Black Skin, White Laughs

The ‘It’s Always Sunny’ musical episode about racism was…a little racist


Last night’s musical episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia kicked off the sitcom’s 12th season by heavily leaning into the show’s core conceit: telling a story about The Gang, a group of ignorant, objectively bad white people who, after dealing with a series of self-inflicted mishaps, learn A Very Important Lesson about the world…that they promptly forget as soon as the credits roll.

Last night’s episode, “The Gang Turns Black,” was exactly the sort of tale its title suggests.

Fans will tell you that it’s Sunny’s crass, irreverent sense of humor that makes it so good, but after last night’s season premiere, it’s difficult not to see Sunny as little more than a showcase of white comics patting themselves on the back being brave enough to use black suffering for a couple of cheap laughs.

“The Gang Turns Black” has a pretty straightforward plot: While watching a broadcast of The Wiz with their good friend who’s only ever referred to as Old Black Man, The Gang gets into a debate about whether things as a whole are objectively better for black people in modern times. Sure, Donald Trump is about to become our president, but we’re coming off eight years with Barack Obama, you know?

When Charlie (Charlie Day) asks Dennis (Glenn Howerton) just how great things can be when movements like Black Lives Matter continue to draw attention to systemic police brutality, Dennis responds with a joke straight out of a predominantly white writer’s room:

“I don’t know why it took them so long to realize that their lives matter. They’ve always mattered,” Dennis says. “But, I would also say that All Lives Matter, you know, and while black people may not feel like it, it’s kinda tough out there right now for everybody. Really our lives aren’t all that different.”

Seconds later, The Gang’s apartment is struck by lightning, short-circuiting the electric blankets they’re huddled beneath, and knocking the group out cold. When they come to the next morning, Old Black Man is mysteriously missing and Charlie is shocked to discover that when he looks into a nearby mirror, there’s a black child staring back at him. Soon, the whole Gang realizes they’ve all been magically put into the bodies of black people (who are thankfully played by black actors.)

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The following 20 minutes of “The Gang Turns Black” are a series of (funky!) songs about how crazy it is to wake up as a black person.

The Gang, feeling awkward in their newfound blackness, wander the streets of Philadelphia and get into all sorts of trouble. Their misadventures are meant to shed light on the everyday racism black people deal with. Even though The Gang literally still see one another as white people, the world sees them as black and treats them accordingly. While trying to break into own their car because they’ve lost the keys, Charlie, Dennis, and Mac are arrested by the police because, you know, it looks like they’re stealing.

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Speaking to the The Guardian, Howerton, who also writes and co-created Sunny, acknowledged the questionable optics of having a group of white men voice their opinions about being black in America. But he went out of his way to point out that the episode got a black person’s tacit approval: There was a lone black assistant/writer “generally in the room the entire time, because we don’t mind pushing boundaries, but it’s never our intention to be insensitive or offensive,” Howerton explained.

Later in the episode, Frank (Danny DeVito) sings about how great it feels to finally be able to say the n-word without being called out. We hear bits of banter about it’s unwise to make assumptions about the financial wellbeing of people based solely on their race. It’s in the episode’s closing scene, though, that Sunny shows how ill-equipped it is to handle or understand substantive commentary on race.

The Gang encounters the police for a second time and, confident he can reason with them, Charlie (who, remember, has become a young black boy) attempts to approach them with a toy train in his hand. Immediately, the police officers shoot Charlie multiple times in the abdomen, prompting the rest of The Gang to break out into a song about how this is the sort of lesson they were supposed to learn.

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If there’s anything “The Gang Turns Black” proves, it’s that having a single black writer/assistant “in the room” (good job!) didn’t prevent a show about a group of white people from being deeply flawed in its handling of race.

For all of its pretense of using brusque, “edgy” comedy to expose the uncomfortable realities of how most people live with some degree of racial prejudice,”The Gang Turns Black” ultimately falls short because it isn’t saying things that its audience doesn’t already know. Nothing that happens in the course of the show is news to black people, and its black characters are nothing more than literal costumes for its white actors to emote through.

Instead, what we’re left with is 30 minutes of a shoddy musical about a bunch of mildly racist white people reveling in what it means to be a mildly racist white person. Moments of black pain, suffering, and murder are played up for laughs in a way that doesn’t invite reflection or introspection, but rather on-screen giggles and punchlines—proving that Sunny isn’t nearly half as funny as it thinks it is.