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
• 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
• 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
• When the show moved
to TV in 1951, African
Americans were hired
• 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
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.
Some Contemporary Comedians:
• 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
• 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
• 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
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
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
• 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.
• 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?
AFRICAN AMERICAN WEB SITES
THE COSBY SHOW:
THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIRE:
TYLER PERRY’S HOUSE OF PAYNE:
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.