Based on the book "Black Comedians on Black Comedy" by Darryl Littleton, Robert Townsend's documentary Why We Laugh debuted at Sundance in 2009 and just came out on DVD this week. Before you get to the documentary, however, you see six separate trailers for stand-up comedy specials, each one touting it was the event of the year. Sure, Codeblack Entertainment is responsible for them as well as this documentary, but the sales pitch leads to a misdirect when the main feature plays, and you hear the voiceover narration from Angela Bassett, footage of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and commentary from former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and former Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy — you know this isn't going to be a joyride.
Instead, the documentary uses cultural critics and comedians alike to tell the story of black Americans, and how they have used humor throughout the past century as a way to rise above their pain and oppression. Here's the extended trailer:
The path is traced from minstrels and blackface, to early stars such as Bert Williams and Lincoln Perry (better known as Stepin Fetchit), who made far different career choices with implications for generations to follow. You see how Nipsey Russell was a star at the Apollo long before he held a regular seat on Match Game in the 1970s, and how Amos 'n' Andy both helped and hurt the cause of black comedians. The careers of Moms Mably, Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory are examined, then the sitcoms of the 1970s (Good Times, The Jeffersons), Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, through Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, a too-short segment on the start of a separate black club circuit and Robin Harris, In Living Color, Def Comedy Jam, the Kings of Comedy and Dave Chappelle.
Most everyone interviewed continues to express awe and admiration for what Pryor accomplished. Princeton professor/author Dr. Cornel West called Pryor "the freest black man America's ever had. He is not just a genius, he exercises parrhesia. He exercises the most plain, frank, honest, unintimidated speech we had in the 60s, even more than Martin and Malcolm!" That's followed up by Townsend himself, who adds: "He gave to the world a gift, you know, like none other, that opened the playing field. And the only thing that I hate now is that, a lot of comedians, the only thing they took from Richard was the cursing. They didn't take his social commentary."
In a very real way, Townsend (who shares a funny ode about directing "Eddie Murphy: Raw" and dealing with the MPAA censors, negotiating curse words to get down to an R rating) intends for this movie to teach a lesson to the current and future generations of black comedians, as much as it also is a sobering reminder for all of us about how the black American story has its own answer for why they laugh. Consider this clip toward the end of the film, about how even today, some young black comedians are all too willing to play into self-exploitative stereotypes to make a quick buck:
Chris Rock talks about how young black stand-ups too often don't learn how to appeal to white audiences because TV and technology has segregated and splintered the audiences, such that they don't feel a need to have universal appeal. On the DVD extras, Rock also makes the same point about the "Blue Collar" comedians, comparing them to Andy Griffith, a Southern-based comedian who appealed to all demographics.
The special features boast 50 minutes of outtakes from the interviews with Rock, Bill Cosby, Katt Williams, Sherri Shepherd and Steve Harvey. In ten minutes with Williams, you'll see his personality in full effect, from behavior that makes you scratch your head, to moments of keen insight, such as when he confronts a question about the "n word" and after explaining his view on it, suggests we remove the word "rape" instead. Williams also compares comedy and sex in a more meaningful way than the one-liner quip that airs over the closing credits. The excerpts from Rock, meanwhile, are worth watching alone, because after he tells the famous story of meeting Eddie Murphy at the Comic Strip, he offers up several choice quotes. Among them, Rock says of stand-up comedy: "It's not really a young young man's game. it's more of a middle-aged man's game. it's more of a man, or a woman, that has lived life. Pryor did some very funny stuff, but his height, he was like 38 years old." And then he says this about Pryor and Cosby being the greatest: "I think all of us need to go, hey, it's time to try to beat this record. You know what I mean? You're going to sit there and look at Hank Aaron, or are you going to try to break the record? You know what I mean? So you're going to try to put together that body of work."