I had high hopes when I learned that Taylor Swift and T-Pain were performing together on last night's CMT Music Awards. Two of the most world's most appealing pop stars, mashing up hip-hop, country, and teenpop? A lil' bit of pedal steel, a lil' bit of Auto-Tune? I canceled dinner plans. I switched off the Mets game. And I put myself way out on a limb: I tweeted my excitement.
Bad move. Instead of a live performance, the CMT broadcast opened with a video, "Thug Story," in which T-Pain crooned auto-tune-swathed backing vocals while "T-Swift" flashed a diamond grill and rapped about knitting sweaters. It was, in other words, the latest—the millionth?—example of the White Folks Can't Rap novelty tune, that ubiquitous sketch comedy routine that hammers home a single punch line again and again:
Check out this honky rapping—isn't that a riot?
Well, maybe it was in 1983. That was the year of "Rappin' Rodney," in which Rodney Dangerfield reeled off a series of borscht-encrusted one-liners over a thumping beat. Shortly thereafter, Doonsbury creator Garry Trudeau masterminded "Rap Master Ronnie," a mildly—very mildly—amusing spoof of President Reagan.
In other words, this joke is almost as old, and precisely as funny, as "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Yet it continues to get told and told again. Weird Al Yankovic has been working the white and nerdy hip-hop angle for at least a decade. Every time Saturday Night Live's writers are stuck, they disgorge a bit like "Palin Rap." ("My name is Sarah Palin/ You all know me/ Vice-prezzy nominee/ Of the GOP.") On YouTube, you can watch endless variations on the theme: white dudes rapping about Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, about their mopeds, about their inability to "keep a damn beat," about ultimate Frisbee, about organic produce, about Vermont. And the geeky white rapper gag isn't just sketch-comedy fodder; it's a career choice. MC Frontalot and MC Hawking (as in Stephen) are leading lights of nerdcore, a subgenre predicated on the inherent hilariousness of rap songs about Boba Fett.
If YouTube viewing statistics and viral blogging action are any measure, this one-note gag continues to elicit uproarious laughter, across the demographic spectrum. Has a hack comedy routine ever had such cachet? When nuclear physicists, Kanye West, and Karl Rove all agree on a joke, can we safely conclude the joke has lost some of its subversive oomph?
The truth is, "Thug Story" isn't just stale, it's outdated. There are plenty of white MCs these days, and very few are like Vanilla Ice, buffoons obsessed with gangsta authenticity. In fact, one of the best white rappers is a comedian. Andy Samberg has become a 21st-century Tom Lehrer by using hip-hop, his generation's musical lingua franca, as a launching pad for daffy comedy. Samberg's rap parodies flip the nerdcore punchline: They're affectionate genre spoofs, based on Samberg's rapping prowess, his ability to impersonate various hip-hop styles precisely. Listen to "Like a Boss," a spot-on sendup of Slim Thug's bombastic Houston hip-hop, and you'll hear a novel joke: a good white rapper sending up a good black one.