Laughing away the pain

Sep 15, 1999 at 12:00 am

On The Real Side: A History Of African-American Comedy From Slavery To Chris Rock
By Mel Watkins
Lawrence Hill & Co.
$16.95, 660 pp.

Does the man living in squalor appreciate the scent of the rose more than he who grows up in the garden? Might the oppressed man be able to smile a bigger smile, laugh a heartier laugh, or describe the color of freedom better than someone who’s used to smiling, laughing and being free all the time? History says yes.

The jester. The joker. The entertainer. The comedian. They make you laugh at the world – and often make you laugh at yourself. They are experts at finding the humor in hurt, and they sometimes analyze the tribulations that humble people better than a psychiatrist could.

More than likely, your favorite comedian hasn’t always been just funny. Many comedians have experienced more pain, anger and frustration than the average guy, yet are fortunate enough to have found an uninhibited method of exorcising their demons.

Former New York Times Book Review editor Mel Watkins’ book, On the Real Side: A History of African-American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock, is a brilliant analysis of what has distinguished and sustained black comedy for more than a century.

The book traces African-American humor from its African roots, through its development during slavery, to the present. From the racist derision of minstrelsy to the emergence of Richard Pryor – whom the author believes "signaled the end of diffident black comedy and challenged Americans to acknowledge the full range of African America’s humorous tradition" – Watkins explains how the foundation for comics such as the quasi-conservative Chris Rock was established.

In the course of his examination, he discusses such subtle, and blatant, cultural issues as the heartiness of black laughter (how much it annoys mainstream America), black stereotypes in comedy (perpetuated and self-perpetuated), and the differences between black and white humor. No stone seems to be left unturned, whether it is Amos n’ Andy – two white actors stereotypically portrayed black men on the show’s radio version which began in 1928, but black men were cast for the later televised version which originally aired in 1951-53 – or the irreverent style of Jackie "Moms" Mabley (see "Rebellion in maid's clothing").

Watkins’ analyses bear the common threads of black folks’ pain, therapy and will to persevere. These time-tested factors, he argues, account for the distinctive difference in African-American comedy.

Even more profound is the fact that, in separate interviews, local entertainers confirmed Watkins’ sentiment without having read the book.

"I think the difference (with black comedy) is the pain," says Detroit comedian Foolish. "As far as black people, we like that hard, painful comedy. Like growing up, being broke. It’s hard to turn pain into the power of laughter."

I snorted cocaine for about fifteen years. My dumb ass. I musta snorted up Peru. I coulda bought Peru, all the shit I snorted. Coulda just gave them the money up front, and had me a piece of property. I started off snortin’ little tiny pinches. Said "I know I ain’t gonna get hooked." Not on no coke. You can’t get hooked. My friends have been snortin’ fifteen years. They ain’t hooked. – Richard Pryor

Imagine that Richard Pryor based roughly 90 percent of his material on things he’d personally experienced. Then consider the man’s material itself: 2-Bit Henry Hanson; A Monkey Named "Friend"; a fight with Jim Brown; Mudbone; his family’s whorehouse in Peoria, Ill.

As legendary as Pryor’s comedic daring was, it is born of the struggles of predecessors such as Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, Stepin Fetchit and Billy Kersands, all of whom had to overcome their own bigoted obstacles, all of whom had way more talent than comedy allowed them to display.

Watkins uses more than 600 pages to place into context this comedy of a people. As a result, the book may be an emotional read for African-Americans.

Chapters on minstrelsy and vaudeville hurt because, here, Watkins makes a case for how much these most degrading forms of blackface entertainment affected white America’s perception of black people. Tales of African-American entertainers who could only find work as minstrels (black men, in blackface, playing Sambo for white audiences) are reminiscent of many issues black entertainers face today. In fact, when one considers the breath of fresh, intelligent air that comedians such as Sinbad and Rock bring to the comedy world, it’s clear that the issue of exaggerated, stereotyped blackness in comedic performances still raises concern in black communities today.

Watkins hails Rock, in particular, as one of a few contemporary comics who "perceives wrongheaded proscriptions and speaks out against them," a talent which also makes him more socially relevant. For example, Watkins cites a comment Rock made about former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, on his 1997 Roll With the New album.

"Who ran against him," Rock asked. "Who was so bad that they lost to a crackhead!?"

Watkins’ theories of the chains that bind protractors of African-American comedy, chronicled or contemporary, certainly hold up in hood courts across the country. African-American comedy is the pain of a people made bearable, the banishing of negative connotations associated with being black, and the placement of a persevering spirit and an enduring energy. Watkins’ picture of African-American comedy is multifaceted, textured and, on the real side, resilient.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freuent contributor to Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]