Black Comedians On Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us To Laugh, By Darryl Littleton (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, New York, NY, 2006, 343 pages.)
Book Review: by Dennis Moore
November 20, 2010 (San Diego)--If laughter Is the medicine that cures all ills, then Darryl Littleton’s Black Comedians On Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us To Laugh will cure any ailment we might have. I was introduced to Littleton and his brand of humor at a comedy club in El Cajon, California in 2009, where I was fortunate enough to win his book in a raffle. Littleton was gracious enough to autograph his book to me, stating: “To Dennis Moore, keep supporting black comedy and keep laughing.” I have been laughing ever since!
Black Comedians On Black Comedy traces the history and evolution of black humor in Littleton’s narrative and through 125 interviews that he conducted with some of the top African-American comedians in the world. Those interviewed include Dick Gregory, Sinbad, Eddie Murphy, Mike Epps, Cedric the Entertainer, Nick Cannon, Bernie Mac, Eddie Griffin, Damon Wayans, Arsenio Hall, Chris Rock, Marla Gibbs, Robert Townsend, and John Witherspoon. To many of us familiar with black comedy, these are household names.
In the introduction to Littleton’s book, noted black comedian Dick Gregory credits Hugh Hefner of Playboy Mansion fame of giving him the opportunity of becoming the first Negro comedian to perform in his Playboy nightclub located in downtown Chicago, a location very familiar to me. Gregory further stated: “White comedians such as Bob Hope and Red Skelton always walked out on stage as human beings first and then as a comic.”
Conversely, black comedians could come on stage carrying with them a history of oppression. Gregory indicates that it was Hugh Hefner’s decision to give him the opportunity and platform to perform on stage with no rules and no restrictions that opened the national door to a new generation of black comics.
Perhaps, more importantly, Gregory states that this book is a teacher’s guide for all Americans to tap into the culture of the relationship of blacks and whites, showing what the struggle was all about in the world of entertainment as well as the various styles and choices black comics used to express themselves in their work.
He further states: “This work brings you directly to the pain, choices made, suffering and successes we as a people experienced on the journey of honing our craft as black comedians throughout history. This book is a celebration of and tribute to black comedians of yesterday and today for the laughter provided to our families through the good and the hard times.” I now understand why the author chose Gregory to write the introduction to his book!
After attending the Littleton comedy show at a club in San Diego in 2009, I would attend a Valentine’s Day show at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, where I would witness Eddie Griffin’s own brand of humor. In the street vernacular, Eddie is “raw.” Eddie Griffin’s brand of coarse, ribald humor takes some getting used to, it least for me it does. It’s like acquiring a taste for wine or a particular type of food.
Sometimes in life we have to mask our hurt and pain through laughter, and that is just what Littleton describes in his book through the interviews with noted black comedians such as Chris Rock and Damon Wayans. They all had similar stories to tell. As a matter of fact, noted comedian and playwright, Tyler Perry, came out with a comedic play, “Laugh To Keep From Crying,” based on the trials and tribulations of African-Americans.
Littleton has toured the world as a stand-up comedian in his own right, under the stage name of “D’Militant,” which gives him a unique perspective on what he writes about in his book. This Los Angeles native has given us an impressive tome for giving an honest look at the evolution of Black humorists, as indicated by Essence Magazine.
Littleton’s book is replete with social and historic commentary, that puts black comedy in perspective. Chapter 2 of the author’s book is titled, “Is this Absolutely Necessary?” In this chapter the author quotes black comedian Marc Howard in regard to the demeaning of blacks by whites during the blackface minstrel era: “Funny in a most ignorant way; because it’s so funny that white folks want to see blackface, but they don’t want black bodies doing it. How ignorant can you be? And it’s not just a couple who decided to do it; people all over the country enjoyed this type of so-called entertainment, where people were acting like they were black. We want to see some niggas and we’ll paint our faces black. Make the lips up nice and red and talk like, Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa’; that’s to entertain you, but you can’t have a black person nowhere near the place; because you hate ‘em, but you want to look at a black face on stage. That is the most…I can’t even explain where that mentality comes from and how it could even be festered.”
Littleton indicates in his book that, oddly enough, the bemused posturing and imitation of the plantation owners by blacks inadvertently inspired the blackface minstrel era. He states that the stereotypical “coon” came from the slave’s portrayal of their high-falutin’ white masters. Thus, minstrel antics were whites imitating blacks who had been imitating whites. What an oxymoron!
Just like in every other area of progress for blacks or paying of dues, be it voting rights, education, housing or politics, a similar path of acceptance had to be made for black comedians. Of course, just like civil rights pioneers having modern day success stories standing on their shoulders, Littleton indicates in his book that the Eddie Murphys and the Martin Lawrences stood on the shoulders of a Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (Stepin Fetchit) and a Hattie McDaniel, whether they want to admit it or not.
Billing himself as “The Laziest Man in the World,” and claiming that he was so damn lazy when he did his stage act he’d have another man come out and wave his hand good-bye to the audience. It was this type of characterization of himself that had black civil rights groups in the late 1930’s deeming Stepin Fetchit an embarrassment to his race. Never mind the fact that between the years 1927 and 1936, Stepin Fetchit made almost thirty movies and amassed over one million dollars, with a lifestyle that included Asian servants and the best of everything. Who says buffoonery doesn’t pay?
Then, along came comedian Eddie Murphy. Murphy was born on April 3, 1961 in Brooklyn, New York and began doing his stand-up at an early age. He performed on Saturday Night Live (SNL) with Gilda Radnor and Dan Ackroyd from 1981-1984, introducing characters such as Tyrone Green, an author with a racist streak; Velvet Jones, whose main mission was to recruit “hos” and Mr. Robinson, his ghetto parody of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” He gave America a hot tub-loving James Brown, Gumby with an attitude, and a crooning Jesse Jackson singing “Hymie Town.” Of course, he also starred in classic comedy movies, such as Coming To America, alongside Arsenio Hall, Harlem Nights, alongside Richard Pryor and Della Reese, and 48 Hours, with Nick Nolte. Murphy was brilliant, but I always felt that he was greatly influenced by and emulated Richard Pryor, as probably were a lot of other black comedians.
Richard Pryor was born in Peoria, Illinois on December 1, 1940 and raised in his grandmother Marie’s brothel. I am sure he acquired quite a few anecdotes from that type of environment! His Richard Pryor In Concert movie that I viewed at a theatre in Chicago at the height of his career, had me laughing so uncontrollably, that I threw up on myself right there in the movie theatre. The only other comedian that came close to getting that type of response from me was Eddie Murphy.
In Littleton’s Black Comedians On Black Comedy, black comedian Tony Rock has this to say about Pryor: “…the King forever. He’s our Elvis. There will never be another Richard Pryor. Nobody will be better. People are hot and people make the comparison, but no.” I am inclined to agree!
Many of the black comedians referenced in Littleton’s book, such as Martin Lawrence, Adele Givens, Chris Tucker, and Joe Torry, got their start on Russell Simmon’s Def Comedy Jam. According to Littleton, who also appeared on the show, Def Comedy Jam was what any show would want to be…powerful. For sheer influence, it was unmatched. It introduced hip-hop black comedy to America every Friday and nobody went out until the closing credits rolled. It had the rare quality of being a cultural barometer bleeding into every fabric of our existence: the clothes, the language, attitudes, all of it. Littleton indicates that “Seinfeld” even paid homage to the show when Kramer suggested that Jerry’s career was over because he wasn’t “Def Jam” enough.
The comedians on Def Comedy Jam were cursing, calling their sexual counterparts names, and basically giving the finger to everything in sight. Of course, the “N” word was a major part of their routine. No smirk or knowing looks to indicate apology-just straight-up being angry black folks with issues and gripes. I actually stayed up many a late night watching the show. “Def” was watched by everybody regardless of race and they couldn’t get enough. Of course, the brand of humor on Def Comedy Jam didn’t set well with Bill Cosby!
Bill Cosby was quoted in Littleton’s book in regard to Def Comedy Jam: “I didn’t like it; I thought it was unfortunate, I thought it was insensitive, and I thought that he didn’t look deep enough into the merit of those things. People can get mad at Mantan Moreland, people can get mad at Williams and Walker and all that type of stuff, but you have to look at the merit of it. You just can’t say how come Sidney Portier always plays those roles where they were calling him names and why’d he have to take it? Because he was a pioneer who did what had to be done. So, I think that for there to be the “Bernie Mac Show” in the case of comedy, and a “Steve Harvey’s Big Time,” for good or bad, or that you get a show on Comedy Central like Dave Chappelle or a “Martin,” that the “Def Jams” of the world had to happen. That era had to happen and that it had to come and go. So it came and it went.” That’s Bill Cosby for you, Jelly Pudding and all!
Littleton sums up this brilliant chronicling of black comedy as it relates to the overall black history in America, by stating: “The question current and future generations of African-Americans have to ask themselves is, are they worthy? Would their ancestors feel their sacrifices were justified; the chain continuing to be forged from the same metal they wrought? Or has arrogance and complacency taken root?”
Black Comedians On Black Comedy is more than just about comedy and entertainment. It is a critical examination of a people and their struggles to strive, sometimes in the midst of tremendous odds and sacrifices. This is a book that should be in everyone’s library or bookshelves, and should be taught in schools as a part of history, American History.
Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild. He is a freelance contributor to the San Diego Union-Tribune Newspaper. He has written for LifeAfter50 Magazine in Pasadena, California and the Baja Times Newspaper in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.