In any culture, comedians serve complicated functions as both entertainers and social critics. For African-American comedians, this has been further complicated by the burden of American racism and the historical legacy of racial comedy in this culture. Racially grounded humor has been both a means of denigrating black people—reinforcing their degradation and justifying their oppression by white society—and a repository of folk wisdom, a popular tradition of criticism and self-criticism, and a means by which black people could affirm and enjoy their own view of the world. Black comedians have derived much of their humor from the precarious balance between these two tendencies.
African-American comedy as a professional genre originated with blackface minstrelsy, which remained the province of white performers until around the time of the Civil War. According to Robert Toll (1974), the performance of "alleged Negro songs and dances" in these shows emerged as a popular genre in the 1820s. When all-black troupes such as Callender's Georgia Minstrels were formed after the war, they continued to perform the same kind of material. These early black minstrels, unlike their white rivals, usually did not perform in burnt cork (except for the end men), so that the audience could recognize them as authentic African Americans. As the years passed, however, more and more of these performers reverted to using burnt cork.
The fact that many performers continued to use burnt cork as late as the 1920s and 1930s, supported by a predominantly black clientele, attests to the powerful and paradoxical legacy of the minstrel tradition. Other conventions of minstrelsy persisted in the styles of black comedians as well: for example, the use of ludicrous attire, grotesque facial expressions and body movements, and song-and-dance routines. Favorite minstrel subjects also persisted, such as linguistic maladroitness and misunderstandings, differences in racial behavior, romantic mismatches and misadventures, overindulgence in alcohol and other pleasures, and the common folk's views of current events. Black comedy teams often maintained the basic structure of minstrelsy, generating comic effects from the interaction between a "straight" person (the minstrel "interlocutor") and a foolish companion (the end men, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones). As scholars such as Constance Rourke (1931) and Walter Blair (1978) have demonstrated, these subjects and most minstrel conventions derived from old traditions of European comedy. Nevertheless, the racial elaborations of the traditions were distinctly American.
In the twentieth century, after the collapse of traditional minstrel shows, black performers continued to practice their craft on the TOBA circuit (Theater Owners Booking Association, which controlled tours of black theaters and clubs around the country) and in black musical comedies, such as Shuffle Along (1921) and Hot Chocolates (1929). Often performing in blackface, these comedians did skits, sang, and danced. The greatest of them was Bert Williams, a magnificent performer whose ability to range from the hilarious to the heartrending eventually made him the first black star of the Ziegfeld Follies.
The establishment of Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1934 was an important event for black performers. It provided a black equivalent of Carnegie Hall or the Grand Ole Opry: a venue where amateurs could gain recognition and where stars could compete for preeminence. In subsequent decades other venues, such as the Roberts Show Club in Chicago, performed a similar function. From the beginning, comedians were a staple at the Apollo. As in smaller clubs and theaters, they performed both as filler between acts and as headliners when they gained sufficient popularity. One of the most popular acts of the 1930s was Butterbeans and Susie. This husband-and-wife team (Joe and Susie Edwards) specialized in risqué, sexually suggestive humor. Ted Fox (1983), a historian of the Apollo, describes their song "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll" as typical of their material, which delighted their audiences and outraged censorious middle-class black critics.
Among their contemporaries at the Apollo, Fox lists Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham, Dusty Fletcher, Tim "Kingfish" Moore, and Jimmy Baskette. These men were among the leading comedians of the day. Their routines—again, often in blackface—included skits, songs, and dances, much in the minstrel tradition. Markham is best remembered for his routine "Heah Come de Judge," created in 1929, which was resurrected and popularized by Sammy Davis, Jr., on the television show Laugh-In in the 1960s. Markham also claimed to have invented "truckin'," a comic dance that is now best known from Robert Crumb's underground comic strips. No comedy routine of those years was better known or more loved than Dusty Fletcher's "Open the Door, Richard." Playing a bumbling drunk in minstrel attire attempting to enter a house, Fletcher would stagger repeatedly up a stepladder, falling off again and again, as he wailed piteously: "Open the door, Richard!" This line entered the vernacular as a self-sufficient punch line.
Jackie "Moms" Mabley is a crucial transitional figure, both because her popularity spanned from these early days through the 1970s and because stylistically she represented a new form of comedy. Like other early comics, Moms played a character, a "dirty old lady," who dressed in oversize, faded cotton dresses, baggy cotton stockings, large brogans—or, in later years, sneakers—and droopy hats. Her signature line was "An old man can't do nothing for me but show me which way a young man went." But Moms was a stand-up monologist rather than a skit performer. In this, she anticipated the dominant style of later comedians. Her forte remained sexual comedy about the failings of old men and the appeal of young ones, but in the 1960s she turned increasingly to political commentary. For instance, in the early 1960s she composed an "opera," rewriting the words of traditional songs and children's rhymes to praise the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and satirize segregationists. She sang these songs in her gravelly voice, with a piano accompanist—naturally, a young man.
In the 1950s and 1960s the work of comedians was often disseminated on recordings called "party records." These records usually featured "adult" humor, and they ranged in style from madcap, minstrel-style skits by acts like Skillet and Leroy to the nightclub acts of comedians like George Kirby, Melvin "Slappy" White, and Redd
Foxx. All of these performers used sexual humor, with Kirby inclined more toward wit and Foxx more toward raunchiness and profane language. Slappy White, Foxx's partner when the two began performing in the late 1940s, was simultaneously witty and raunchy. All three of these comedians made their reputations on the nightclub circuit and eventually made television appearances. Redd Foxx, the most popular of the group, gained mainstream success in the 1970s as star of the television series Sanford and Son. Compared with Foxx's scathing nightclub persona, the mildly naughty Fred Sanford was a pussycat.
A remarkable group of young stand-up comics emerged in the early 1960s, and most of them went on to very successful careers that included work in television and movies: Nipsey Russell, Godfrey Cambridge, Scoey Mitchell, Flip Wilson, and, most important, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor. Russell, noted for his quick, razor-sharp wit, was very popular in New York City. He soon developed a lucrative career as a headliner in Las Vegas nightclubs and as a regular on the television show Hollywood Squares. Cambridge, a very large man, combined gentleness, vulnerability, and moral fervor in his routines about race relations, obesity, international politics, and contemporary culture. Like Dick Gregory, he was an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. Flip Wilson, due to the popularity of his weekly television comedy show in the early 1970s, became, for a time, perhaps the most familiar of all these comedians. On The Flip Wilson Show, he played a variety of amusing characters, most memorably a saucy woman named Geraldine.
Nonetheless, Gregory, Cosby, and Pryor are among the most talented and enduringly important of this group. One could hardly imagine three more sharply contrasting comedians: Gregory, the impassioned and blunt-spoken social activist; Cosby, the cool, politely middle-class comedian of family relations; and Pryor, the manic, whimsical, outrageous improviser on every aspect of human and animal life. Collectively, these three represent the finest achievements of modern African-American comedy.
Dick Gregory, more than any other comedian, has used his celebrity as an entertainer to advance social causes. His style employs deadpan understatement and understated exaggeration to great satirical effect. For example, he commented in one of his routines: "I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night." Gregory joined the voter-registration marches in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963, becoming the first celebrity to participate in that struggle. During the 1960s he was a popular speaker on college campuses and television talk shows. His unique ability to combine social satire and moral fervor with a compassionate humor regarding the foibles of people from all backgrounds made him a compelling, immensely popular comedian. In the 1970s Gregory began to devote most of his energy to research, writing, and consulting on issues of health, nutrition, and obesity.
Though not an activist, Bill Cosby has also made a significant social impact, both through the content of his television shows and through his philanthropy, as a donor of millions of dollars to Spelman and other black colleges. Cosby first gained national fame in the early 1960s as costar of the television series I Spy. His brilliance as a comedian, however, was established by a series of recordings that revealed him to be a versatile, broadly appealing entertainer. Avoiding "blue" humor and political commentary, Cosby's albums focused on childhood, movies, animals, sports, and various whimsies, such as "Why is there air?"
His reminiscences about a childhood friend called Fat Albert eventually developed into a very successful television cartoon series. A significant amount of Cosby's work has been not only about but for children. The ultimate popularity of Fat Albert notwithstanding, however,
Cosby's most famous routine of the 1960s was "Noah," a series of exchanges between God and Noah regarding the ark. When Noah, exasperated by animal care and neighbors' ridicule, threatens to dismantle the ark, God asks him: "How long can you tread water?" After a pause, Noah recants with his characteristic, deadpan refrain: "Riiight!" Like Dusty Fletcher's "Open the door, Richard," these lines quickly entered the vernacular.
In the early 1970s Cosby appeared with Sidney Poitier in a series of popular movies, including Uptown Saturday Night. Though entertaining, these did nothing to advance Cosby's reputation as a comic. In the 1980s he returned to television with The Cosby Show, a series about a physician, his lawyer wife, and their several children. This show was designed to break the stereotype of black families as ghetto-dwelling buffoons with unmarried parents. The backbone of the show, of course, was Cosby's wise and gentle humor, as he dealt with the family's problems and adventures. This was the most successful television show of the decade, gaining top ratings even in South Africa. It brought an unprecedented dignity to blacks in television comedy, and it introduced a new generation to the benevolently mischievous, family-oriented humor of Bill Cosby. Cosby decided to conclude the show in 1992.
Despite the brilliance of Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor must be acknowledged as the preeminent African-American comedian of the past two decades. The uniqueness of Pryor's comic genius lies not just with his extraordinary ability to make people laugh but, more important, with the emotional complexity of his humor. Pryor is the most frighteningly confessional of all comedians, and much of his humor derives from his own failed relationships, his personal fears, misfortunes, angers, and addictions. His unprecedented willingness to expose everything, combined with his childlike ability to find wonderment in common things, produces a comedy of breadth and profundity, encompassing emotions from moral horror to sheer exhilaration.
From the beginning of his career in the early 1960s, Pryor had the reputation of being a crazy, unpredictable performer, one who would do or say anything, no matter how profane or taboo. Even then, however, his routines were tempered by moments of poignant self-revelation. Pryor's reputation as America's top stand-up comedian was consolidated in the 1970s and 1980s with the release of several live performances as full-length theatrical films (and subsequently as LP recordings). In these concerts, Pryor demonstrates the full range of his art. He does impersonations of white people, women, dogs, monkeys, and children; he portrays Mudbone, an old black storyteller from the South; and he discusses his misadventures with women, his heart attack, his drug addiction, and even his horrible self-immolation in a freebasing accident.
After this close brush with death Pryor's comedy mellowed somewhat, causing some critics to complain that he had lost his comic edge. Nevertheless, his spellbinding narrative of his addiction, his accident, and his convalescence clearly epitomizes the combination of pain and humor, confession and moral reflection, that has always made him unique. Throughout his career, the conflict between desire and restraint has been central to Pryor's comedy. In his late work, this continues to be the case, except that he has gained a sharper understanding of moral consequences in the failure of restraint. By traditional aesthetic criteria, this discovery of wisdom must be considered a deepening and not a diminution of his art.
Of the African-American comedians to emerge since the 1970s, three are clearly preeminent: Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg. Hall, due to his nightly monologues on his popular late-night program, The Arsenio Hall Show, became the most familiar of the three as a stand-up comic. Early in his career, Hall toured with popular soul-music bands, including Patti LaBelle's, as a warm-up act. He gained national television exposure as a regular on Solid Gold, a popular soul-music show of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Hall's monologues were reminiscent of Johnny Carson's, drawing heavily on current news stories and celebrities. Aside from his television work, Hall received critical accolades for his comic roles in two Eddie Murphy films: Coming to America and Harlem Nights.
Eddie Murphy created an immediate sensation when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s. Distinguished by his exceptional talents as a mimic, Murphy created several memorable caricatures for the show, including portrayals of Buckwheat and Stevie Wonder. Several of those performances were compiled on a videocassette, The Best of Saturday Night Live: Eddie Murphy. In the 1980s Murphy gained stardom in a series of immensely popular movies, such as Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours, that capitalized on his biting repartee and derisive cockiness. He also filmed a pair of live-performance movies, Eddie Murphy Live and Raw. Murphy's monologues focus primarily on family and sexual relations, but they lack the shifting perspectives and self-critical insight of Pryor's routines. The caustic edge of Murphy's humor has rarely been tempered by compassion.
Whoopi Goldberg incorporates elements of several earlier comedians. Goldberg's stage persona—dreadlocks, athletic shoes, guttural voice—brings to mind Moms Mabley. Like Richard Pryor, she portrays characters facing personal crises with a combination of humor and pathos. Like Dick Gregory, she has incorporated political activism into her career. Goldberg's one-woman show on Broadway in the early 1980s brought her instant acclaim. Her characters, such as a Valley girl who attempts abortion with a coat hanger and a black girl who wears a mop as a wig, yearning for blond hair, were at once funny, poignant, and politically charged. Goldberg's greatest triumph came with her portrayal of Celie in the movie The Color Purple (1985), but her first memorable comic role came in Ghost (1990), in which she played a phony psychic who suddenly begins to communicate with real ghosts. Though Goldberg brings flashes of brilliance to all her work, she has not consistently played roles commensurate with her talent.
During the 1990s several factors combined to produce a renaissance in comedy. The popularity of comedy clubs began in the major cities and soon spread to smaller cities and towns across the country. At the same time, new shows featuring stand-up comedy proliferated on television, especially on the new cable channels, which soon included a channel devoted entirely to comedy. African-American comedians have been a notable presence in these new venues. Saturday Night Live has continued to be an important showcase for emerging stars, such as Chris Rock and Chris Tucker, who have both earned starring roles in several high-profile Hollywood films. Tucker is a singular and zany comic actor whose style of manic, physical comedy harks back to Jerry Lewis. Rock, on the other hand, is a classic, straight-talking, sharp-witted stand-up comedian, reminiscent of Nipsey Russell.
The most significant black comedy show since Flip Wilson's show of the 1970s and Richard Pryor's brilliant but very brief show in 1977—it lasted only four episodes—was In Living Color, which began the first of its three seasons in 1990. This show was historically significant for several reasons. Its format, essentially the same as that of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In from the 1960s, was not original. Indeed, the mix of skits, dialogues, and monologues, separated by dance or musical interludes, is the classic form of American comedy shows since the heyday of minstrelsy. But just as Laugh-In brought the music, dance, and fashions, the psychedelic colors and shifting shapes, the attitudes, and the aesthetic sensibilities of 1960s youth counterculture to the mass audience, In Living Color introduced a mass-market version of hip-hop culture to the television audience.
The show was also significant because the Fox network so conspicuously placed creative control in the hands of Keenan Ivory Wayans, who was host, executive producer, and lead writer for the show. This was a sharp contrast to the public debacle created by NBC executives in their inept handling of Richard Pryor's show. Network censorship became an embarrassingly pervasive theme of the show after its first episode. Whatever the reality behind the scenes may have been, In Living Color was presented to the public as a joyful, celebratory family enterprise, featuring the talented and seemingly endless Wayans clan (beginning with three brothers and a sister) along with their madcap, multiethnic posse. The show was a hit with the television audience, and it launched several major comedy careers, most notably those of Keenan Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, and Jim Carrey. Perhaps the most celebrated recurring feature on the show was "Men on Film," which sometimes became "Men on Art." It presented Keenan and Damon, in clownish attire and makeup, posed as homosexual critics on a cultural appreciation TV show. Full of outlandish double entendres and signifying glances, these hilarious skits became the show's signature, epitomized by Damon's catchphrase of ultimate approval: "I'll give that two snaps and a circle." This accolade was usually reserved for representations of male beauty, such as Michelangelo's David, which often appeared in these skits in all his nude glory, sporting a bow tie.
Regardless of their actual class backgrounds, most of the new comedians of the past decade evince a clear middle-class orientation in their performances. However, the revival of performance venues in black communities has allowed the development of comedians who are derived from and oriented toward a primarily black audience. Cedric the Entertainer and Mo'Nique are good examples. Cedric is a veteran of the black stand-up comedy circuit. He first became familiar to the television audience in a series of Bud Lite commercials. Subsequently, he has starred in several movies, most notably, Barbershop. His stage persona is a genial, cheerful, slightly nervous man, self-impressed with his own constant efforts to appear cool, yet always on the brink of becoming merely silly and pompous. Thus far, he has succeeded brilliantly at walking this dangerous tightrope.
Similarly, Mo'Nique has adopted the very risky stance of defining herself as proudly overweight. She defends the dignity and sexiness of "big girls," yet she also derives much of her humor from the common negative attitudes regarding obesity. At a time when obesity is becoming a rampant health problem for all Americans, and especially for black women, Mo'Nique has positioned herself in a worrisome area that is nonetheless ripe for comedy. Of course, embracing the "big girl" identity connects her with a long tradition of blueswomen, from Bessie Smith and Big Momma Thornton to Koko Taylor and Shemekia Copeland. It also resonates with Moms Mobley's persona as an old woman, which Moms began to cultivate long before she was truly old. Mo'Nique has now gained national celebrity as a hostess of the Apollo Theater's televised amateur night shows. She has been well received in this role. Her comic persona reminds us that painful truths can yield robust laughter.
All of these are highly accomplished comedians, yet all of them work within some particular niche of comedy. None of them has been able, in the manner of Richard Pryor, to encompass all the familiar modes of comedy with equal adeptness and to open up, as well, the wholly unexpected. When the Dave Chappelle Show began on Comedy Central in 2003, a new young star with exceptional range materialized before a delighted public. Chappelle's topics include race, relationships, identity, politics, and current events, as one might expect of any black comedian. However, he is also as zany and whimsical as Richard Pryor and Robin Williams: a manic, unpredictable, morally probing and satirically incisive comedian. In his first two seasons, his show has been extraordinarily successful, catapulting him to preeminence in the world of comedy. Unfortunately, just as he was set to begin filming, in the spring of 2005, for his third season, Chappelle abruptly disappeared. After many days of mysterious absence, he turned up in South Africa: he had decided to give himself an unplanned sabbatical. Whether he will continue his show and realize the potential of his astonishing talent remains to be seen.
For black comedians who came of age during the civil rights era, there was a sense of imperative to transcend racist stereotypes and to perform even comedy with intelligence and dignity. In this era of resurgent conservatism, comedians face a more complicated set of challenges. If opportunities diminish for black comedians to work, the pressures may increase for them to accept problematic arrangements or to perform in ways that they would not freely choose. Such has been the plight of black performers throughout modern history, and the inevitable tendency of conservative periods is to move backward. The commitment to perform with intelligence and dignity may be displaced by the imperative simply to find work. In any case, the greatest challenge for comedians will always be to create a humor that taps deep emotions and engages experience honestly, provoking a laughter intensified by moral passion and tempered with tears.
See also Apollo Theater; Cambridge, Godfrey MacArthur; Cosby, Bill; Foxx, Redd; Goldberg, Whoopi; Gregory, Dick; Mabley, Jackie "Moms"; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Murphy, Eddie; Pryor, Richard; Walker, George; Williams, Bert; Wilson, Flip
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Fox, Ted. Showtime at the Apollo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.
Haskins, Jim. Richard Pryor: A Man and His Madness. New York: Beaufort Books, 1984.
Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1931.
Toll, Robert. Blacking Up. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Travis, Dempsey. An Autobiography of Black Jazz. Chicago: Urban Research Institute, 1983.
Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Williams, John A., and Denise A. Williams. If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1993.
david lionel smith (1996)
Updated by author 2005