Why Martin Luther King Jr. Would Have Watched Jersey Shore

The Jersey Shore, Racism, And Martin Luther King Jr.

We always forget something about the “Jersey Shore”.

Ronnie, J-Wow, Pauly-D — they had to apply for the show. This means MTV had to turn down legions of over-tanned, under-read guidos and guidettes. Surely, there was some girl too Snooki for even Snooki. A bro more vain than even The Situation. The real question, then, is: what are they doing right now? Do they watch Snooki’s censored flips in the club, or Ronnie obliterating another loudmouth on the Boardwalk and shrug: that’s it? What are they planning for this upcoming Friday night?

Our parents always forget something about the “Jersey Shore”, too.

To them, the transcendent success of the show foretells the apocalyptic end of Western Civilization. To outraged Italian American groups, the show is the worst thing to happen to their cultural pride since someone told Jay Leno he was funny. National Italian American Federation President Joseph V. Del Raso sneered the cast has “more in common with the adolescent residents of Animal House than with Italian Americans.” Joy Behar lamented, “It makes it hard for young Italian Americans to be taken seriously in the work force.”

The Situation heartily disagreed on the Today show, “We represent ourselves. We’re not saying we’re a definition of Jersey, or a definition of New York, or a definition of Italians. I just happen to be Italian. I happen to have some spiky hair and a six-pack, and I am proud to have that. And if you don’t like me, I don’t care. I still got 5 million viewers Thursday nights at 10 p.m.”

Funny Jersey Girls Protest Sign

But this isn’t new. America’s persistent race problem has best been seen through the prism of TV comedy for decades. Going back to the 1970s, it has taken a laugh track and predictable plot twists streamed into TV rooms across the country for Americans to have frank conversations about race.

“The Jeffersons” (1975-1985) remains the longest-running show with a predominantly African American cast in the history of American TV. “The Jeffersons” was not an overtly political show, but it was right there in its opening theme song, “Movin’ On Up”, following the adventures of a middle class black family climbing the rungs of the 1970’s America socio-economic ladder. But “The Jeffersons” was too early for us Millenials. (Ditto the tragic Rodney King beating in 1991.)

Full Cast of Fresh Prince of Bel Air Photo

We reminisce “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air” about a trouble-making teenager (Will Smith) “from West Philadelphia born and raised” who is sent to live with his affluent African American relatives in a Bel Air mansion. (Interestingly, Will Smith agreed to the show because he owed the IRS $2.8 million in unpaid taxes.) While the Fresh Prince resides in a mostly white Bel-Air kingdom, we remember the show less for racial anecdotes and more for Will Smith pre-Summer Blockbuster Will Smith and Carlton’s goofy dance.

Youngsters and tweens today gobble up “Dora the Explorer” episodes—the first cartoon starring a Hispanic character in American TV history. For those of us born in the 1980s, however, the most candid conversation millions of us (especially white) Millennials heard in our formative years came—not from our parents or teachers—but HBO comedy specials. Freed from the shackles of the FCC and political correctness, minority entertainers have levered the most legitimate critiques of America’s (not-so-latent) racial tensions. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle pummeled America’s racial double-standard by punchline; Jay-Z by rhyme.

Yes, Chris Rock repeats himself (and repeats himself). Comedians joke Chris Rock only needs to bring 20 minutes of material for an hour set. But before Chris Rock sold out (See: “Grown Ups”), he consistently made the most spot-on political and race observations of any comedian today:

On American Segregation: “Every town has the same two malls: the one white people go to and the one white people used to go to.”

On Early 2000s Current Events: “You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese… Need I say more?”

On Gay Marriage: “Gay people got a right to be as miserable as everybody else.”

On Black Vs. White Job Opportunities: “A black boy that makes C’s in college can’t even run a Burger King. A white boy that makes C’s in college can make it to the White House”

And then there’s Dave Chappelle. Chappelle was our generation’s Richard Pryor. His “Chappelle Show” was one of the highest rated comedies of all time. Yet the pressure, $50 million a year Comedy Central contract, and the massive expectations got to Chappelle. He was performing a Season 3 skit, heard a chubby white guy in the audience laugh a little harder than he should have, and Dave snapped. Chappelle left the studio, fled to Africa, and has lived on a 65-acre farm in Ohio ever since.

As filmmaker Sydney Pollack observed, “Talent is liquefied trouble.” And it’s unfortunate. Dave Chappelle brilliance lay in his racial powers of perception. He knew exactly what whites thought of blacks, and vice versa. He caricatured white news anchors to white agents to perfection. Chappelle’s famed “Racial Draft” was arguably one of his most prescient and funniest skits of all:


Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. An intoxicated Snooki doing back-flips in the club was not that dream. But he might have seen the show’s unintended merit.

To paraphrase Ronnie, critics need to stop drinking the Haterade. The “Jersey Shore” doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes about Italian-Americans. It explodes them. You have never met a girl like Snooki. None of your friends is like The Situation. As exacerbating as your co-worker or classmate may be, she is not Angelina.

Racism and stereotyping are bad. Discriminating against someone for skin color or nationality—factors they can’t even choose—is vile. Yet to keep the issue in the dark is also wrong. The politically correct tactic to muffle the race conversation does more harm than good, allowing false perceptions to take root in the name of censorship and bowdlerization. The real strength of a nation’s culture is measured not by how restrictive it is, but by how free. It is right that makes might, not the other way ‘round.

I am white. I do like mayonnaise. And I do own a shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch. But that’s OK. Because the accidental genius of the “Jersey Shore” is it loosens us up to have the race conversation. It’s just ironic that it took a motley crew of rabble-rousing, tanned guidos and guidettes pillaging and plundering Boardwalks up and down the East Coast for us to have it.




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  1. Leonard says:

    I like how you brought this back around—I didn’t know how you would bring MLK and Snooki together. Nice piece.

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