Saturday Night Regression: More Charlie Chan humor from SNL

I called it the “New Charlie Chan-ism” when it surfaced on Saturday Night Live two years ago with its depiction of Chinese President Hu Jintao at a mock press conference.

But this past weekend SNL’s “Charlie Chan” style is back, and it’s actually worse.

Did you see the SNL skit where they show the tech geeks meeting the Chinese factory workers?

Actually, it’s pretty funny when the satirical targets are the stereotypical gadget geeks and Apple “fanboys,” who will go to great lengths to get the latest iteration of cool from the company that knows how to calculate cool’s obsolescence better than anyone.

The characterization of the soft passive whiny nature of the geeks is priceless.

That’s funny.

But when the skit writers try to step it up and bring on a gotcha confrontation with the actual Chinese factory workers, that’s where SNL begins to tread on dangerous ground.

It is the “Miss Saigon” debate all over again.

Cameron Mackintosh didn’t really win that battle years ago. What his company did eventually was to hire more Asian actors to play the male lead.

And that’s all SNL had to do last weekend.

The lines they gave the actors who played the Chinese workers were funny. They are the real pin-prickers in this satire. The issues are real. First world geeks and their toys produced essentially by mistreated workers. It’s the same thing as the shoes and garments produced from overseas factories. Too bad there’s no PETCW, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Chinese Workers.

I mean, how can circumstances so horrible produce something so cool? Fanboys are oblivious. And the workers just want to get infant formula for their babies.

But were the SNL writers not confident in the bite of their satire so that they felt a need to rely on the ching-chongy accents of white actors to make sure it was funny?

A little laugh insurance? I mean, everyone laughs at white people doing ching-chongy accents, right? High satire it ain’t. That’s morning DJ 101.

I was a little surprised to see Fred Armisen play one of the lead Chinese workers. After all, he did play the Obama character previously until he was replaced this year by Jay Pharaoh. Pharaoh is African American. Armisen, reports say, has a mother of Venezuelan descent and a father who is German/Japanese. There’s no black in Armisen. But Obama is white and African, a mix. There’s some white in Armisen. And besides he has Obama’s ears cold.

A similar argument was made years ago about Jonathan Pryce playing the Engineer in “Miss Saigon.” With the character supposedly being Eurasian, Pryce was at least half-right for the part by race.

I actually had no problem with Armisen’s transracial portrayals. In the past, he’s also done an excellent Gov. David Paterson and Prince.

But when he was replaced this year, I thought it was a move for the better. Not only had Pharaoh emerged as a comedic talent, but I thought maybe it finally dawned on the producers that Armisen’s Obama portrayal really was a “nouveau Jolson,” a modern blackface role in 200-effing-12.

Does blackface make sense in modern times? Even for laughs? Eddie Murphy playing Buckwheat didn’t require extra makeup. If you put a white person in that role, you’d certainly have the NAACP giving Standards and Practices a call.

Yet, when it comes to Asians, it seems the whiter you are, the better, the contrast more ridiculous between serving up a white in black hair and squinty eyes and talking goo-goo-ching-chong pidgin. The high-minded satire didn’t need to be dumbed down.

Besides, NBC and SNL surely have the money to spring for a few real Asian faces. There are plenty of unemployed Asian actors and comedians who would have killed to play the parts for real. Usually you see them playing extras as judges and jurors in court shows. Or walking around as nurses in hospital dramas. That’s how bad it is for unemployed Asian American actors. They would have made great Chinese factory workers.

Recently, when SNL had Bobby Moynihan do the PSY horse dance, I was ready to pounce. Bobby Moynihan as Asian rapper may be comedic, but even SNL realized how much funnier it was when the real PSY came on the set.

A real Asian guy getting the laugh. That was funny.

The non-Asian Chinese factory workers? Not so funny.

I was watching the Yankees lose and didn’t see it the first time as it aired. But I was tweeted by some who were bothered by the bit. Then I looked at the Mediaite site and was surprised that the comments from non-Asians were generally laudatory. “Spot on,” said one. “Funny because it was politically incorrect.”

A lot of people from all sides just don’t seem to get it. They got the insensitivity of the American geeks, and sided with the workers. But they accepted the racist portrayal? Meanwhile, they didn’t understand why Asian Americans would be upset. The issue didn’t die with “Miss Saigon,” as we can see. I don’t necessarily want Asian Americans playing Othello. But it would be nice to see more Asian American actors catching a break.

What do you think?

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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