Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

8. African-American Humor



See also PowerPoints on “African-American
      Language” and “Ethnic Humor”

          by Don L. F. Nilsen
        and Alleen Pace Nilsen
    The World-Wide Influence of
     African American Humor
• Humor scholars have always acknowledged the
  contributions and effects of Jewish humor on the
  subjects and the roles of American humor.

• It is appropriate to also acknowledge the contributions of
  African Americans to the overall humor of the United
  States—and to the world—especially if we consider the
  elements of playfulness and humor in hip-hop.

• Within living memory, the “place” of AA humor has
  undergone more change than any other genre. Today,
  the mainstream laughs with Blacks, while a couple of
  generations ago, the custom was to laugh at blacks.
Until well after WW II . . .
• Traveling minstrel shows were one of the few theater
  events available in rural areas.
• In small town America, amateur actors loved to put
  on black-face and costumes and perform their own
  minstrel shows.
• Popular children’s books included the 1889 Story of
  Little Black Sambo by British author Helen
  Bannerman and the 1907 Epaminondas and His
  Auntie by Sara Cone Bryant.
• It was the exaggerated drawings, as much as the
  stories, that offended African Americans and made
  black children feel embarrassed or ashamed when
  teachers read the books to mixed school groups.
    Features of AA Humor That Can be
          Traced to West Africa
• Extensive Word Play
• An Abundance of Street Language
• Punning
• Signifying
• Verbal Put-Downs
• Mocking of Enemy’s Relatives
• Chanting of Ridicule Verses
• Using the Whole Body (including bent-knees)
  for dancing and communicating feelings
• Admiring Trickster Figures
• Verbal Quickness and Wit
              Amos ’n Andy
• During the 1930s the
  Amos and Andy radio
  show starred white
  actors doing blackface
  comedy. It was the
  most popular of all
  radio shows.

• When the show moved
  to TV in 1951, African
  Americans were hired
  as performers.
• In the 1950s as everyone became more aware
  of racism, leading up to the desegregation of
  schools, Amos and Andy became so
  controversial that the producers put together
  a politically correct version. It lost its zing,
  and was cancelled.

• By today’s standards, the show was both
  racist and stereotyped.

• However, Joe Franklin said that the Blacks on
  the show may have “prepared the ground for
  the acceptance of real blacks in the American
  cultural mainstream.”

          Two Comedy Pioneers
Pigmeat Markham 1904-81            Moms Mabley 1897-1975
• Markham was a blackface          • Mabley would come on stage
  performer and when                 in oversized clodhoppers, a
  audiences and critics              raggedy dress, and an
  demanded that burnt-cork
  performances end, they             oddball hat. She played the
  were astonished to find            role of a ribald grandmother.
  that he was actually             • She was nearly 70 when she
  darker than the makeup             first played for a white
  he had used.                       audience at the Playboy
• In his most famous skit, he        Club in Chicago.
  played the world’s funkiest
  judge. The audience would        • She later made guest
  say, “Here come da Judge,”         appearances with Bill Cosby,
  a line later used by both Flip     Flip Wilson, and the
  Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr.
                                     Smothers Brothers.
Some Contemporary Comedians:
       Dave Chappelle
            Sample Quote:
            • They got a character on
              Sesame Street named Oscar.
              They treat this guy like shit the
              entire show. They judge him
              right in his face. “Oscar you
              are so mean! Isn’t he kids?”

            • “Yeah Oscar!” “You’re a
              grouch!” It’s like “Bitch I live
              in a fu**ing TRASH CAN!”

Bill Cosby: A Recent Pioneer
             • In the mid 1960’s, Bill Cosby
               was recruited from stand-up,
               to star in a dramatic series.
             • He created Fat Albert for CBS
               and helped develop The
               Electric Company for public
             • In 1968, he starred in the Bill
               Crosby Show, while from
               1984 to 1992, he starred in
               The Cosby Show about the
               upwardly mobile Huxtables.
             • Some Blacks criticize him for
               being “too white,” while
               others view him as a hero.
Redd Foxx: Another Pioneer
           • In a precursor to the
             creative spelling in Hip
             Hop, Foxx chose to spell
             his name with two d’s and
             two x’s because he didn’t
             want to be either a color
             or an animal.
           • A recent quote: “Health
             nuts are going to feel
             stupid someday, lying in
             hospitals dying of

Whoopi Goldberg: The First Black
       Female Superstar
              • In the 1990s, Whoopi
                Goldberg’s talent for ad lib
                and for making a stage
                sparkle with power was show-
                cased in her role as host of
                the Academy Awards.
              • She was born Caryn Johnson
                and raised in a public housing
                project in Manhattan by a
                single mother.
              • She made her performing
                debut at age eight with the
                Helena Rubinstein Children’s
                Theatre at the Hudson Guild.
Dick Gregory: A Sample Quote

              “America is the only
              country in the world
              where a man can grow
              up in a ghetto, go to
              really bad schools, be
              forced to ride in the
              back of the bus, and
              then get paid $5,000 a
              week to tell people
              about it.”
Chris Rock: A Sample Quote
             “Barack, man. He doesn’t
             let his blackness sneak up
             on you. Like if his name
             was Bob Jones or
             something like that, it might
             take you two or three weeks
             to figure out he’s black. But
             when you hear ‘Barack
             Obama,’ you picture a
             brother with a spear, just
             standing over a dead lion.
             You picture the base player
             from the Commodores.”
        More Sample Quotes
Jimmy Walker:                 Wanda Sykes:
• When was the last time      • Comedy Central, they told
  you seen a Black              me I had to watch my
  embezzler—or a Black          language because, the
  man getting busted for        woman said, they had
  juggling the bankbooks?       ‘standards and practices.’
  I mean, what’s the use of     I was like, wait a minute—
  having a Black brother on     you’re Comedy Central.
  the Supreme Court if          Aren’t you the network
  none of us can commit a       where your number one
  crime classy enough to        show is a cartoon with a
  get it tried there?           talking piece of sh*t?

  Other Comedians Frequently Cited
   as Influential Black Comedians
Wayne Brady              Tracy Morgan
Cedric the Entertainer   Eddie Murphy
Donald Glover            Tyler Perry
David Alan Grier         Richard Pryor
Arsenio Hall             Nipsy Russell
Kevin Hart               Damon Wayans
Steve Harvey             Katt Williams
D. L. Hughley            Flip Wilson
Martin Lawrence
Bernie Mac               Who else do you want to add to
Mo’Nique                 this list? Tell us something about
Paul Mooney              the person and his or her work.

   Hip Hop As a Kind of Humor
• Hip Hop grew out of the     • It is not restricted to
  Civil Rights Movement         African Americans,
  of the 1960s and ‘70s.
                                and is in fact, now
• It rejects the status quo
  and emphasizes the
  individual.                 • A major feature is
• Besides music and rap,        the language play,
  it includes break             especially in
  dancing, tagging, graph       spelling and
  writing, and                  naming.


New Spellings of Disk Jockey     New Spellings of Master of
• Deejay   Djing Djin DJ’n
                                 •   MC          Emcee
                                 •   Mcing       MC’n
Names of Groups or Individuals   •   Emceein
• DJ Kool Herc DJ AJ             •   Femcee (for a woman)
• Blue Jays     DJ Clark Kent
• DJ Craze      DJ Evil Dee      Run DMC was named to honor
• DJ Kay Gee    DJ Jazzy Jay     the speed with which he ran
                                 between turntables.
• DJ Timmy     Juicy J

    Other Popular “Differences”
            Can You Give Examples?

•   Names that build on the idea of Cool.
•   Names that include Rock or Roc.
•   Names spelled “phonetically.”
•   Names spelled in all caps.
•   Numbers included in names.
•   Names that are clipped.
•   The doubling of letters.

               In Conclusion
• Can you see connections between hip hop spelling
  and the more recent text messaging?
• How about the creative names that parents are now
  giving their infants?
• In what ways can unusual spelling be a statement of
  independence and/or ethnic pride?
• Is there a generational difference in the appreciation
  of ethnic-related humor? Why might this be?
• Do you always expect African American comics to
  make jokes about racial differences as opposed to
  other subjects? Can you give some examples?








References (2001-2013):

Belois, Nathan. “The Evolution and Function of Ethnic Humor.” Tempe, AZ:
   ASU LIN 515 Research Paper, May 1, 2006.

Black, Ray. “Satire’s Cruelest Cut: Exorcising Blackness in Spike Lee’s
   Bamboozled.” The Black Scholar 33.1 (2003): 19-24.

Coleman, Robin. African American Viewers and the Black Situation
   Comedy: Situating Racial Humor. New York, NY: Garland, 2000.

Ganter, Granville. “He Made Us Laugh Some: Frederick Douglass’s
  Humor.” African American Review 37.4 (2003): 535-552.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century
   American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Seirlis, Julia Katherine. “Laughing all the Way to Freedom?: Contemporary
   Stand-Up Comedy and Democracy in South Africa.” HUMOR:
   International Journal of Humor Research 24.4 (2011): 513-530.


To top