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Netflix’s latest comedy offering begins with a racist, xenophobic monologue pinning the Covid-19 pandemic on China and Chinese people. In the first episode of his four-part special Schulz Saves America, YouTuber Andrew Schulz calls the novel coronavirus “the Asian parasite” and the “Wuhanic Plague.” His language echoes anti-Chinese rhetoric used by Donald Trump and other GOP leaders, which coincided with a rise in racist violence across the country.
“To all the people out there saying America shouldn’t have been showing so much skin, I refuse to victim-blame,” Schulz says of criticism that the United States was not adequately prepared for the virus. “How about, China shouldn’t have been shoving it down our throats?” An image of people wearing masks appears beside him. “Don’t tell America what to wear. Tell China not to infect. I mean, let’s be honest: next to squatting to smoke a cigarette, slinging viruses is their favorite thing to do. They make everything over there: bubonic plague, SARS, bird flu, corona, 15-second dance videos. I mean, Chinese viruses have killed almost as many people as Chinese dictators.”
Schulz follows up these generalizations about Chinese people by claiming he’s not talking about Chinese people, only the Chinese government. He argues that if Xi Jinping—whom he calls “Winnie the Flu”—had closed wet markets, “maybe we could all have Christmas with our meemaws.” (China did shut down wildlife markets, which are often erroneously conflated with wet markets. Moreover, the debunked idea that the coronavirus originated in Chinese wet markets is based in racist stereotyping.) “I love the Chinese,” he continues. “I love Asians in general… Asians are the best. I mean, Jeremy Lin, Jet Li, Squirtle, Mickey Rooney, the list is oolong. These are the people I wonton my team. But the Chinese government, though? Fuck ‘em.”
He offers less colorful contempt for his own country’s response to the pandemic. He applauds early guidance that people wash their hands and wear masks, while criticizing Democratic leaders who didn’t follow their own rules and Republican officials who profited off early warnings about the virus. Then he uses a few examples of overly strict enforcement—Los Angeles filling in skate parks, the arrest of a man playing catch with his daughter—to argue against health restrictions more broadly. “Did these precautions really protect us from getting the virus? Probably not,” he says. At the same time, he declines to criticize Trump’s lax pandemic policy “because we still don’t know the long term impact of the lung flu lockdown. I mean, sure, it would’ve decreased deaths today, but the economic effects alone could cause far more deaths due to poverty, suicide, or your girl forcing you to watch Selling Sunset.”
Schulz returns to the idea that China (which he conflates with Asia) is to blame for the pandemic in his second episode. During a segment debunking QAnon conspiracy theories about Hollywood pedophiles, he dismisses allegations around a few celebrities before arriving at Woody Allen. “Maybe that Woody is a pedophile,” he says. “But to be fair to him, he married her and they’re still together. So that begs the question: is she the cure? Asia, you might’ve given us one virus, but you solved another.”
As numerous outlets have reported, rhetoric blaming China for the novel coronavirus has been connected to hate crimes against Asian Americans throughout the pandemic. Here’s the New York Times in March:
While no firm numbers exist yet, Asian-American advocacy groups and researchers say there has been a surge of verbal and physical assaults reported in newspapers and to tip lines.
San Francisco State University found a 50 percent rise in the number of news articles related to the coronavirus and anti-Asian discrimination between Feb. 9 and March 7. The lead researcher, Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies, said the figures represented “just the tip of the iceberg” because only the most egregious cases would be likely to be reported by the media.
Professor Jeung has helped set up a website in six Asian languages to gather firsthand accounts; some 150 cases have been reported on the site since it was started last Thursday.
In the San Fernando Valley in California, a 16-year old Asian-American boy was attacked in school by bullies who accused him of having the coronavirus. He was sent to the emergency room to see whether he had a concussion.
In New York City a woman wearing a mask was kicked and punched in a Manhattan subway station, and a man in Queens was followed to a bus stop, shouted at and then hit over the head in front of his 10-year-old son.
The phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Here’s Human Rights Watch in May:
Increases in racist rhetoric have coincided with increases in racist attacks. Since February, Asians and people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to attacks and beatings, violent bullying, threats, racist abuse, and discrimination that appear linked to the pandemic.
In Italy, the civil society group Lunaria since February has collected over 50 reports and media accounts of assaults, verbal harassment, bullying, and discrimination against people of Asian descent. Human rights and other groups in France, Australia, and Russia have also told Human Rights Watch of Covid-19-related attacks and harassment of people of Asian descent.
In the UK, Asian people have been punched in the face and taunted, accused of spreading coronavirus. Two women attacked Chinese students in Australia, punching and kicking one and yelling “Go back to China” and “you fucking immigrants.” Two men attacked a Chinese-American in Spain and beat him so badly that he was in a coma for two days. A man with a knife attacked a Burmese family in Texas.
In Africa, there have been reports of discrimination and attacks on Asian people accused of carrying coronavirus, as well as foreigners generally, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. In Brazil, the media have reported harassment and shunning of people of Asian descent.
It’s unfortunate that Netflix, which over the summer declared its commitment to combating anti-Black racism, would give a platform to such dangerous anti-Asian racism. But it’s not terribly surprising. Stereotypical portrayals of Asian characters are still prevalent in Hollywood, where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are drastically underrepresented. Comedians in particular like to wield their art form as a get-out-of-jail-free card for all manner of racist jokes and stereotyping. Just a few months ago Netflix came under fire for a joke mocking Indians in Christina Paszitsky’s 2017 special:
Lmao, went from just being white and stupid, to, overt racism.
Love that, thanks @NetflixIsAJoke. https://t.co/RXZ58qEiOa pic.twitter.com/b8WwXM0aj1October 23, 2020
That such a joke could go unremarked upon for three years, plus however long Paszitsky told it before the special, is a stark symbol of the comedy industry’s inability to weed out overt racism. So is Schulz Saves America, whose namesake is widely regarded as one of standup’s rising stars. A regular at clubs like the Comedy Cellar, he’s gained a considerable following on YouTube, where he self-released his first special in 2017. (When I met him at the Cellar in January, he passionately questioned me about why I’d do what I did to Shane Gillis.) He currently hosts the podcast “Flagrant 2” with Akaash Singh and Schulz Saves America co-producers AlexxMedia and Mark Gagnon. Here’s its description on Patreon:
Tired of these politically correct, pandering, pussies regurgitating the same luke warm takes?
So are we. That’s why we started Flagrant 2. Raw, unapologetic, unsafe, unfiltered shit talk. A throwback to times when people actually cracked jokes and weren’t offended by everything. We are the voice in your head. The conversations you whisper with your friends. We are the remedy to this chaotic world. Come kick it with us, join the asshole Army, and feel NORMAL again. We are asking for your support because that’s the only way to ensure these unfiltered convos can continue. The PC mob will come for your sponsors, they will come for your network, but they can’t come for your people. Join our ranks, help us grow our army and battle this beta male bullshit. These snowflakes don’t want war! LETS FUCKING GO!!!
Oh and we also talk about sports.
“Flagrant 2” has more than 18,000 patrons and makes more than $89,000 per month.
Schulz is part of a growing contingent of right-leaning, fan-funded comics who consider themselves populists more in touch with comedy audiences than the gatekeepers who reject them. He’s boasted that his debut album topped the charts despite getting turned down by every network; last year he told Joe Rogan that the rise of podcasts will bring the death of Netflix:
Netflix cannot compete. I understand that these long-form narrative shows like Stranger Things, Ozark, et cetera have a lot more moving parts. There's camera people, makeup, et cetera. I'm not denying it. But people aren't watching that anymore. People aren't watching that anymore. They're not watching that or standup. They're watching Friends. The two most-watched shows on their platform, Netflix doesn't even own! Netflix isn't even trying to make money anymore. They're getting bought out. It's Facebook, Amazon, and YouTube now. They want to get bought out. That's the strategy now. They're 10 billion dollars in debt. There's no way that they can make money.
We can view his sudden embrace of the platform as a proof of concept: when you succeed outside the traditional avenues, the traditional avenues take notice. He won. Now he gets to reach bigger audiences and take home a nice paycheck. On the other end of the bargain, Netflix gets a hot new commodity and his considerable fanbase at an even lower cost than most comedy specials: production-wise, Schulz Saves America is little more than a chair and a white backdrop.
Or we could view it as evidence that when the traditional avenues consistently reject you, it’s probably because you’re not very good. Like Schulz’s other work, Schulz Saves America is an astounding mess of lazy thinking hammered into the vaguely discernible shape of jokes, most of them based around pop culture references (Carole Baskin and the Kardashians get quite a few mentions). After his anti-China schtick in the first episode, he goes on a tangent about how the pandemic “squashed the momentum for the body positivity movement” because obesity is a major Covid-19 comorbidity. From this he concludes the US got hit so hard by the pandemic because it’s a nation of “unhealthy” (fat) people, as though this were simply an a priori fact of nature with no structural causes. In the fourth episode, Schulz characterizes media polarization as Fox News calling Bernie Sanders a godless socialist while MSNBC paints Mitch McConnell as a racist. (Hmm.) There are extremists on both sides, don’t you see, and they’re no different than each other, in fact they’re equally unthreatening, the real problem is the corporate media that terrifies us into submission by pretending extremism is all there is:
I’m not saying we don’t have radicals in this country. There are Nazis, anarchists, the Beyhive. And the media loves to make their opposition look more extreme than a Shaun White Supremacist. But for the 80% of us in the middle, this only exists on TV, like hot doctors and Jew cops. There’s no milkshake tossing Antifa super soldier behind you in Starbucks. There’s no low-T tiki torch tools at Trader Joe’s. Thats just how the media makes it feel.
Then he argues that white men voted for Trump because the “PC movement” made them feel attacked. What boring tripe! It’s as if he took the New York Times op-ed page and translated it into a breathless, spoken-word style monologue dense with alliteration and devoid of charm. Other than the brazen racism and fatphobia of the first episode, you’d have no idea Schulz considers himself some sort of anti-establishment warrior. In the third episode, he pitches “restructure the police” as an alternative to “defund the police,” which he deems bad marketing for a policy that even cops support. (They don’t.) In the fourth, he says he couldn’t name any policy Joe Biden ran on, “but it didn’t matter because we didn’t want some visionary, we just wanted a return to normalcy.” This is the exact type of hack punditry he lampooned a few minutes earlier, delivered without any trace of irony. You almost get the sense he might not know what he’s talking about.
It’s embarrassing to watch, though I’m not sure if I’m more embarrassed for Schulz or his fans. The guy built his whole brand around the idea that he’s too offensive for the mainstream. Now he’s finally been welcomed into it and he’s using the opportunity to regurgitate party lines about everything from police violence to Covid-19 lockdowns to political polarization. I shouldn’t be surprised by the grift: his “Special Thanks” in the special’s credits includes Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, a right-wing propaganda factory secretly funded by billionaire GOP megadonors. (Hence, one supposes, all his reassurances that racism isn’t as much of a problem as MSNBC would tell you.) Still, I’m dismayed to see Netflix give a platform to vile nonsense at a time when it could do massive harm. I guess Schulz Saves America ultimately proves the most important rule of comedy: you needn’t be intelligent or perceptive or original or even funny to succeed. You just have to think you are.