*Why We Laugh is a must-see documentary selected for the 2009 Sundance festival, which has experts in the field deciphering black comedy. It features extended interviews with such luminaries as Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Harvey.
The interviews are punctuated by hilarious clips from an 80-year history of black comedy covering stand up routines of Eddie Murphy, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. As University of Southern California professor, Dr Todd Boyd says, the documentary like its subject, will ‘make you laugh as much as make you think.’
The main response the film offers to its title statement is that we find truth funny. The ‘we’ and the ‘truth’ can be universal, but black comedy, as the film traces, was a particular soundtrack to black history in the last 80 years. This octogenarian represents a ‘reservoir of truth’ and brings a ‘message to the world’ Black comedians use the ‘tools of the spirit’ to highlight social issues; they are as Bill Bellamy says, healers.
Narrator Angela Basset delivers the well-crafted script superbly, evoking emotion as she traces the tenure of black comedy, which witnessed the despairs of slavery and the civil rights movement. The documentary successfully explores how black comedy impacted its socio-economic environment and how it was shaped by it. As Bill Cosby says, black comedy demonstrates ‘the history of black America and the triumph of America.’
The documentary, which is based on the book “Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh,” by Darryl J. Littleton, highlights the triumphant election of President Barack Obama, and it is the context and analysis which makes the subject matter so intriguing. Being a Londoner, I was less familiar with some of the comedians and comedy shows touched on, I made a long list of comedy CDs to buy and notes for further research. It also got me thinking of how edutaining an equivalent British documentary would be.
But the black comedic tradition owes much to the Vaudevillian minstrels in blackface such as Egbert Austin Williams and stereotypical characters such as the bumbling tongue-tied Stepin Fetchit played by the very literate Lincoln Perry who wrote for the Chicago Defender. He was the first superstar, starring in 54 films between 1925 and 1976. A talented man who knew how to play the game, he had two phones in his house, one to answer in his normal voice and the other to answer in character for business.
Such nuggets of information made this a captivating watch. Depending on your age you will cite different heroes of black comedy be they Pryor, Cosby or Rock, but comedians such as Nipsey Russell and Mantan Moreland paved their way. And if like me, you’re a fan of the Wayans family, its important to note that The Beulah Show and Amos ‘n’ Andy paved the way for their shows. Amos ‘n’ Andy, a black version of Laurel & Hardy, was cancelled after its first season due to protests. Marlon Wayans insists that we should pay homage to such shows, he relates to controversy – The Wayans Bros. received complaints from the NAACP about showing stereotypes. He feels that it would have been more appropriate for protesters in the early 20th century to challenge E.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation.
But as time went on black comedy could not resist its calling to be a mechanism for social change. The documentary introduces characters such as Lenny Bruce who addressed ‘what we were not allowed to say in normal polite conversation.’ The Sixties were not liberated for all in a period Boyd refers to as ‘Cold War America.’ Black comedians could dance and sing in clubs but not do stand up.
Dick Gregory’s politically tinged humour allowed him to sit on Jack Paar’s couch and see his salary rise from $250 to $5,000 a week. His career saw him work with Dr. Martin Luther King and make great literary contributions. In the seventies, Richard Pryor exposed the racial underbelly in the caustic and hilarious way only he could in an era of black power. Sitcoms such as Good Times, The Jeffersons and Sanderford and Son emerged.
The edutainment value of this documentary reveals the model for success for this genre. As with music and fashion, black comedy began to be emancipated from its boundaries when empowered black people began to invest in the infrastructure. It was time for consolidation – to establish comedy clubs to enter when the mainstream avenues were closed. Flip Wilson, the first black comedian to own, star in and produce a network series, showed it could be done – but at a price. There were no re-runs of his show until he died. But his legacy lives on – his drag creation Geraldine opened the doors for Martin Lawrence to be Big Momma or Eddie Murphy to be the female members of the Klumps.
The documentary exposes those who undressed the truth, storytellers such as Bill Cosby who would become ‘America’s dad’ on the Cosby Show. But it also reminds us that black comedy rode the wave of black social status. With the emergence of Eddie Murphy came less political comedy because as Chris Rock notes, there was less racial tension in America in the eighties – there was ‘No need to get that deep.’ This less challenging face of black comedy spawned the biggest stand up comedian. At the dawn of Spike Lee and Run DMC, Raw became the most successful concert movie. The graft of his forefathers allowed Murphy to be bold in movies such as 48hrs – to be the ‘new sheriff in town.’
By the mid-eighties black comedy had audiences under arrest. In 1986 Chris Rock appeared to lock things down with his examination of the human condition and witty musings on the difference between wealth and riches. This was at a time before Def Jam or UPN WB.
The nineties saw massive success of In Living Color, Russell Simmons’s Def Comedy Jam (which launched the careers of Chris Tucker and Martin Lawrence) and Spike Lee’s 2000 concert film and tour, The Original Kings of Comedy, a revue featuring the late Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and D.L Hughley. These latter stars made Hollywood and the networks pay attention once again to black comedy. Each got a TV show after the film.
If black comedy reached it’s peak in the new Millennium, the documentary aks, is it now on the wane? It seems with no mother figure to usher it in to a new dawn it may be languishing.
One flaw of the documentary is its paucity of black female comedians. It cites Whoopi Goldberg and has interviews with her View co-star Sherri Shepherd and interviews with newcomer Sommore, but where was Oscar winner Monique? Perhaps this reflects the male dominance of black American comedy.
But what the documentary clearly shows is that the move towards segregated TV channels and a lack of diversity in influences has done little for the evolution of black comedy. The stereotypes depicted in Robert Townsend’s 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle remerged in Spike Lees 2000 film Bamboozled and again, according to some, in today’s black comedy scene. While some dismiss Tyler Perry’s Madea character as coonery, the documentary unashamedly surveys the scene. Keenen Ivory Wayans says the ‘need for talent exceeds the talent available’, while Eddie Griffin refers to an ‘oversaturated market’ which pilfers from its contemporaries.
The documentary captures Bill Cosby’s dismay at the untalented, uninspired, crude jokers. He says “Our people are so rich in thought, character…keep it within the legacy, keep it going.” It was fitting then that the documentary would end by referencing Cosby’s controversial but necessary Pound Cake speech at the 2004 50th Anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, where he discussed parenting, education, crime and poverty. While America’s dad caused a stir at the time. Chris rock says that Cosby was always ‘gangster.’
It would be criminal not to return to the political satire that black comedy has embodied, though with a black president, it will be interesting to note what type of jokes will be told. Socio-political problems still reside in the black community so the healers are still needed. But for every Dave Chappelle who will put values before career, there are those in what Katt Williams calls the ‘gold rush’, who will
stop the corporate executives from seeing ‘how we are valuable rather than how valuable we are.’
DL Hughley says, “ It’s the greatest art form that ever existed. I want it to go on after me and to be better than it was before I existed.” To do this, the future generations of black comedians must be honest rather than simply explicit and remember that black comedy is no joke.
Extended trailer: Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy
Why We Laugh
Available in Stores and Online 27 April
Codeblack Entertainment | Vivendi Entertainment
The UK Corner covers urban entertainment from a British perspective and is written by Fiona McKinson. She is a freelance journalist and creative writer based in London. Contact her at [email protected].