Based on the book "Black Comedians on Black Comedy" by Darryl Littleton, Robert Townsend's documentary Why We Laugh debuted at Sundance in 2009 and just came out on DVD this week. Before you get to the documentary, however, you see six separate trailers for stand-up comedy specials, each one touting it was the event of the year. Sure, Codeblack Entertainment is responsible for them as well as this documentary, but the sales pitch leads to a misdirect when the main feature plays, and you hear the voiceover narration from Angela Bassett, footage of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and commentary from former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and former Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy -- you know this isn't going to be a joyride.
Instead, the documentary uses cultural critics and comedians alike to tell the story of black Americans, and how they have used humor throughout the past century as a way to rise above their pain and oppression. Here's the extended trailer:
The path is traced from minstrels and blackface, to early stars such as Bert Williams and Lincoln Perry (better known as Stepin Fetchit), who made far different career choices with implications for generations to follow. You see how Nipsey Russell was a star at the Apollo long before he held a regular seat on Match Game in the 1970s, and how Amos 'n' Andy both helped and hurt the cause of black comedians. The careers of Moms Mably, Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory are examined, then the sitcoms of the 1970s (Good Times, The Jeffersons), Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, through Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, a too-short segment on the start of a separate black club circuit and Robin Harris, In Living Color, Def Comedy Jam, the Kings of Comedy and Dave Chappelle.
Most everyone interviewed continues to express awe and admiration for what Pryor accomplished. Princeton professor/author Dr. Cornel West called Pryor "the freest black man America's ever had. He is not just a genius, he exercises parrhesia. He exercises the most plain, frank, honest, unintimidated speech we had in the 60s, even more than Martin and Malcolm!" That's followed up by Townsend himself, who adds: "He gave to the world a gift, you know, like none other, that opened the playing field. And the only thing that I hate now is that, a lot of comedians, the only thing they took from Richard was the cursing. They didn't take his social commentary."
The Sundance Film Festival has announced its slate of films for the 2009 celebration of cinema in Park City, Utah, and more than a few feature and/or star stand-up comedians during the Jan. 15-25 run in the ski hills.
There's one bonafide film about comedy screening next month: Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy / USA (Director: Robert Townsend)—Using rare archival clips along with provocative interviews with many of today's leading comedians and social critics, Why We Laugh celebrates the incredible cultural influence and social impact black comedy has wielded over the past 400 years. Cast: Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Steve Harvey, Dick Gregory. World Premiere
And I'm pleased as punch to pass along the news that NYC comedy troupe Derrick got their film into the festival: Mystery Team / USA (Director: Dan Eckman; Screenwriters: Dominic Dierkes, Donald Glover, and DC Pierson)—A group of kid detectives called The Mystery Team struggle to solve a double murder to prove they can be real detectives before they graduate from high school. Cast: Dominic Dierkes, D.C. Pierson, Donald Glover, Aubrey Plaza, Glenn Kalison. World Premiere
Among the 16 films selected for the Documentary Competition:
Good Hair (Director: Jeff Stilson) - Comedian Jeff Stilson directs Chris Rock while he sets out to examine the culture of African-American hair and hairstyles. World Premiere
Among the 16 films selected for the Drama Competition:
Big Fan (Director and Screenwriter: Robert Siegel) - The world of a parking garage attendant who happens to be the New York Giants' biggest fan is turned upside down after an altercation with his favorite player. Cast: Patton Oswalt, Michael Rapaport, Kevin Corrigan, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Matt Servitto. World Premiere
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Director and Screenwriter: John Krasinski) - This effort from The Office star is described thusly: When her boyfriend leaves with little explanation, a doctoral candidate in anthropology tries to remedy her heartache by interviewing men about their behavior. Cast: Julianne Nicholson, John Krasinski, Timothy Hutton, Dominic Cooper, Christopher Meloni, Bobby Cannavale. World Premiere
Paper Heart (Director: Nicholas Jasenovec; Screenwriters: Nicholas Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi) - This is the is it a documentary, is it fiction movie you've heard buzz about in the past week: Even though performer Charlyne Yi doesn't believe in love, she bravely embarks on a quest to discover its true nature - a journey that takes on surprising urgency when she meets unlikely fellow traveler, actor Michael Cera. Cast: Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera, Jake Johnson. World Premiere
Push (Director and Screenwriter: Lee Daniels) - Based on the acclaimed, best-selling novel by Sapphire, Push is the redemptive story of Precious Jones, a young girl in Harlem struggling to overcome tremendous obstacles and discover her own voice. Cast: Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique Imes, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey. World Premiere
And in films debuting at Sundance 2009 outside of competition...
You don't often see a comedy club audience wait outside in the brisk November air for more than an hour after midnight, for a show that doesn't start until 1:15 a.m. and stretches through to 4:30 a.m., with few of the audience members leaving to go home to bed. Then again, when you have a chance to hear Dick Gregory and Paul Mooney speaking their minds, back to back, just days after the United States has elected its first African-American president in Barack Obama, well, exceptions can, will and should be made. It would be a night and early morning Sunday in which we, the assembled, were told how it was and how it is, an early testimonial that also happened to have plenty of jokes for those who turned out to Carolines for this special New York Comedy Festival double-header (you can also catch them at 10 p.m. tonight, Sunday).
I hadn't seen Gregory since the Aspen festival in 2002, when he received lifetime honors for his comedic work in support of free speech and the First Amendment. Now 76, Gregory has not lost a step. Still very witty, topical and able to dismiss a loud audience member with ease. Gregory took the stage to a standing ovation, and within minutes, was acknowledging an audience member at one of the front tables as 95-year-old Irwin Corey, aka "Professor" Irwin Corey, the comedian who gave Gregory his first big break in the business by taking a night off from his own stand-up duties for Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Club. That allowed Gregory to become the first mainstream black stand-up comedian, paving the way for all who followed. Gregory thanked Corey, then quipped: "If I talk for two hours and Paul talks for two hours, we might see a white guy die tonight!"
Gregory on what Obama's win means for black role models: "The two biggest losers weren't white folk -- they were black entertainers and black athletes." On the Rev. Jesse Jackson crying on Tuesday night, noting Jackson is coldblooded. Why? "Anytime you see a brother cry and don't wipe tears..."
Gregory also had plenty to say about the ongoing economic crisis, including a stab at General Motors and its dwindling stock price: "These are the white folks who hate welfare. Now they're begging for it!"
He mixed in jokes about his own family life and his children with historical lessons and crowd work. And he reminded us all that he actually ran for president himself 40 years ago in 1968. "I don't need to be validated by the New York Times or the Washington Post," Gregory said. "I was there." And 75 minutes later, we all felt a little bit wiser for being in his presence.
Not that going onstage close to 3 a.m. would pose problematic for Paul Mooney!