Black Comedians On Black Comedy

Book Review by Willard Manus

Here's a book that's been long overdue. We take black entertainers like Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock for granted today--they're big stars, after all--but the road that brought them to the top hasn't been easy to navigate, not until recent years anyway. The whole story of black comedy's American odyssey is explored in BLACK COMEDIANS ON BLACK COMEDY--HOW AFRICAN-AMERICANS TAUGHT US TO LAUGH. Written by Darryl Littleton (himself a stand-up comic), with an introduction by Dick Gregory, the 360-page book covers four hundred years of history and traces the evolution of African-American humor, beginning with the slave ships and plantations, then going on to the minstrel and riverboat shows of the 1800's, the vaudeville and chittlin circuits, Broadway and Hollywood, the television and comedy specials of the 21st century.

Littleton provides biographical sketches of the luminaries from each period: Michael Blackson, "Juba" Lane, Sam Lucas, Bert Williams, Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, "Moms" Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, George Kirby, Richard and Willie, Marla Gibbs, Cedric the Entertainer, Martin Lawrence and Dave Chapelle, to name just a few.

Edifying are the comments made about these performers by such contemporaries as Tommy Chunn, Eddie Griffin, Deon Cole and Ricky Harris, who were asked such questions as "Who would have made a good minstrel?" and "What movie part would you not play?" and "What's the worst part about stand-up?" (Harris answered thusly: "A white comic can go his whole career, never make a black person laugh and make millions of dollars. For me to make millions I've got to make whites laugh").

BLACK COMEDIANS makes many other pertinent points as well: "Black comedy keeps doing the same thing--moving. It is indomitable as the people who make it from those early days of poking fun to spiritually survive to the lucrative era where a well-received television or film appearance can make a career. African-American humor has not only buoyed the spirits of black people for centuries, it has enriched the art of comedy for a nation." (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books)