Black Humor Essay

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Langston Hughes says, “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it. Of course, you laugh by proxy. You’re really laughing at the other guy lacks, not your own. That’s what makes it funny-The fact that you don’t know you are laughing at yourself. Humor is when the joke is on you but hits the other fellow first-Because it boomerangs. Humor is what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you must laugh. Humor is your unconscious therapy” Laughter for centuries has been the medicine that ensured the survival of African Americans.

“Herded together with others with whom they shared only a common condition of servitude and some degree of cultural overlap, enslaved Africans were compelled to create a new language, a new religion, and a precarious new lifestyle.” (1) As Africans were unloaded by boat and placed onto plantations, slave masters were completely enthralled by the way they spoke, moved, and danced. Out of slavery emerged a culture that would influence America’s mainstream culture for infinity. Slavery created bondage for Africans and when it looked like they were going no where fast, they laughed, sang, and amused one another with riddles, jokes and animal tales from the homeland. Slave masters could not conceive why slave in such a miserable state were so joyous, what they did not know was many of the songs, jokes and riddles were more than surface deep and many times about the master. The slaves made the best of the condition

by laughing at the way the slave master treated them and their reaction to this treatment. They were laughing at the slave master and at the same time laughing at themselves. However, it did not take long before slave masters made slave merry-making public. Many times slaves were called upon to entertain the master and their guest. Slave merry-making was also encouraged because it also increased the price of the slaves. “People took notice to the way slaves spoke and moved, out of slavery evolved Blackface Humor.” (5)

Blackface comedy was when a person (white) painted their face with black makeup and acted like a slave (sambo). Blackface humor gave whites the chance to lift African American Humor from its original context, transform it, then spotlight it for entertainment, amusement (for non-black audiences) and become popular for their supposed originality.

As blackface entertainment became more popular so did the actors. George Washington Dixion introduced “Coal Black Rose” (5) one song which was part of this act was “Sambo and Cuffee”, which was a comic song about a black woman and her lover. Dixion performed this act all over the world, some would argue that Dixion was the first white blackface performer to establish a broad reputation.

By the 1830’s blackface, performers were every where and one of the most popular attractions of the American stage.

Billy Whitlock, Frank Brower, Frank Pelham and Dan Emmett were also very popular blackface performer. Dixion created the one man, show but these

men created a troupe of blackface performers. These men also firmly established the image of blacks as happy-go-lucky plantation darkies, outrageously dresses and ignorant. Although there were other blackface performers before them, these men were the only ones who could give a real show from the makeup to the costume.

“By the 1840’s blackface performances had reached an unprecedented level of national popularity.”(6) There were many performance troupes even professional juvenile troupes. Each followed a standard; they had a three-act presentation. The fist act opened up with a walkaround where the entire troupe came out made up in face paint and dressed in suits. From there, they gathered in a semicircle to alternate comic songs and jokes. Here is a common type of joke many used; it is called;

Mr. Bones: Does us black folks go to hebbin? Does we go through dem golden gates?

Mr. Tambo: Mr. Bones, you know the golden gates is for white folks.

Mr. Bones: Well, who’s gonna be dere to open demm gates for you white folks?

For most white people watching the show the most funny and exciting part was the

joke telling. (2) In the second act-the olio or variety segment- was the stump speech speaker. This is when one of the members in the troupe performed a comic, black version of a topic. Topics would range from, emancipation, women’s suffrage, education or some sort of other current political or scientific topic. The point of this part of the show was to show how blacks could not comprehend nor interpret sophisticated ideas. The third and final part of the show was a slapstick plantation skit, featuring song and dance with costumed men and women slaves.

After the Civil War blackface troupes hired on free black men and women to perform with them. White audiences became upset and angry at many troupes. After the war and emancipation – during the reconstruction period when constitutional amendments were passed to assure civil rights and voting rights for former slaves and some blacks were elected members of the House and Senate; Whites wanted to be assured that blacks were still inferior and blackface troupes were not showing this by hiring them on. Therefore, audiences depleted, and troupes started to perform on circuits like the chitlen circuit, which hit most black owned theaters. Blacks who were part of the troupes started to branch off and start their own troupes. In doing this, they altered the usual blackface performance routine. First they altered the song lyrics, instead of them singing songs that downgraded blacks; songsters would play on white fears and mock them. Many blacks took off the face paint and introduced musical comedies.

Black musical comedies created success for many black performers. White

already loved black music so the musical comedy fit right into the market. Still

many of these comedies were on the circuit, which were confined to black theaters.

It was not until later that musical comedies were featured on Broadway. When they were on Broadway “Lyles and Miller a very successful team created a whole new approach to the comedies.”(7) They presented at the end of their acts a group of women who danced and sang with the stereotypical attitude many felt black urban women had. This simple addition astounded Broadway and critic raved. Eventually every black troupe had evolved to use this form. Black Musical Comedies took blacks to another level of comedy yet, they were unable to shake the sambo stereotypical image given to them by white blackface performers.

“Licensed radio was introduced in 1920, because of the low budget and inadequate facilities, news shows and music provided by local groups dominated the airwaves. By 1922 there were over 522 licensed stations and radio sales increased from $1million in 1920 to $400million in 1925. By 1929 one in every three homes owned radios ten years later their was a radio in almost every home. Radio was a medium where its listeners could hear concerts, comic monologues, sporting events and political speeches as they happened.”(4)

Radio at first initially ignored blacks, as in the blackface performance days they were imitated by whites. In 1925, Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Correll were a small time duo who had debuted as musicians on a radio station in

Chicago. They played at this radio station for a while and later moved to a station owned by the Chicago Tribune. At

this station they were approached by management about doing a broadcast edition

to the comic strip “The Gumps.” The two refused the offer but suggested an alternative, a black – dialect show. Gosden and Correll made a series based on two black names “Sam ‘N’ “Henry”, which would later become known as “Amos ‘N’ “Andy”. Sam ‘N’ Henry debuted on January 12, 1926 (1)(6) The characters Sam and Henry still depended on the stereotypical images of blacks created during the blackface (minstrel) performance years. Blacks were superstitious, nave easily influenced, lazy, ignorant and conniving. March 19, 1928 three months after the “Sam” ‘N’ “Henry” show had bee cancelled, “Amos” ‘N’ “Andy” mysteriously appeared on a rival station in Chicago. Gosden and Correll had came up with the idea presented it to the station and it was accepted. This show was far more successful than Sam And Henry; Amos N Andy was recorded and leased to forty other radio stations. In August 1929, the show got a sponsor with Pepsodent being the first black comedy to receive a major sponsor. Amos N Andy was the number one show in the country. By 1935 70 percent of American home (40 million) listeners tuned in each night. Also saying from the show hit the streets like “Ain’t dat sumptin’,” “Splain dat to me’,” and “Holy Mackerel”.

Even with its popularity, the show had a down time. Radio stations modernized their broadcast methods, so comedians were no longer forced to work

without an audience. This is when variety shows begin to take the market. In 1943, Gosden and Correl returned to the air with a thoroughly revamped half an hour

version of “Amos” ‘N’ “Andy”. The show was performed before a live audience

and featured an orchestra and chorus. “Amos” ‘N’ “Andy” represented a breakthrough for black comedians on radio and television as well.

Although one-person acts were not popular during the variety show period, Moms Mabley set the stage for many comedians that would come after her. Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Born in North Carolina in 1897, Mabley grew up in Cleveland Ohio, by the time she was sixteen she had became a stage performer. She began as a dancer and singer and dabbled in comedy. During the 1920’s she was performing on the chitlen circuit in Dallas, where another teams so her act and helped her get better bookings. Like many performers, she appeared in skits with other performers at first. However Mabley did not like this and she was one of the first comics to turn to monologue humor. She appeared on the stage with oversized clodhoppers, tattered gingham dresses and oddball hats she acted like a typical down to earth older black woman. Mabley worked with many performers but she did her best when she was alone. She was famous for her costume and her shuffle, she would sing some comical version of a popular song, tell stories or just stand there and the audience loved it. Mabley foreshadowed the shift to direct social commentary and stand up comic techniques that would dominate humor and comedians to come.

Dick Gregory, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Steve Allen, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldburg, Eddie Murphy, and many other popular black and white comedians have evolved from the history of comedy. It has been many years yet the images that were passed on from slavery still thrive at the bud of jokes many comedians of today tell. However black comedians have finally gotten away from the white interpretation of black humor and created original black humor from an African American Perspective to the world. Black comedy has come to be the voice of the struggle, pain, and joy African American has gone through and are still going through.


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