Pryor experience: roots of black humor FTC

February 20, 1994|By Bruce Clayton

Title: "On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying -- the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture from Slavery to Richard Pryor"

Author: Mel Watkins

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

0$ Length, price: 652 pages, $27.50

Mel Watkins has taken on a king-size job, as evidenced by the very long subtitle of his book.

But he pulls it off with panache. His narrative of more than 150 years of black American humor is a trove of fascinating information, serious ideas, anecdotes, personality sketches, pithy asides, quotations that tickle the ear, and ruminations on history and humor. "On the Real Side" is hefty, but it glides like a dancer.

Mr. Watkins, a widely published black journalist, has researched his material carefully. He argues that authentic black humor -- "the real side" -- was hidden from white society until the mid-20th century. Until then, a black person was seen as buffoon, lazy simpleton, shuffling Tom or menacing figure.

Slavery created such stereotypes, and they became staples of the wildly popular minstrel show. Starting in the 1840s, whites in blackface with oversized white lips lampooned a defenseless race. The die was cast, says Mr. Watkins. Black entertainers quickly learned that they had to act out the myths -- with corked faces -- if they wanted to work.

When vaudeville replaced minstrelsy in the 1890s, black actors were in demand, provided they did "coon shows." It was stage work, after all, writes Mr. Watkins, and performers such as the legendary Ziegfeld "Follies" star Bert Williams subtly developed a distinctive, enduring black style. They did it through body language, timing, facial expressions -- what one black actor called "mumbling on the face."

Of course, the artistry of such mumbling (where would Bill Cosby be without it?) could become mere mugging. In the 1930s and early '40s, the black movie actor Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) excelled as the shuffling, eye-rolling character until criticism rained down on him and abruptly ended his career. Mr. Watkins never shirks from hard-headed criticism of this Tom role, but he contends that Stepin Fetchit was "among the era's most talented actors and comedians."

Mr. Watkins dots his pages with such judgments. He's angry about racism's influence, but he isn't a whiner. He's also aware that a complaining, moralistic mind might betray debilitating self-doubts and miss the genius, the rich humor, in black life that he surveys masterfully in chapters on black films, novels, and "race" records aimed at blacks.

To get at Mr. Watkins' perspective, see his provocative comments on the "Amos 'n' Andy Show," the all-black 1950s television series. The Kingfish (played to perfection by the comic genius Tim Moore), Andy Brown and the rest of the crew "created the most eccentric, vivid, and authentic example of African-American humor that had ever been brought before an integrated mass audience." The show had faults, to be sure -- it was highly sexist -- and was hounded off the air in 1953 by both black and white liberals.

But the well-meaning critics shot themselves -- and black comics -- in the foot. Except for moments on the "Ed Sullivan Show," nothing even approaching the real side of black humor appeared on television until "The Flip Wilson Show" premiered in 1970.

Mr. Watkins expertly profiles Mr. Wilson, Mr. Cosby, Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and a host of other talented comics. They had honed their acts before black audiences in clubs and cabarets such as Baltimore's Club Astoria and others on the "chitlin' circuit."

But it was Richard Pryor, Mr. Watkins argues, who forever changed America's attitude about black humor. Raised in a brothel run by his religious grandmother, the frenetic Mr. Pryor threw himself (and everything he knew, felt and feared) into his act. He was con man, trickster, laughing obscene poet, jive-talker, and street-smart hustler all rolled into one. This was "authentic African-American humor," Mr. Watkins asserts, and it liberated American humor.

But to what extent did Mr. Pryor, or any other black comic who made it big, "transform American culture," as Mr. Watkins contends? They pushed free speech beyond what any pundit could have predicted. They revolutionized movies and recordings; television can't be far behind. Mr. Pryor, and Dick Gregory before him, helped force white America to confront its racial contradictions.

Certainly a part of America has been transformed. To see how it happened, read "On the Real Side." It will make you laugh and cry.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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