In the 2012 bit “E-glesias with an I,” stand-up comedian Gabriel Iglesias re-enacts an encounter he had with a hotel clerk who misspelled his name. The premise is simple. The clerk, who is an African-American woman, insists that Gabriel’s last name is spelled with an E instead of an I, since it is pronounced “E-glesias.” Gabriel corrects her, telling her that it is, in fact, spelled with an I.
In the performance, Gabriel becomes the woman he had the encounter with. He assumes the vernacular, demeanor and “attitude” assigned to the stereotypical black woman. In an imitation of her speech, he says “Ah hear da bell,” instead of “I hear the bell,” following the sentence with his wide-eyed, intimidated response to her presence. He pretends to smoke. He has her curse in every line. He makes her appear irritated. Iglesias appears to perpetuate the negative stereotype, keeping the woman nameless so that she as an individual simultaneously aligns with and represents African-American women as a whole. Despite his stereotyping, the audience — a diverse lot — roars. How come?
There is a fine line between offensiveness and entertainment in humor. We all know that. That’s why some of us (especially those of us with mental illness in the family) cringe when we hear people call things “retarded.” We know that a white person cannot make a black joke. We know that there are parameters humor needs to follow for us to feel comfortable laughing along.
Religion. Race. Gender. Social class. Many topics — especially those regarding identity — are off-limits for a punch line. But here we have a Mexican-American man imitating an African-American woman — and it’s not a particularly flattering imitation at that. To start to understand why Iglesias’ comedy still makes his audience laugh, let’s look at what Time Magazine wrote about another comedian, Samantha Bee: “She has a flair for the baroque insult, calling Donald Trump, at various times, a ‘tangerine-tinted trash-can fire,’ ‘sociopathic 70-year-old toddler,’ ‘screaming carrot demon’ and ‘America’s burst appendix.’”
The difference is in the intent. Bee wants to injure, to depict Trump in a way that gets across how “demonic” and “toddler”-like he is. She is unapologetic and assured of the veracity of her convictions — and she is right to be. Iglesias, however, does something different.
In the beginning of the clip, he does something I didn’t really stop to think about at first. In a call for his fans to feel comfortable approaching him in public, he says, “If you ever see me in public, either at a restaurant, or at a hotel, or anywhere, and you want to stop me and say hello or take a picture or anything, please. I welcome it, and it’s an honor if you were to do that. I do not mind at all.” His warm tone and emphatic pauses add to his message by having the style of his speech emphasize the sincerity of his message. Even before he finishes speaking, the audience starts to clap and cheer; his humility strikes a chord with them. “Trust me, I’m the same pendejo you’ll see outside,” he says — “pendejo” meaning “idiot” in Spanish. He is an ordinary person, just like them.
Iglesias uses his humble and approachable personality to show that his imitation of the black woman, although racially charged, harbors no racist intent. He portrays himself as an “everyday” sort of guy, someone the audience can relate to, a fact he relies on later to uphold the comedic value of his otherwise offensive imitation of a black woman. The bit would be distasteful without it.
Iglesias “lets us all in on the joke,” according to Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post. It’s part of his approach — Iglesias does not alienate. He makes fun of himself just as much as he makes fun of Mexicans (his own race) or as much as he makes fun of everyone else. And he makes fun of everyone with everyone — it’s not an “us and them” type of deal. That’s why it works.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’ stanford.edu.