The creator of a now-infamous video depicting a cartoonishly racist Asian man insists that you just don't get his lowbrow humor. He is like Justin Bieber and you are not a Belieber. And, since you asked, yes, he'd also mock a black person in a video. But not if it were shown at a church.
On Monday, an ad for an Alabama law firm featuring a ridiculously racist caricature made its way across the web. The law firm quickly denied involvement in its creation, blaming the firm Definitive Television that was hosting the video. We tracked down the video's creator and star, Jim DeBerry of Orlando, Florida — who then read the article and reached out to us to defend his work. Being much more interested in how someone might justify the video, we got him on the phone.
"I'm in the middle of a Spike television production thing," DeBerry told The Wire as soon as we called. "I'm going to put you on hold for about 30 seconds." We waited patiently. When he returned from that pressing business — which didn't come up again in our 15-minute conversation — we first walked through his dispute with the law firm, McCutcheon & Hammer. The firm, understandably, isn't interested in being linked to the character DeBerry calls "Mr. Wong Fong Shu."
But DeBerry claims someone — who he said he wouldn't or couldn't name — contacted him to make the spot. He sent us some frankly baffling screenshots that he said proved his case (visible at the bottom of the post), and insisted that because he used a "third party intermediary, kind of like a broker," he couldn't say who'd requested it. Just that it was someone else. Asked why he wouldn't pull the law firm's ad, he explained, "If it's a bad movie a director doesn't like, you can't just make it go away. It's part of your profile and it's part of your make-up and we're not going to stop at this point."
We were more interested in exploring how DeBerry figured it was appropriate to make a few bucks by doing racist skits. On Twitter, he defended it as satire. To us, he explained was just "lowbrow humor," and that he had "plenty of data and plenty of individuals" who thought it was just fine. DeBerry explained his firm's philosophy:
We understand that no one wants to be chastised for liking something that may be considered unpopular by others, kind of like Justin Bieber or Britney Spears are going to get counterculture backlash. And some lowbrow stuff such as Jerry Springer's going to get backlash.
We're not saying the cheesy marketing videos we create aren't lowbrow. If any client wants to come to us and provide a script, whether it's a business or an individual, whatever they're using it for, we're happy to create it for them.
As long as it's not death or violence. Or drugs.
He does other characters, too — a dumb cop, a weird cowboy, a chef — but the Asian man is clearly different. We asked if he drew any distinction.
I mean, there's individuals like Ken Jeong, from The Hangover and multiple movies — who I believe is a gay actor, if I'm correct — and he parodies himself, self-deprecation. I don't believe there's a difference in my opinion, respectfully. Everyone's entitled to have their opinion. If they like Jim Varney or don't like Jim Varney or if they like Jim Carrey's character, or don't, that's a matter of opinion. And that's the great part about living in the free world.
(Note: Jeong is married to a woman.) At one point, DeBerry clarified that he only does the characters. "We don't write any of those scripts, by the way," he said. "I'm not a huge fan of other people's copy. Some of them, I think the copy's not very great at all."
We asked him where he drew the line in terms of caricatures. For example, would he do a video in which he played a black person? "Have I thought about it? Sure," DeBerry said.
I think it's appropriate depending on the platform. Is it appropriate to do in a church? Absolutely not. In an appropriate setting is it OK to do some of those characters? Sure.
We do have a black character that we use, that we've used on the radio in the past, that's on iTunes. Would we do one if someone offered us? I've thought about in the past creating like a parody of an African-American, but I don't think that the cheesy time of videos that we create, or cornball marketing videos that we create, I don't think we'd be as successful.
"And," he added, "I don't think I have the right props to pull that off."
The question for DeBerry is an economic one. If people keep paying him to play an Asian stereotype, he's game. Want him to impersonate a black person? As long as it's not in church or about drugs. But over the course of the conversation, we weren't able to identify a single customer that had paid DeBerry the "under $100" to "over $1,000" he said he got for his videos. He seemed reluctant to do so, not wanting to "out anyone" since he's "in the business of capitalism, where people can buy from us for their individual purpose or business purpose as they choose." Nonetheless, he assured us he'd try and find a client for us to speak with. Was it OK if the client was international, he asked? It was. So far, DeBerry hasn't emailed back.
The evidence DeBerry provided.