A History of African-American Comedy // The Observer

There is a concept in history called the “great man theory” which postulates that the past is just a series of events occurring under the influence of … great men. Aside from the inherent chauvinism, it’s an interesting way to look at history and an even more interesting way to look at popular culture. Here, the temporal threads are probably even more apparent. It’s easy to think of music or film as a progression passed down from one innovative visionary to another. The task becomes even simpler, however, when there aren’t so many great men to follow.

The story of African Americans in comedy is difficult. Blackface has become one of the most egregious forms of racism today, in large part because of its use in comedic minstrel performances in the early part of the 20th century. Several black artists even wore blackface to maintain the performative conventions of the time. This was one of the prices to be paid for success because becoming famous on stage meant performing in front of many white faces.

The first African American to really start breaking these conventions was Bert Williams. He made his debut as a minstrel performer and exploded in popularity when he teamed up with fellow African American George Walker. The two became among the most in-demand vaudeville artists of the time, despite opposition from some white theatergoers. Although Williams began performing in blackface, his shows were increasingly devoid of racial stereotypes. After Walker’s death, Williams continued his career and shocked Broadway audiences by performing a duet with white Leon Errol. By the time of his death in 1922, his fame had transcended racial divisions.

It’s hard to outdo Bert Williams in terms of importance, but Moms Mabley certainly did her best. Not only was Mabley black, she was an openly lesbian woman. Her act moved beyond Williams’ theatrical comedy skits to begin to resemble modern stand-up comedy, and she made a name for herself performing this act on the ‘Chitlin Circuit’, a group of venues open to black performers. . His witty style and great personality have drawn audiences, both televised and in the flesh, for over forty years, and that husky voice has settled in the minds and hearts of generations of comedians, black and others.

One of those comedians was Redd Foxx. Her comedy was characterized by its scorching content, no doubt a development on the nervousness of moms. It would record over 50 albums and was one of the first black comics to perform in front of white audiences on the Vegas Strip. His TV show, “Sanford and Son,” was one of the most popular shows of the 1970s and the first of several African-American sitcoms that would crop up in the decades to come.

The next comedian in the running is both the most and the least controversial inclusion. Bill Cosby is almost arguably the most influential African-American comedian. His stand-up and later television shows had a profound impact on millions of Americans. As a white man in his twenties from suburban Indiana, I remember listening to tapes of Cosby’s comedy before my age hit double digits. It remains to be seen whether his professional career can be separated from his horrifying personal life … if he even deserves this courtesy.

Cosby may have (previously) achieved a wider cultural impact, but Richard Pryor has always been hailed as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. He relentlessly attacked racism in his comedy, and his personal struggles only added gravity to his performances. Pryor’s content was ultimately deemed too controversial for his own TV show. Instead, he turned to the cinema, while remaining above all a comedian. Today, his name is almost synonymous with the fight for racial equality.

Eddie Murphy succeeded Richard Pryor, both chronologically and substantially. His 1983 special, “Delirious”, is a stand-up icon. From energy to profanity to outfit, Murphy’s performance is a time capsule for the 1980s – warts and everything. It’s always weird watching your specials and thinking, “This is the same guy who voiced the dragon in ‘Mulan’.”

Murphy had a direct influence on the upcoming comic, as he helped guide the man after seeing his act at a nightclub in the 1980s. The Chris Rock star continued to rise from that point on. -the. He landed on “Saturday Night Live” (as Murphy) and made appearances in Hollywood Pictures. Although Rock rejected the idea that he had to be a role model, his smart and brutally honest style made him a true superstar. He continues to be one of America’s most influential black voices.

As much as Rock flourished by bringing to light the incongruities of racial attitudes in America, Dave Chappelle achieved notoriety by subverting them. In his television series “Chappelle’s Show”, as well as in his stand-up, Chappelle demonstrated an awareness of stereotypes, both white and black, and acted out in these designs in such a way that they crumbled. His wickedly brilliant comedy turned out to be too subtle for audiences, and he gave up on a huge television contract to escape to Africa.

Chappelle represents in many ways both the progress of black comedians and the work that remains to be done. He gained international fame and immense cultural power, but he could no longer say if his fame was a sign of understanding or if he was just another minstrels performer. Today, the heir apparent to the black comic tradition is Kevin Hart. He has become one of Hollywood’s most prolific actors and is known around the world thanks to YouTube. His unwavering self-examination endeared him to the public in a way that has never been seen before.

It is often said that the funniest people are the ones who have suffered the most, and the African-American comedy tradition is proof of that. Blacks have gone from derogatory laughter to real pillars of comedy. Just this week (stand-up comic) Donald Glover’s new TV show, “Atlanta,” debuted to rave reviews.

Progress is a process. A long. But we’ll keep laughing through the pain until we can just… laugh.

Tags: African Americans, Bert Williams, Bill Cosby, chris rock, Comedy, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Hart, Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, stand-up

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