We need to laugh now more than ever.
For me, that means turning to African American comedians.
African American comedy is subversive by its very nature. It is the ultimate form of laughing-to-keep- from-crying response to the absurdity of racism in the United States. It is also misogynistic, foul-mouthed, raunchy, disablist and homophobic.
If these things bother you (as they should), please scroll to the next article. However, if you hold steady and listen to the energetic hum beneath the pearl-clutching jokes, you will find instructions for survival.
Mudbone, Richard Pryor’s most enduring character, enabled the comedian to process the trauma of his troubled childhood and drug addiction through laughter. Sommore’s “Hula Hoop” skit gave voice to the need to love one’s self even while making love to someone else. Every stand-up routine Dick Gregory ever performed was an entire masterclass in political resistance as his routines ignited the fire of truth and smothered it in hot sauce and humor.
Here are my top five, favorite African American, stand-up, comedic performances. May you watch them while your children are asleep and with a beverage of choice. And may you belly laugh until you cry.
Delirious (Eddie Murphy) – The concrete playground of Oak Valley Elementary School in Deptford, New Jersey lit up in 1986 with children singing one of Eddie Murphy’s most enduring comedy skits, “I got some ice cream. You didn’t get none. ‘Cos you are on the welfare.”
Gems like the “Ice Cream Man” and Murphy’s hilarious imitations of black celebrities are well-earned after cringing through his homophobic rants about AIDS and his misogynist take on cis, heterosexual relationships. The latter is hard to watch, which is why I savor Murphy’s uproarious story about his dad losing it at the family cookout, which closes the show.
Not Normal (Wanda Sykes) – God bless the United States of Wanda Sykes. She is the comedian we need in the post-Obama era. Regardless of who you voted for in 2016 or plan to vote for in the fall if we can even stand six-feet apart at the polls, Sykes deftly and humorously points out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of woke culture.
“The Bachelor cannot co-exist with ‘Times-Up’, #metoo,” Sykes signals. “The only time you hear ‘me too’ on The Bachelor is if somebody says, ‘I have chlamydia.’”
These times are not normal. The sooner we can unflinchingly face that truth with a sense of humor and grace, the better off we’ll be in the long-run.
Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip – Pryor is the Godfather of Modern African American Comedy. Comedy greats such as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Jerry Seinfeld hail Pryor as the “Picasso of our Profession” and one of the “greatest stand-up comedians of all time.”
Pryor also uses the “n-word” like he’s sprinkling jimmies on ice cream. It punctuates his sentences and it’s jarring.
Nevertheless, Pryor had two distinct gifts. The first was his deft storytelling skills. He shaped stories and characters like sandcastles. The second was his ability to transform personal pain into public laughter. Both are on display in Live on the Sunset Strip. Pryor brings his beloved Mudbone, a “wino philosopher from Tupelo, Mississippi” to life and candidly discusses his drug addiction which led to him catching on fire in 1980 while freebasing cocaine.
Katt Williams – There isn’t enough space on the Internet for me to write about how deeply problematic Katt Williams is. But some of his stand-up routines makes me laugh until I nearly pee myself. That’s why I couldn’t choose just one Katt Williams performance to watch.
Perhaps, it’s best to sample Williams’ work like a tequila flight.
Start with “American Zoo” from It’s Pimpin’, Pimpin’ to feel solidarity during the pandemic with a tiger in a zoo as you try to keep a job, homeschool your children, run a bed-and-breakfast for four humans and five animals, and remember what day it is.
Cruise into “Get Some White Friends” from The Pimp Chronicles, Pt. 1 to make you appreciate your friends during times of need. Top it off with “Everyday I’m Hustlin’ from American Hustle to help you remember your swagger even on the worst of days. All skits are available on YouTube.
The Queens of Comedy (Sommore) – A spin-off of The Original Kings of Comedy, Queens follows Laura Hayes, Adele Givens, Sommore, and Mo’Nique during a performance at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis, Tennessee.
While each woman offers a sidesplitting slice of life for black women, Sommore, was the stand-out performer for me. Sommore was recently released from jail at the time of the performance. She is like your one friend who never has any money but has the best clothes, eats at the hottest restaurants, goes to all of the concerts, dates the most gorgeous people, and has the best stories to share about her experiences.
In “Hula Hoop,” Sommore reminds women that no matter what society says about or does to you, we all have something special inside that we’ve learned as little girls from which we can draw when we need to remember who we really are.
When pandemic life threatens to swallow you whole, may you take out your hula hoop, find a quiet place, and swivel.