The Mount Rushmore of Black Comedy
And those that changed the culture
All my life I’ve heard “Chris, you are so funny! You should be a comedian!” Yeah, right. Being funny and being a comedian are two completely different things. Every black person I knew growing up was funny. My family, my cousins, everyone at the barber shop, all hilarious. It gave me a leg up in all the white schools I attended. As opposed to “I know you are but what am I?” a simple “yo mama” was all that was needed to temporarily confound and throw the would be haters off the scent.
Comedy = Survival
A simple examination of black history (unfortunately now called critical race theory) vividly illustrates how humor was the only way to survive. Gettin woke in DC, my blog about my trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American history and culture in Washington DC nmaahc.si.edu, gives the most comprehensive look at that. I learned more in 2 days in that building than any class I’ve ever taken or book I’ve read. It’s an must-see bucket list item for all Americans.
The Mount Rushmore of Black Comedy
Loretta Mary Aiken (1894-1975) known as Jackie Moms Mabley, was a stand up comedienne who began her career on the theatre stage in the 1920’s. Born in Brevard, North Carolina and one of 16 children, her early life was nearly unimaginable. Raped by an elderly black man at age 11, and again by a white sheriff at 13, she had two children by the age of 14. At age 27, she came out as lesbian and became one of the most successful comics on the chitlin circuit, rising to the heights of playing Carnegie Hall in 1962. A true legend.
Richard Claxton Gregory (1932-2017) dickgregory.com, was arguably the most influential comedian, author and civil rights activist of all time. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University. While serving in the United States Army, he was encouraged by a senior officer to try stand up and while working as a postal worker in Chicago in the day, nurtured his act at night in the comedy clubs. A controversial figure, he became a vegetarian activist, writing Dick Gregory’s natural diet for those who eat in 1973, outlining how fasting and going vegetarian led to dramatic weight loss. His Dick Gregory’s Bahamian Diet remains one of the most popular in history.
Clerow “Flip” Wilson Jr. (1933-1998) was one of 10 children born in Jersey City, New Jersey. He rose to become the first African American to host a successful variety television show in the 1970s. A veteran of the United States Air Force, he began his stand up career in 1954 while working as a bellhop in San Francisco at the Manor Plaza Hotel. A cast member of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, he won a Grammy for his comedy album The Devil made me buy this Dress featuring his famous character, Geraldine, popularized on his hit show, The Flip Wilson Show.
John Elroy Sanford aka Redd Foxx (1922-1991), is ranked on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand ups of all time. Also born in St. Louis, MO, and raised on Chicago’s South side, his father abandoned the family at age 4 and was raised by his half-Seminole mother, Mary Hughes, from Mississippi. During WWII, Foxx dodged the draft by eating a half a bar of soap before the physical, a trick that resulted in heart palpitations. His hit television show, Sanford and Son, made him one of the highest paid stars on NBC. His running gags “Elizabeth, I’m coming to join ya honey!” and “You big dummy!” were apart of the cultural zeitgeist.
I refuse to do a blog on the greatest black comedians and not include William Henry Cosby Jr. Controversial and polarizing, his accomplishments are undeniable. From his legendary comedy albums, like Bill Cosby Himself, to the groundbreaking I Spy and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids tv shows, his self-titled The Cosby Show remains the highest rated television sitcom in NBC’s history. I’ll leave it at that.
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor Sr. (1940-2005) is the most emulated black comedian in history. Born in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor began his stand up career in 1963 in the clubs of New York City. Inspired by Bill Cosby, Pryor was a middlebrow comic before morphing into a cutting edge observational comic more reflective of his tragic upbringing. Called by many legends of comedy as “the Picasso of the profession”, Bob Newhart called Pryor “the most seminal comedian of the last 50 years. Every black comedian since stands on his enormous shoulders. Amongst them…
Eddie Regan Murphy, at age 60, proud father to 10 children, is unequivocally the most successful black stand up comedian in history. The first black comic to sell out arenas, he has starred in at least 62 films, some of which remain the most successful comedies in Hollywood history. Born in Brooklyn, New York to mother Lillian and father Charles Edward, his parents split up when he was 3 and his father, a transit police officer, died when Eddie was just 8. At age 19, Murphy joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, creating memorable characters like Mr. Robinsons Neighborhood and Buckwheats greatest hits. Leaving the show in 1984, the same year his first film, 48 hours, with Nick Nolte was released, jump starting his remarkable career.
Caryn Elaine Johnson, known as Whoopi Goldberg, is only one of 16 entertainers to have the coveted EGOT. Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards and many others that have decorated this incomparable performer. Born in Manhattan, New York and raised in public housing by her clergyman father and mother, a nurse. An actress first and stand up second, her career began in 1983 with the one-woman show, Spook show, which transferred to Broadway under the self titled Whoopi Goldberg on Broadway directed by Mike Nichols, who discovered her. A dropout of Washington Irving High School, she moved to San Diego in 1970 and worked odd jobs such as a bricklayer, bank teller and mortuary cosmetologist.
Wanda Yvette Sykes, who just turned 57, is an award winning writer, actor and still a touring stand up comedian, despite being in demand in Hollywood since the 90s. Hailing from Portsmouth, Virginia and an alumni of HBCU Hampton University, Wanda started as a writer on The Chris Rock show on HBO and won an Emmy for that in 1999. At one time married to record producer Dave Hall, she came out at as a lesbian to her parents at age 40 and married her partner, Frenchwoman Alex Niedbalski, with whom she shares 2 children. One of the most in-demand performers, she will co-host this years Academy Awards ceremony with fellow comedian Amy Schumer and actor Regina Hall on March 27.
The media is littered with nothing to laugh about these days, the war in Ukraine being principle among them. The horrifying images searing into the conscience of people around the world are unbearable. In the article, stop buying from these companies, they’re funding Putins war, from the Washington Post, it lays out clearly the many companies refusing to take part in the sanctions, continuing to put money in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pocket. At least 33 companies, as of this writing, are still in defiance. They need to be put on blast. Koch Industries is the worst, funding extreme right conspiracy theorists in this country, are the people who make Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Quilted Northern toilet paper et al. Georgia-Pacific lumber, Reebok, Subway, Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton hotels. Eddie Bauer, Brooks brothers and Nine West. Cinnabon, Carvels Ice cream. Avon cosmetics, Pirelli tires, ASUS laptops, Mission tortillas, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, just to name a few.
Stay informed. Make smart choices.
You make me so proud of my culture Christopher Birt. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
As always, you’re on the money. Thank you.
Thank YOU Miche! ❤️
Dick Gregory was bone one year before I was.
I remember all the people you have mentioned. I am fortunate to have grown up being entertained and taught by them.
Thanks Gayle! I agree, “taught by them” is a perfect way of putting it.
Chris, you just taught me so much man, thank you! I want to share this with so many people. You are also one fine writer I might add. Just a pleasure to read. As far as the last topic in the conclusion paragraph, with your permission, I will copy and paste into my social media feeds. We need to boycott. I can’t thank you enough, I learned about so many of my fav. comedians and learned about some that I was vaguely familiar with by name only. Just a great blog this week. Keep doing you Chris, you are perfect.
Aw shucks, thank you Kimm.❤️ Of course you can share the list or anything else. We need more accountability. Make ‘good trouble’!
Fantastic list, well done. And thanks for the list of companies in the last paragraph and the post link.
Thanks Tom! Feel free to share that link. Accountability! 💪🏽
Once again you’ve illuminated a topic that is absolutely essential to our continued survival. Humor is and always will be an integral way for all of us to deal with the atrocities we see committed both here in the U.S. and, of course, abroad. I think we’d shrivel up and die if we hadn’t had the marvelous voices of the comedians you’ve presented here. I’ve had the good fortune to see Redd Foxx and Mons Mabley perform at the Apollo Theater in NYC and I walked away feeling HAPPY. As Editor of music trade publication, Cash Box Magazine, I also got to review albums by Richard Pryor and other lesser known comedians like Dap Sugar Willie (from Southside Philly). Humor makes it possible for me to deal with this life and I thank you for presenting these timeless comedians whose work has inspired me. And don’t underestimate your own sense of humor. I can’t recall any conversation we’ve ever had that didn’t contain avalanches of belly laughs–real ones!
Thanks David. Agreed about our convos. It takes one to know one!