From the ribald tall tales of "The Signifying Monkey" and Moms Mabley's grandmotherly earthiness to Richard Pryor's blues-based character Mudbone, author Mel Watkins takes us beyond the seemingly harmless face of the black comedian and shows the complex, multifaceted, and historical use of humor by African Americans to articulate, combat, and overcome the effects of racism. Watkins begins with the coded, behind-master's-back mockery of slave humor and its outgrowth, the minstrels, where whites such as Al Jolson as well as blacks wore horrible blackface makeup. Watkins also chronicles the ascendancy of performers such as Bert Williams, Stepin Fechit, Redd Foxx, and Bill Cosby from the '30s to the '60s, when vaudeville, radio, motion pictures, and recordings catapulted black comedy around the world. For Watkins, the emergence of several socially aware comedians--for example, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor--marked an important break with the tradition of concealed references. "Pryor and a few of his predecessors," Watkins writes, "began unveiling the satirical barbs concealed beneath the black jester's clownish attire." After Pryor's career was slowed down by health complications, he was followed by what Watkins views as a less political and more materialistic hip-hop generation, led by Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, and the Wayans brothers. With shows such as Def Comedy Jam
and In Living Color
Watkins feels, "some of the subtlety, misdirection, and magic that have previously characterized black American humor have been lost, the most outrageous and impious elements of African American humor are now being emphasized." --Eugene Holley Jr.
“Fascinating and exhaustive . . . at once a serious social history and an enormously entertaining reading experience.” —Robert Boynton, Chicago Tribune
“A penetrating and immensely enjoyable history. . . . For many readers, this book will transform their conception of the character, and the source, of much American popular culture.” —The New Yorker