In 1987, Robert Townsend wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Hollywood Shuffle – a comedy that took a look at how African-Americans were stereotyped and marginalized in film and television. In the new documentary, Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy, director Townsend comments on the genesis of Hollywood Shuffle saying, “It was born out of a lot of pain.”
The film is based on the book Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh, by Darryl J. Littleton. Quincy Newell, Executive Vice-President of Codeblack Entertainment, was the producer and co-writer (with John Long) on the project. An official selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary was acquired by Showtime and is being featured throughout February during their Black History Month celebration.
When I spoke with Newell by telephone, he told me “the intent of the film is to spark meaningful discourse.” Combining archival footage and photographs with interviews featuring comics, cultural pundits, elected officials, and scholars, Why We Laugh traces the history of black comedic performers from the early 1900’s to the present. Guided by Angela Bassett, who provides the voice-over narration, the audience begins their initiation with a primer on the “minstrel era” – which would lay the groundwork for perceptions and attitudes to come.
With comedy serving as a barometer of what was “going on in the community,” and a healing balm to keep an oppressed group from despair, the road of black comedy in America reflected the concurrent history of the nation. For those African-Americans who sought to operate in the sphere of entertainment, the movie asserts, “America assigned us a role and demanded we play it.”
The minstrel era featured the work of “Bert” Austin Williams, half of one of the most successful vaudeville acts of that time, W.C. Fields called him “the funniest comic he had ever seen.” For those who criticize the work of such a performer, Marlon Wayans rebuts, “If it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be in the game. They were called pioneers.”
Lincoln Perry, who originated the persona of Stephin Fetchit – known as “the laziest man in the world,” was a highly literate man who wrote for the weekly black newspaper The Chicago Defender. He made fifty-five films, became a superstar millionaire, and left a legacy that is still being debated today. Was he “a product of his times – a fact misunderstood by his critics, or a symbol of racist stereotyping?” Wayans believes, “If it hadn’t been for Stephin Fetchit, we wouldn’t have had Richard Pryor.” Many now see him as having “cracked open doors.” When the “Harlem Renaissance” which began in 1934 with the reopening of the Apollo Theater, paved the way for a new type of black comedian, comics like Nipsey Russell began to enter the American mainstream.
In 1951,the Amos ‘n Andyshow debuted on CBS, but was cancelled in 1953 due to complaints spearheaded by the NAACP. The documentary notes different view points, including the argument that the format of all sitcoms of that time were “put downs.” Julian Bond reflects, “This was the only representation on TV of black folks.” Yet the critic and writer Stanley Crouch suggests, “If Laurel and Hardy were the only representatives of white men on TV, white people would be upset. All of us aren’t just those two guys.” Comedian D.L. Hughley proposes, “If there was no Amos ‘n Andy, there couldn’t be a Condoleezza Rice or a Colin Powell…They really are our forefathers. They’re Moses – and like Moses, they didn’t get to the Promised Land.”
African-American women were also pigeonholed into the limited parts offered to them. The Beulah Show, which transitioned from radio to television, featured Hattie McDaniel in 1952 as a maid, albeit “the queen of the kitchen.” It was with the work of Moms Mabley that the first African-American female showed how to create comedic art from her personal experiences. She put “a face on the black female” and combined humor with social satire. Whoopi Goldberg, characterized by Congresswoman Maxine Waters as “very political,” would build on that.
The film references Redd Foxx as “the godfather of modern day comedy.” Using humor to take on political and social themes, Dr. Todd Boyd explains that performers like Lenny Bruce and Redd Foxx “used the genre of comedy as a way to say things and address things that wouldn’t have been allowed in polite conversation.”
A commitment to political consciousness crystallized in the persona of Dick Gregory, who not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. While joking about segregation and police brutality, he was able to satirize and simultaneously delineate the pressing issues facing the nation. Michael Eric Dyson qualifies his contributions saying, “ [Gregory] brought a different sensibility, withering analysis, and an analytical acuity about the issue of race…[which] permitted white people to laugh at, but think about, the issues of race in America.” Gregory’s impact on the civil rights movement was not limited to his wit. It embraced on-the-ground efforts. After receiving a phone call from Martin Luther King, he traveled with King and Andrew Young to help “to fuel the civil rights movement.” Gregory landed on the front of Time magazine and agreed to appear on The Jack Paar Show only under the condition that he takes part in a one-to-one conversation with the host. The existing precedent had been, “The Negroes never sit on the couch.” Gregory wanted white viewers to see a “black guy in a human situation.” He confronted taboos straight on when he titled his autobiography Nigger. True to form, his opening page was a dedication to his mother that read, “Dear Momma, Wherever you are, if you ever hear the work nigger again, remember they are advertising my book.”
The 1970s saw Flip Wilson owning, producing, and starring in his own television show. His “Geraldine character” appealed to a wide audience. Other small screen programs of that decade, including The Jeffersons and Good Times, helped to shape the country’s ideas about black families The one that made Bill Cosby “America’s Favorite Dad” was The Cosby Show. As he had done in his stand-up routine, Cosby picked a universal experience that everybody had “versions of.” Dick Gregory calls him “one of the greatest story tellers of our time.” Robert Townsend pronounces, “Bill Cosby was in a league by himself.
He was able to capitalize on this universal message [where] color was erased.” Although Cosby was an activist in his offstage life, it was Richard Pryor who picked up the baton of overt political comedy, while “redefining the parameters of what you could do.” Making fun of white people, relating the realities of life in the “hood,” he delivered laughs in equal measure with thought provoking material. Former president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, says of Pryor, ”He was really a social spokesperson who had a lot to say at a time when Americans needed to hear it.” Pryor’s insights were sharp, but always funny. Townsend points out that although many contemporary black comics trace their performance lineage to Pryor, “the only element they are taking from Pryor is the cursing. They are missing the social commentary.” The audacity that Pryor projected on stage never made it into his movie roles. It was Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of the dynamic black man in the mainstream flick 48 Hrs. that introduced “The new sheriff in town.”
As black comedy clubs began to proliferate, they became fertile ground for up-and-coming comedians to try out their material. Chris Rock, who came on the scene in 1986, indicated that when he was getting started, “You had to figure out how to make other people laugh besides black people.” Rock’s trademark was to mix truth and humor. Congressman Elijah Cummings said, “Chris Rock has said things that I have used in speeches.”
Before Def Jam Comedy, only one black comic had risen to prominence at a time. With The Original Kings of Comedy generating spin-offs, corporate America took notice that there was big money to be made. What ensued was a rush for producers to fill the demand for black comedians. Not everyone was in the mold of D.L. Hugley, who Mifune described as “presenting social commentary using the “dynamic of what’s wrong.”
The documentary poses the question, “What do modern black comedians owe the past?” Cosby is featured prominently as a defender of the legacy and the need to “keep it growing and keep on going.” Cosby, on the fifty-year anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, took the microphone to comment on the “black community’s need to take ownership and responsibility for things that were wrong in the black community.” He said of the occasion, “I spoke my mind.” Mifune thought he was “on the money.” Not everyone agreed. Cosby’s reaction to the pushback was, “I’m 70 years old. I don’t want to be buried with this mess going on.”
Asking the question to those on camera, “Where does black comedy go from here?” responses include ”pushing the envelope, elevating the conversation, messaging inspiration, and increasing the discussion.” The film pointedly spotlights the question of how “profit motive and morality” intersect. The career choices made by Dave Chappelle are used as a touchstone for examination. Putting his commitment to personal integrity and the need for artistic control above the network’s agenda, Chappelle walked away from 50 million dollars.
Chappelle’s refusal to play the corporate game had Princeton Professor of Religion Cornel West quoting his riff on Irish poet William Butler Yates: “It takes more courage to be true to yourself than to be a soldier on the battlefield.” West added, “That’s what our comedians have always exemplified at their height.”
This article originally appeared on cultureID.