On March 12, 2002, Comedy Central aired the South Park episode “Jared Has Aides”. Holding true to South Park form, the episode oscillated between incisive hilarity and unwatchable stupidity, the most lasting take-away from the episode being the “22.3 Years Rule”. Feeling compelled to address their many AIDS-related jokes, series scripters Trey Parker and Matt Stone devised a rather ingenious and tautological justification for their choices, declaring, in the episode itself, that any tragedy becomes funny after 22.3 years. With the first reported case of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome coming to light in early 1980, they claimed to now be free to joke about this extremely sensitive international public health issue. While Parker and Stone’s rule is preposterously disingenuous, it does provide an interesting framework for looking at crack humor.
Over the last quarter century, cocaine has worked its way into the public consciousness, gaining no little acknowledgment as an ever-present part of the recreational lives of the rich and famous. Used and abused by bankers and athletes, old money and the nouveau riche, cocaine was (and is) alternately celebrated and condemned as the epitome of the decadence and glamour of the lives of America’s privileged classes. Crack, however, is a different story. Crack is dirty, a street drug reserved for the dregs of America’s underclass. After its introduction to urban America in the mid-1980s, crack quickly came to symbolize everything white, middle-class America strove not to be and it was treated as such. In fact, the drug was seen as so catastrophic to the country that one of the great moral panics of the 1980s and 1990s concerned “crack babies,” a group judged to be tainted as physically and mentally broken before they were even born. Fair or not, the “crack baby” label carries enormous stigma to this day because, as Eion Cannon explained in his wonderful post on this very blog, crack is seen as a vessel of tragedy, a terrible hindrance to engaging in work and family. Cocaine is the drug of the 1%, of short-lived, high-achieving flameouts. Crack is the drug of the 99%, a group deadened to the rest of society, incapable of love, laughter, or even basic human feeling.
So what made crack funny? I don’t mean to say that crack is inherently humorous, but how did it come to serve as a comedic trope? And why was crack, a drug that produced enormous public concern about the future of the nation’s inner cities, not subject to the 22.3 Years Rule? While Parker and Stone’s AIDS jokes led them to invent an arbitrary rule to justify their practices, nobody has felt the need to justify crack-related humor. In just over a decade, crack became part of mainstream America’s comedic lexicon, with jokes on the topic first arising in left-leaning satirical outlets like The Onion and Mr. Show. In 1998, Adam Sandler’s smash hit The Waterboy saw casual crack-related humor come to the mainstream, employing ex-New York Giant Lawrence Taylor in a canny bit of self-deprecation. Sandler’s film, the fifth highest-grossing movie of the year, signalled a new willingness to casually josh about this long-villified substance.
In the last decade or so, television shows ranging from Futurama to The Sopranos to Chappelle’s Show to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and, yes, South Park have mined crack for humor. By 2011, joking about the most notorious of American street drugs was commonplace enough to have a place in the country’s greatest experiment in postmodern schadenfreude. Crack had barely been in the American mass consciousness for a decade before it became a commonly exploited element of popular drug-based comedy. So, again, why did American humorists so eagerly jump into employing crack humor? One might be tempted to make the case that these comedians were following in the tradition of those who found laughs in alcohol and marijuana. Those drugs, however, were never, in the public mind, so explicitly tied to the destruction of the nation’s poor and disenfranchised, nor were they as strongly connected to the black community.
It would be imprudent and unfair to call these jokes racist. Rather, they more represent a general willingness to nervously joke about the misfortunes of the underprivileged sorts we in the middle class so fear joining. Perhaps the very reason Trey Parker and Matt Stone waited 22.3 years to joke about AIDS is because, before the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic resided in Central and Southern Africa, it was found in the white-dominated, often monied neighbourhoods of San Francisco, and, when AIDS was put in that context, it seemed a little too threatening, a little too close to home. Perhaps if crack infiltrated the American white middle class, this brand of humor would be dead and gone before you could say “Jared Has Aides.”