The Blog

Race and American Comedy

What about the black political variety on U.S. television? To whom have Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory passed the baton of African American comedic observation?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

We should not be surprised to know that, in the search for real information about U.S. politics and similar goings-on around the world, many Americans turn to "Saturday Night Live" and the, back-to-back, fake news and punditry programming offered by "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." As politicians and the mainstream media who cover them, too often, appear out of step with the concerns of most Americans, these shows fill an aching void. For those of us who have spent the last eight years alarmed by unwarranted war, torture, fired prosecutors, illegal wiretapping, botched hurricane relief, no-bid contracts, missing billions, and other outgrowths of corporate corruption and governmental malfeasance, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Loren Michaels and their crew of writers and performers are among an invaluable cohort of entertainers who remind the reality-based community that we are not alone.

But these shows only paint a portion of the picture of political acumen and resistance on the American comedic landscape. What about the black political variety on U.S. television? To whom have Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory passed the baton of African American comedic observation? The absence of Dave Chappelle's cackle-punctuated prescience has left a woeful gap in an, already, floundering genre and while I'm not taking anything away from Chris Rock or D. L. Hughley, these two are yet to find sustainably lucrative vehicles for their politically-oriented work on television. Hughley's brilliance on "Real Time with Bill Maher" and other venues did not translate for his CNN-stint and despite the success of "Everybody Hates Chris," Rock's caustic, political wisdom on race (not gender) only shines every handful of years on HBO. This is no small accomplishment but his appearances are not as frequent as what NBC has offered us on Saturday nights for more than a quarter century or what Comedy Central serves up almost every Monday through Thursday (curse you reruns).

I was hopeful David Alan Grier's "Chocolate News" would right the ship of whiteness in televised political comedy by mining African American culture with a nuanced authenticity. At the very least his writers would not put one in mind of an attack of the jocular clones. Alas, Grier's smart and expansive brand of faux journalism has been axed.

The scenario for black female comediennes tackling political themes is even worse. Some construe the, largely sexual, antics of those who have made it to "Def Comedy Jam," the Bad Boyz of Comedy, or Black Embarrassment Television as political. These may be the same folks who see Lil Kim as a feminist icon - hey, I guess it's only a matter of time before she liberates African American women from the twin scourges of domestic violence and the HIV virus. OK, women who challenge the sexual status quo deserve some sort of credit but where are the black equivalents to Tina Fey, Janeane Garafalo, and Stephanie Miller? Who are the sistah-friend humorists of Wanda Sykes, Nancy Giles, and Frangela?

The channels for black, female, political humor on American television are blocked. This dearth is fostered, in part, by limiting, age-old notions of femaleness and the funny which have been examined by such scholars like Regina Barreca and others. Juxtaposed against perceptions of race and class in American life, these views intersect to create an atmosphere uniquely ghettoizing of African American women comics. My upcoming ethnographic study looks at black female standup life to show how raced and gendered ideas about status and identity affect the experiences of black women doing comedy today.

Sabiyha Prince is an assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. and author of Constructing Belonging: Race, Class and Harlem's Professional Workers (Routledge Press 2006) See the show "Writers Speak! A Potentially Regrettable Evening with WGA Comedy Writers," this Friday May 8th, 7:00 pm - 9:30 pm at Washington DC's Newseum. More WGA blogs about the event available here.