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 Friars Club and Comedy Central aren't the only roast games in town. The TV One network (check your local listings) has taped an upcoming "Roast & Toast of John Witherspoon," and during the roast, Earthquake compared Paul Mooney to everyone's "gay uncle." Apparently, that hit a bit close to home for Mooney, who snapped back at Earthquake with a series of NSFW profanities that sounds like it wasn't all in the name of good, clean fun.
The roast airs May 25 (and was filmed at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills).
A few things to mention before we get back to our regularly scheduled blogging:
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!
Today on Dr. Phil, the good TV doctor dragged America and anyone unfortunate enough to have a TV to watch an hour of debate over using "the N-word," with racist racists saying they can say what they want, and other people pointing out that that's kinda racist. Comedians Paul Mooney and Sheryl Underwood yelled at people. The Rev. Al Sharpton was on a satellite monitor, for his protection or ours? And all I could think about was Louis CK's brilliant bit explaining how racist it is to even think we're making an improvement by saying "the N-word," with this clip from his upcoming Showtime special (do I need to remind you this is NSFW?):
Late into the night, or early this morning, after seeing parts of three different comedy specials on Showtime, I couldn't help but think about how Showtime's comedy specials all have a uniquely odd look and feel to them. Especially when compared to the consistent theater sets and production values of one-hour comedy specials that get aired on HBO and Comedy Central.
Why is that? For one thing, HBO tends to control its own comedy output, which means its comedians often tape their hourlong sets at the same venue with the same crews. Comedy Central does the same for its half-hour Comedy Central Presents, and for hour specials, they're most likely edited versions of highly stylized and produced DVDs. But Showtime is another matter. Whether it's Joe Rogan (at the Tempe Improv), Paul Mooney (at the Laugh Factory) or Mo'Nique at an Ohio prison (or even Doug Stanhope at Gotham Comedy Club), these specials will go anywhere. They'll feature lots of close-ups. They'll bounce the camera angles around the room. They're as OK filming in a small club as they are outdoors. They're independent. They're rogue, even. Performance art pieces. I get the sense that many of these specials were made by the artists themselves, then later sold to Showtime.
But does that make one network's comedy specials better than the others? Depends upon what you mean by better, I suppose. Comedy being so subjective, you cannot say one form of televised special is funnier than another -- that's left in the hands of the performer and the gutteral reactions of you as a viewer and listener.
Do you think, however, that one network does a better job of showcasing stand-up comedy and comedians as artists? Does one network offer more in the way of helping further a comedian's career? Is that answer different now than it would've been even a year ago (looking at you HBO)?
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on it.