JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy (Director: Robert Townsend) - January 25, 2009
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Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy

4 4
95 min.

Reviewed at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival
A thoughtful history of on-colour humour

From the era of “minstrel as puppet” through the rise of super-motherfucker stand-up greats to the present day where Obama’s in the White House (due in no small part to the effectiveness of politically oriented pioneers Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor) and Bill Cosby (“;America’s Dad” and family-life storyteller without equal) lashing out at his brothers and sisters (famously, “We can’t blame white people any more”) at an NAACP commemorative event, the ability of black men and women to tickle the world’s funny bone has been lovingly and amusingly (those expecting a greatest hits of gags and sketches will be disappointed but come away wiser than they were) crafted by director/comedian Robert Townsend.

Using Darryl Littleton’s book (Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh) as its basis, the production is a fascinating montage of archival clips, interviews and narration (Angela Bassett) that spends as much time “backstage” as on set or in comedy clubs.

Alongside the history of humour are key moments of significance in the rise of black pride and power. Martin Luther King’s thoughts about the spirit dying of fear (recorded March 8, 1965 when he was 36) even if the 80 physical years of existence are lived (“The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. … A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right.”) is a powerful summation of what drives the finest black comedians who have realized that jokes can teach or stimulate thought even as the their audiences roll in the aisles.

The notion of dumbing down or “cooning” is also closely examined. Should the subservient delivery from the likes of Amos ‘n’ Andy (black-face Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) and Stepin Fetchit be maligned or understood (it was work, after all)? Curiously, even though white comedy from the early days of talkies was described as The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and Jack Benny, the latter’s hugely popular servant, Rochester (Eddie Anderson), was never mentioned.

Happily, women were prominently featured starting with Moms Mabley, regarded as the first female to break through in a significant way. Most assuredly Geraldine (a.k.a. Flip Wilson) should be counted on the feminine side of the gender divide because “He puts on a dress so we don’t have to.” Other notables include the multitalented Whoopi Goldberg and her sometime The View co-host Mo’Nique (who’s a one-person laugh track all on her own).

The cool/shock/yuk value of frequent cursing came to a hilarious head as Townsend explained how he negotiated Eddie Murphy’s very blue lines with the ratings board. The writer/director of the equally daring and inventive Hollywood Shuffle recalls trading off “two motherfuckers for a bitch” and “throwing in a cocksucker” for a film that finally came out R.

Balancing the edgy “colourful humour” are the Huxtable family”s glory years where, for non-blacks, colour vanished and for kinsmen the very idea that blacks could have great jobs (doctor/lawyer), healthy children and stay together brought a whole new possibility to the American Dream.

Ironically, just as the political landscape has improved astronomically (but will a black face ever find its way onto U.S. currency?) the next big thing for black humour seems unclear.

The quick proliferation of comedy clubs (especially black-owned establishments; it’s not just the Apollo anymore) and specialty television (e.g., Def Comedy Jam on HBO and spinoffs such as Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy gave the careers of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac a huge boost) has some fearing that “the [available] talent exceeds the supply,” lowering standards and leading to the return of denigration and foulmouthed routines instead of smart, socially-conscious zingers.

Chris Rock remains one of the savviest, funniest men on the planet (his “Change the word insurance to ‘in case of shot’” bit is still a hoot and true jibe; Dave Chapelle’s ability to walk away from mega bucks in order to keep his spirit intact shows Dr. King’s message is still acted upon by some. Will the other black comedians vying for their piece of the pie also put quality first?

But surely the entire planet will be a much funnier, more tolerant place if we can all learn to laugh with and never at these brilliant comics that have been so honestly portrayed in Townsend’s marvellous film. JWR

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