From music to comedy, arguably no other group has had as profound of an influence on popular culture than African Americans.
In the comedic realm, the conditions under which African Americans have performed their art has changed dramatically over time. From Redd Foxx’s positioning as the first Black stand-up comedian to perform in front of a white audience, to Kevin Hart selling out 70,000 seats in Lincoln Financial Field, shifting race relations in America have marked a wave of progress and opportunity for Black comedians.
While today, comedic rockstars like Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle have risen to fame, the landscape for Black comics has not always been so promising. For example, some historians associate the advent of early forms of Black stand-up comedy in America with the legacy of African American slaves performing for white masters (for free). Though this practice undermined the talent and genius of Black comedians by denying their proper platform upon which to display their craft, it could also be considered the birth of a new genre and catalyst for the subsequent success of both minstrel performers and Black stand-up comics alike.
Although Black comedy has some roots in American slavery, it gained widespread popularity as a by-product of minstrel shows and Blackface that was popular in the early 20th century.
Bert Williams, one of the most well-known minstrel performers, achieved notoriety by routinely portraying degrading racial stereotypes in front of predominately white audiences. Williams often performed in Blackface in order to maintain the standard conventions of the comedic world at the time. Although his performance was not considered “stand-up” by today’s standards, he is still regarded as one of the genre’s forefathers due to his unparalleled wit and comedic timing.
As minstrel shows began to lose traction, African American comedy transitioned away from theatrical skits to something that more resembles modern-day stand-up.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a Black and openly lesbian woman, was one of the prominent early comics of the time. Unlike Bert Williams and other vaudeville performers, Mabley conducted her shows in front of mostly Black crowds while working the “Chitlin’ Circuit” – a set of venues open and safe for Black entertainers during the era of racial segregation. Mabley’s acts included material that was considered highly sensitive and controversial since she forthrightly engaged the racial tensions that characterized her lived experience. Mabley’s use of satire and incisive commentary on contemporary life laid the groundwork for dozens of notable comics to follow.
African American stand-up comedy has especially exploded between the 1950s and present-day.
From Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy – to Chris Rock, Hannibal Burress, and Jerrod Carmichael, the depth and range of American comedy has been transformed by the presence of African American perspectives. Not only have these comics given a voice to the African American experience, they’ve also challenged audiences to reconsider the bar for what is to be considered “funny.” Additionally, comedy has afforded many African Americans the ability to become entrepreneurs and business owners – with many Black comics owning production companies.
The roots and history of Black comedy help explain its current positioning in 2017.
Dave Chappelle represents one of the genre’s beacons as the culmination of foundations laid by his predecessors. He amassed wealth from his stand-up comedy routines, expanded his casting to roles in several movies and TV shows, and even produced his own infamous sketch comedy show, “Chappelle’s Show,” on network TV. The same timeless qualities of witty satire and cultural commentary that propelled Moms Mabley and others’ careers into stardom have sustained Dave Chappelle throughout his own.
Black comedians are responsible for some of our most cherished moments of laughter and joy. Whether through an on-point impersonation or a way-too-real joke, these comics give us memories to replay over and over again.
Though history of the genre’s development may be indicative of the difficulties endured in a racist environment, comedy has undoubtedly blossomed into one of the most pure and beautiful art forms reflecting the lived experiences of African Americans.