You can’t get through life as a black person without a sense of humor. The setup and premises of life all too often leave you the butt of the joke. That’s why most contemporary black folk have a little “Comedy BlackPack” in them. A little Richard Pryor, a little Eddie Murphy, a little Chris Rock, and finally some Dave Chappelle: This is the Mount Rushmore of contemporary black comedy. And the future of black comedy, the ideal up-and-comer — the Black Comedian 3000, if you will — takes a little from each to form his own shtick.
RECIPE FOR THE BLACK COMEDIAN 3000
Roll Out the Richard Pryor: Mainstream consensus has him as the godfather of BlackPack Comedy, but he’s more like a god. Like the real God, there may have been originators before him, but no one can say definitively. And per the Bible, Richard’s got all ton of great stories along with public support on a behavioral level after years of excellent PR on his behalf. Pryor was the first to really perfect the now-cliché “white people do this, black people do that” gold standard form of black comedy. He was also the first black superstar comedian to fall off the tracks and maintain his sense of humor, famously detailing and mocking his cocaine addiction on his Live on the Sunset Strip special.
Mix in Some Eddie Murphy on Top: Murphy adds a layer of style to Pryor’s crust. Murphy‘s faultless imitative skills equipped him for character development and diversification in both his routine and his acting roles. Pryor could act, but not like this — we’ve seen Murphy play everything from wisecracking donkeys to fat professors, with no trace of his stand-up or SNL personae getting in the way. Plus he’s the only comic with a voice good enough to have released decent 1980s pop songs (“Party All the Time”). If Pryor took genius and made it personal, intimate, and face to face, Murphy takes genius and puts it high up on a faraway mountain.
Cook with Chris Rock: After Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock brought in more socially conscious intelligence and political awareness. Rock was sort of unmemorable during his own SNL days. Only once he left network television did we get the Chris Rock we know and love today through his stand-up shows, which have provided the most incisive (and funny!) sociopolitical commentary yet on race relations in America. Don’t forget his HBO talk show The Chris Rock Show and documentaries like his recent Good Hair. He is comic “edutainment” at its finest.
Top with Dollops of Dave Chappelle: Dave leavens the Chris Rock formula with spontaneously absurd wit. By the time Chappelle’s Show came around, there was a sense that America was tired of talking serious (even if there were still serious political race issues). In the midst of the reality show boom and the ascent of MTV youth lifestyle programming, Chappelle’s Show fit into the irreverent spirit of the times while still having something important to say (at least some of the time). He’s the one to make a sketch about unfair racial profiling in the justice system but then say “dooky!” at the perfect moment to let the air out of the balloon.
MORE TIPS ON THE BLACK COMEDIAN 3000
Grow a Mustache: Every great black comic has had one at some point in his career. It’s the easiest thing to do. There is a surprising lack of comment on the record regarding the “mustache look,” so we can only presume that it helps add a dash of manliness to these guys who act like clowns a lot. Maybe they know it looks a little funny and use it as an aesthetic prop to foster a festive environment. Studies are still being conducted to determine the direct relationship between facial hair and comedy gold.
Curse, Motherfucker! Curse!: Use a high intonation, with the vocal inflection lilting upward as much as possible.
Hypergesticulation: When in doubt, overact. Closely kept seated routines are not for black comics. Physical expressiveness is important. There must be pacing around, at least one act of dry humping, and a dance move or two.
Coolness Is Part of the Package Here: Black people are already supposed to be cool, so obviously black “funny people” must be cool. Under no circumstances should you misuse the jive-slang turkey — that will blow the whole effect. Well, unless the joke is specifically about a phrase you wish to make light of, and even so, you still need to use the phrase correctly after making your joke, ASAP. Being a comic of any color is difficult, and being a black comic might be tougher. But being a corny black comedian? Not only will blacks and other minorities hate you for not having integrity, white people will hate you too for not selling out effectively. That might be too much ridicule to even make light of.
SET LIST OF GO-TO JOKES
Black People vs. Niggas (aka Internal Black Racism): Ah, the irony of shifting the spotlight from the yin and yang of black versus white to the dichotomy of black versus “blacker.” It’s always good for at least one laugh line. Just use caution when you riff on this particular binary reduction, because the black people will laugh but the white ones will squirm.
White People Do This, Black People Do That: This will always be “Old Faithful” for black comedians. As surely as there will always be man and woman, parent and child, there will also be black people and white people. Less controversial than black people vs. niggas but similar in its simple this-or-that sensibility. Obviously it’s been done. By everyone. A lot. There may not be any jokes left here, so recycle only if necessary and somehow fresh.
I’m Dating This Black Woman, She Is Craaaaazy!: Black comics of both sexes make this joke, which amounts to the Aristotelian truth: The only thing crazier and worse off than a black man is a black woman, and black women will fuck your shit up. The joke induces less repulsion coming from a black male than from a white male, but men in general should really shy away from this one. Not only has it been done, but black women truly do have it tough. They and they alone can really enjoy the tragicomedy in their narratives, so let a female comic slowly and gently lay it down, maybe bookending the joke with commentary on how much she loves her sistah girls.
Today in Racism, Take Two Million: That prejudice is never-ever ending is the real joke.
Black-on-Black Commentary: Here is a good way to see if your audience is actually about rational thinking or if they’re just pro-black: A lot of black people will cry “racism” at any joke that starts with “All black people…” —unless the punch line is about black people’s superior sexual prowess, penis size, derriere shape, dancing ability, athletic ability, or coolness.
BONUS ENCORE: FIVE WHITE COMICS THAT NEED BLACK VERSIONS
Jerry Seinfeld: Black people are just now finding their cool, calm, collected American middle-class sensibility. This will eventually produce calm, observational comics, currently known as “Seinfeld-ass niggas.” Most nights at the comedy club, though, it’s still predominantly po’ black comics.
Jeff Foxworthy: The Blue Collar Comedy Tour might be likened to the Def Comedy Jam circuit as both appeal to the populist and, perhaps baser, ethnocultural denominators in their comic approach. Def Comedy Jam produced some stars, but none have broken out as a singular branded cash cow like Foxworthy. I guess “You might be a nigga if…” is a tougher sell than “You might be a redneck if…”
Andrew Dice Clay: It’d be interesting to see if the obscene, obnoxious Dice set would translate coming from a black guy. Tracy Morgan has some of this going on in his less-seen raw and raunchy stand-up act, but he’s more absurd than obnoxious. Like with Seinfeld, the obnoxious sensibility comes with a certain level of entitlement that only the middle-class experience can bestow.
Adam Sandler: Black comics don’t usually play the juvenile humor. There might be a little too much “no homo” in the response to Sandler’s little man-boy routine. Black comics will act silly but also somehow want to always project the vibe that they can lay the pipe. Sandler’s comedy, so juvenile in its response to “boobies,” is sort of desexualized in that it has no seeming capacity for mature sexual relations.
Dennis Miller: An over-the-top pretentious smart person (and a conservative to boot) would be a nice change of pace. Think Michael Eric Dyson smoking a lot of weed or doing a lot of coke. (See also black Steve Martin)
Comedy as truth telling — “it’s funny because it’s true” — starts here. A society’s comedians reveal precisely where the social lines are, and nowhere is this more evident than with the Comedy BlackPack, whose members have actually done a lot of cutting-edge work on black cultural pathology. In the words of Chappelle doing his rap-comedian act, “I got jokes and jokes and jokes and jokes…”
Patrice Evans aka The Assimilated Negro (TAN) is a staff writer for Grantland.com (check him him out on The 9 Circles of Tracy Morgan and Saving Oprah). He's written for ESPN the Mag, N+1, Gawker, and a host of others. His book Negropedia, from which this piece was excerpted, is officially on sale TODAY (October 4th). He blogs at The Assimilated Negro and Tumbls for change (nickels, revolution). He is wielding the power that comes with being a #21 Media Bachelor with great responsibility. TAN is not yet on Twitter, but still loves you. He promises a special signed book for anyone who name-checks Splitsider and can come up with a new "black people do this, white people do that" joke. In the meantime, in-between time, won't you please save this African-American baby? Hollerrr at ya boy.