Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thinly Veiled Death Threats and Failed Marriages: The Humor of Madea

            Tyler Perry’s Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings presents a kind of literature that stands apart from everything we have read in class thus far.  It is not play or a novella critiquing society, nor is it an analysis by a classical philosopher that condemns humor and laughter as malicious.  Madea’s commentary is closest in structure to the short stories of Sedaris and Hau’ofa, which provide commentary through short narratives.  However, it stands apart for its unique narration and structure.  The introductory commentary from Perry states that the book is written entirely by Madea, a character in some of his movies.  This mixes the world of fiction with reality while establishing a clear basis for the reader to understand how the book is written.  Upon examining the table of contents, I noticed that the book is organized by subject matter that Madea is discussing.  In this way, it is structured like a book of advice so that the reader can find a topic they need help with and find a page with some advice. The character of Madea appears to be based on a culture of advice, supervision, and a little bit of gossip.  There were Madeas everywhere when he grew up, acting as protectors of the neighborhood. Perry mentions the essential roles they played in neighborhoods like his own, saying, “If somebody’s child was doing something wrong, Madea  got to them and straightened them out, or she would go directly to the parents, and the parents straightened the kids out” (X).  They were the law and order of the world that he lived in.  Establishing this facet of the character of Madea helps establish the basis for Perry/Madea’s humor.  It is based in a culture that supposedly no longer exists, but that does not make it inaccessible for the reader.  The topics covered by Madea are still relevant, and Perry's writing brings her to vivid life, where she does not need much extra explanation to be understood.  The cultural experiences that built Madea are easily communicated by Madea herself, ensuring that the reader will not be lost in her advice.
            What makes the humor of Madea interesting is the fact that Perry introduces her by saying she is unpredictable.  I would think that being told someone is unpredictable negates that aspect, but with Madea, I was still surprised by what she would say while giving advice and discussing her life experiences.  In her chapter on marriage, Madea says, “I was married eight times, and I stayed with every one of my husbands for life, for their lives. You see, they all died after some terrible arguments” (Perry 46).  This sentence started off in a way that was unexpected, with an elderly woman discussing the fact that she had more dead spouses than Henry VII.  However, failed marriages are relatively common in the United States, so the number was not too jarring.  The rest of the sentence, mentioning that she outlived every single one of the husbands and that their deaths followed arguments, is the unexpected part.  That many deaths following one woman is suspicious, and it carries the heavy implication that she had some hand in their death.  The fact that she later admits to her guilt in their deaths shows that Madea is very violent and not afraid to take the life of another person.  This sets her apart from the average elderly woman. 
            The Madea/Perry brand of humor is based on examining common experience that many people likely share and presenting it through the lens of an unpredictable elderly woman.  Madea’s views on life would be shocking no matter who was sharing them.  The fact that they are delivered by an older woman who is supposed to be an important neighborhood fixture makes them shocking and hilarious.  Using shock to make the audience laugh puts Perry/Madea’s humor into the category of incongruity. The expectations of a sweet little grandma are subverted by Madea’s unique brand of honesty and exaggeration.

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