A Short History of Black Comedy

Stand-up comedian Darryl Littleton talks with Tony Cox about his book Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh.

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TONY COX, host:

Consider this. Someone shares a story of pain, racism, divorce, unemployment, maybe even murder. And what do you do? You laugh. But that's okay. You were supposed to. And perhaps, that's the mark of true comedy - getting people to laugh even under the worst of circumstances.

Popular stand-up comedian Darryl Littleton explores that premise form a historical perspective. He has written a provocative new book titled, "Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh." Darryl, who goes by his stage name D'Militant, recently paid a visit to our NPR studios. He told me working on the project meant spending precious time with the crème de la creme of showbiz comedy.

Mr. DARRYL LITTLETON (Stand-up Comedian; Author, "Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh"): I actually interviewed 125 comedians and industry people. You have Mike Epps to Katt Williams, Nick Cannon, Kevin Hart - even Raven Simone is included in this because she did something historical that's never been done. She's the first black female comedy actress of her age group to have a show named after her.

COX: Really?

Mr. LITTLETON: Yeah.

COX: "That's So Raven."

Mr. LITTLETON: "That's So Raven."

COX: Let me go back, though, to 1619.

Mr. LITTLETON: Yes.

COX: What kind of humor? What kind of black humor was there in 1619?

Mr. LITTLETON: Well, we didn't have any stand-up comics. We actually didn't have any real recognized stand-up comedians til 1961, which you and I go into in a second. What we did back then to keep our spirits up from the middle pass and of course slavery, was amuse each other. And that went back to our tradition in Africa of libriads(ph) who we're basically the jesters for the African kings.

They used to sing, dance, do poetry the whole night.

And it's interesting because the minstrel era, minstrelsy, came from slave owners watching slaves on their off hours allegedly being in natural behavior. However, what the slaves were doing was making fun of the masters.

COX: So, let me make sure I got this right.

Mr. LITTLETON: Yeah. Yeah. Sure.

COX: So the slaves were making fun of the master…

Mr. LITTLETON: Right.

COX: - and the master was watching the slaves make fun of him, and so he started making fun of the slaves making fun of him.

Mr. LITTLETON: Right, because he don't know they're making of him and that's how the black says -

COX: And that's how it's (unintelligible).

Mr. LITTLETON: That's how the black say see routine.

COX: Comedy, in terms of its content, how far would you say that has changed and how what has brought about the change in the content of our comedy?

Mr. LITTLETON: Not really a lot of things have changed. We still use things like call and response, where we talk to our audience and our audience talks back to us. You know, there's a touch on the Michael Richards thing, that's why it was a problem for him because culturally, that's not anything that Anglo comedians usually do.

They like to just present their act no interruption at all. We, on the other hand, kind of relish that. It gives us that feeling of community. So basically, language has opened up. And I feel within, maybe the last decade, it has become a little more buffoonish than it was. My role models were people like Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce, and people of that nature where when they said something, they were actually saying something.

(Soundbite of stand-up comedy)

Mr. DICK GREGORY (Comedian): That's right.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GREGORY: I'm still confused. I'll be honest. I'm confused.

Unidentified Man #2: Hey (unintelligible).

Mr. GREGORY: I can't talk louder. Can't you hear? You can hear? Well, I can't talk loud, because the NAACP told me not to (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREGORY: It destroys this new image of us.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. LITTLETON: Dick Gregory was laying them out in the aisles. He was hilarious. So Hugh Hefner saw him and said, okay, hire them for the week. A week turned into two, which turned into the more, which got him an appearance on the "Jack Parr Show," which was "The Tonight Show" of that day. And that's what blew him up.

A year and a half before he performed on that show, he made, I think he told me for the entire year $1,800. A year and a half later, he made $3.5 million.

Mr. GREGORY: You heard what Bobby Kennedy said that 30 years from this year, a Negro can become president. Wouldn't that be swinging?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREGORY: Can't you just imagine me president? And you back here in Chicago got a lot of problems, and you decide to call the White House, and I pick up the phone and say, hey, baby!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREGORY: Wouldn't that be wild? Boy, if I was president of this country, I'd bring Kruschev over and give him some chitlins and he's give us Berlin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Let's talk about some of the others. Redd Foxx. He was born John Elroy Sanford.

Mr. LITTLETON: Yes.

COX: Into poverty in St. Louis, Missouri, December 1922. But he became really an icon for black comics.

Mr. LITTLETON: Yes, which came about because whenever you have blacks and whites in theaters, they had to have what they called "N-er Heaven." And I think you know what I'm saying when I say the N word, and I'll call it N-er, since I'm not going to say it on radio.

But the point is we would always be up in the balcony, and the mainstream or the white audience would always be down below. Well, when you'd have a live presentation sometimes, blacks would laugh at things that whites didn't think were funny. And so what the theater owners did was they told the black audience wait for the whites to laugh and then you can laugh.

Well, there's nothing spontaneous about that. And that's why a gentleman named Harry Pace invented what they called Race Records. That meant that you or I or any of the black person could go home and listen to authentic black humor and laugh at what we wanted to and we didn't have to wait for a cue from somebody else.

And where Redd Foxx comes and is prior to him, comedy on record was musicians. Cab Callaway did funny things on records. Lewis Jordan did funny things on records. But it wasn't until Redd Foxx came along that anybody was actually doing comedy on records without having to play a horn or doing anything else. So, you know, funny note toot(ph) you know, weird stuff like that.

Mr. REDD FOXX (Comedian): Here's a notice from civil defense in case you didn't even see your brochure in the mail last week for the citizens of California. In case of a nuclear attack, you crawl under a heavy desk, draw your knees up to your ears, bend your head between your legs, take a deep breath and kiss you (bleep) goodbye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: But you know, another funny thing about Redd Foxx and the comics of that era, was that their comedy - their records came in brown plain wrappers.

Mr. LITTLETON: Exactly.

COX: And there was a kind that your folks - at least, they're on my house, you know, we weren't even allowed to touch these records because of the content of them.

Mr. LITTLETON: Good story. And Rudy Ray Moore told me this. When he went to the record store, you had to know what specifically what you're getting. There wasn't a section called comedy or humor, where could just go and leaf through records. You have to go and say specifically, okay, I'm looking for Rudy Ray Moore (unintelligible), you know.

And then, they would hand you the brown paper - you hand them the money, they hand you the brown paper bag like you said. And a lot of times - sometimes, you'd even have to order it.

COX: Darryl, thanks so much, man.

Mr. LITTLETON: Thank you for having me, Tony. Really appreciated it.

COX: Darryl Littleton is the author of "Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh." To read an excerpt, log on to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And tomorrow, immigrant entrepreneurs of color. I'm Tony Cox. This is NPR News.

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