play Japanese.

bill said...

There's also John Wayne playing Genghis Khan.

I've always felt that the "We are Siamese" routine from Lady and the Tramp and the "red injun" song from Peter Pan are more offensive than anything out of Song of the South.

RC said...

What do the Chinese care about the laughing now? The Chinese in China control the US economy at this point so they have the last laugh.
When you get to making fun of the Japanese, don't forget Woody Allen's extremely low budget comedy, "What's Up, Tiger Lily?". He made it for next to nothing. He bought the rights to a Japanese shlock submarine film and he dubbed it into English with all new and ridiculous one-liner dialogue. I believe it cost about $2000 at the time.

Edshugeo The GodMoor said...

The Chinese never cared as far as I know (I'm not Chinese, so maybe I don't). Chinese Americans, that's another story, since they've actually got to put up with the nonsense.

Hong Kong movies have been very politically incorrect with their humor. Sammo Hung's Don't Give A Damn is a good example with it's blackface issues and black crime trivia quiz.

Tsui Hark (educated in Texas) had an interesting take on the stuttering Chinese in Once Upon A Time In China with his interpretation of the Bucktooth So character. So was a disciple of Master Wong Fei Hong (Jet Li). In this movie Ah So stuttered in Chinese but spoke perfect English. I don't know if this is a reference to American stereotypes as the character predates this particular film (there are over one hundred Wong Fei Hong movies) which does address the Chinese coming to grips with western influence and the rule of the gun overtaking kung fu.

What's Up Tiger Lily is awesome. I'm waiting for somebody to package it with the original film somehow. Haven't seen that one in a while.

The Stepfather of Soul said...

"Signifying Baby Seals" is one of my favorite Pigmeat Markham routines. Although Pigmeat is the straightman on this one, I think that he and Seals had some of the best exchanges on any of the Pigmeat recordings.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ "Sealsy boy, Sealsy boy, Sealsy boy..."

Welcome to my spot, Stepfather. Thanks for commenting.

memomachine said...


There's also John Wayne playing Genghis Khan.

I had always thought that was an urban legend or something until I saw the movie.

"That Tartar woman makes my blood boil!"

I could not believe that was John Wayne with the tape on the eyes, to make them look Chinese, in that film. Watching that movie was the oddest experience.

The Chinese in China control the US economy at this point so they have the last laugh.

Not really. Any problems the US economy has is magnified a thousands times in China.

Anonymous said...

@rc, you are aware that there are asians living in America who are citizens don't you? The problem with mocking Asians is that you know it wouldn't happen if they had a stronger political voice in this country. We just want to be mocked on the same level as everyone else.