What Writing For A Black Comic Taught Me About the N-Word

Bill Maher's use of the word was a failure, both personally and comedically.

For most of the 80s, I lived in the East Village (next to the Hell’s Angels, no less) with a extraordinarily talented black woman who was also my best friend. Cheri had a velvet singing voice and was equally gifted at stand-up. She also created a series of highly original characters with drag queenish names (e.g. Leontyne Pricetag, Connie Vendetta) each of whom came with her own song and monologue. They were hysterical.

Over several years, Cheri and I produced a host of very well-received cabaret shows that, in a fair world, would have catapulted her into eventual stardom. For a memoir’s worth of reasons, this didn’t happen. But the strange twists our lives took can never diminish the spectacular quality of those thousands of nights spent in the kitchen of our 6th floor walk-up, being as funny for each other as any two people have ever been.

Truth be told, a lot of drinking was involved, but we learned to factor it in. Whenever we laughed particularly hard, we wrote it down, and then checked the next day to see if we had just been “drunk funny” or “funny-funny.” We almost always had at least the kernel of a decent bit, which we would often then develop into a full-fledged joke to try out in a show. Invariably, what worked best on stage was material tailored for her particular persona, and since that was grounded in her experience as an African-American woman, I evolved into a writer particularly adept at stepping into that point of view. (I did have one advantage. As a gay man, any joke that involved being attracted to men migrated seamlessly from my pen to her lips.)

One of our best collaborations started her act for years. The emcee would announce she was on her way, and then her character Tequila Mockingbird would barge onto the stage to start the show, singing “Do It To Me One More Time,” dedicated to her husband Jose and their 13 children. Afterwards, as she removed the basket of fruit on her head, Cheri would blame her faux-tardiness on the difficulty of getting a cab.

“So I had to take the subway, and you can imagine I was taking my life in my hands, dressed like this. Of course, if I were murdered, I’d finally make the papers, at least. I can just see the headlines now: The New York Times: ‘Nubian Chanteuse Found Slain…’ The Daily News: ‘Colored Girl, Missing…’ And of course, the Post: ‘Black Bitch Found Dead! Who Gives a Shit!’”

(The laugh this got was probably only surpassed when her character Rhoda Dendron sang, “The Way We Were” to the tune of “Memories.”)

The punchline wouldn’t have worked if Cheri had used the n-word. The New York Post could be crude, but not that crude. And such a gratuitously offensive term would have completely distracted from the pitch-perfect satire of the three styles of news reporting in the New York press. (These have changed so little, in fact, that the joke still holds up perfectly).

Bill Maher’s what-the-fuck-did-he-just-say? moment was shocking in its own right, but I was personally surprised far more by his comedic malpractice. Maher understands the mechanics of comedy much too well not to have known down to his very core that there was no conceivable payoff that could be worth using that term. After thousands of hours on stage and TV, this should have been as second nature to him as breathing. To boot, how many people watching even got the original reference? It comes from Gone With the Wind, when Pork explains to Scarlett why he and the other just-freed slaves cannot replace the field hands who have run off with the Union Army. “We house-n — s!” he exclaims — at least in the original version of the film, which Maher is old enough to have seen in theaters. (They showed it every seven years or so until the 70s.) When the movie was finally shown on television, Pork was redubbed to say: “house-workers,” and this is what viewers have heard ever since. Not that knowing the reference would have made the remark funny, but its seeming randomness made Maher sound all the more like a drunk frat boy taking liberties at a party, straining to appear cool and edgy by dropping the n-word. White person, please.

Does that mean that the n-word can’t ever be used successfully in stand-up? By a peach-complexioned comic, I would say never. I frankly think few black comics get away with it either. But Cheri did pull it off in one joke that we co-wrote. And that came back to me seconds after Maher’s stumble.

It was 1984, and Gary Hart’s presidential campaign had just been torpedoed by revelations of his infidelity with Donna Hart. At the same time, Jesse Jackson had joined the race, and Cheri and I mused over screwdrivers at what would happen if he engaged in similarly hound-dog behavior. Perhaps because we’d just invented a new character — Coretta Scott Lynn (the country music- singing younger black sister of Loretta Lynn), Cheri had the idea of interviewing a version of Mrs. Jesse Jackson that would have a similar verbal style as MLK’s distinguished widow. (We actually had no idea what Reverend Jackson’s wife sounded like  ―  still don’t. But nobody else did either. For a political spouse, she’s always kept a very low profile.)

The set-up was a televised interview, with Cheri taking on both parts. She began as the earnest anchorwoman:

“Mrs. Jesse Jackson, would you say that the Civil Rights movement greatly impacted your life?” In an uber-educated and extremely dignified manner, “Mrs Jackson” answered: “As an African-American woman, I have been greatly impacted by the civil rights movement.” Respecting the rules of a good set-up, the premise was repeated — with a slight difference. “And would you say the feminist movement has also influenced you?” Mrs. Jackson replied, “As an African-American woman, I have been greatly impacted by the feminist movement.” Cheri, all Baba-Wawaish now, delicately put forth the last, touchy question: “And Mrs. Jesse Jackson, how would you react if you found your husband in bed with another woman?” She drew herself back, maintaining self-control and poise at first, “As an African-American wo-man…” [beat, two, three…] “I’D KICK THAT N****A’S ASS!

(Mark Olmsted is the author of a recently published memoir about his incarceration: Ink from the Pen, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble)