Black History Month: Comedy Stars: Blazing a Trail to TV’s Heights

Feb 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

Taking both baby steps and giant strides, African American performers have reached the top of the entertainment heap. Comedian Dave Chappelle, who recently inked a $50 million deal with Comedy Central; Chris Rock, who will host this month’s Academy Awards telecast; and veteran comedian Damon Wayans, whose “My Wife and Kids” has run more than 100 episodes on ABC, are among today’s brightest television stars.

Steve Harvey, host of “Steve Harvey’s Big Time Challenge” on The WB network, is working to resuscitate the variety show genre, while Mr. Rock’s brother Tony Rock stars in “All of Us” for UPN, a network that has built much of its success on African American talent and audiences. Comedian David Alan Grier is producing a new sketch comedy, “The Davey Gee Show,” with Touchstone TV for Fox.

While black performers historically enjoyed spotty success in dramatic TV roles, their achievements in comedy and variety series are unparalleled.

“The entertainment field was one of the first to welcome African Americans and one of the first to provide a venue in which they could excel, even before sports,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, senior VP of research at Lifetime Television.

Many in the initial wave of black TV comedians came out of what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” an informal network of nightclubs and vaudeville theaters that regularly featured black acts such as Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Godfrey Cambridge.

“There were not a lot of dramatic roles for blacks on Broadway, so comedy was the way they broke out,” said Lee Gaither, executive VP of programming for TV One.

Contemporary comedians often came of age on the stand-up stage, albeit in a different environment from that of their predecessors. Unlike the Chitlin’ Circuit, modern audiences are more likely to be as diverse as earlier crowds were segregated. Mr. Chappelle, who began playing comedy clubs as a teenager in his hometown of Washington, said a lack of black-owned venues sometimes made it hard to find work.

“I remember club owners saying things like, ‘We only put one-we’ll never put more than one black person on a show, because it offends the audience.’ I’ve heard all those things,” he said in a recent interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air With Terry Gross.”

Comedy Central is paying a premium price to hang on to Mr. Chappelle, but the network’s programming chief considers it a worthwhile investment. Since the debut of “Chappelle’s Show” in 2003, the network’s African American audience has tripled.

“That’s an amazing fact in and of itself, but on top of that, he has been able to maintain and grow the white core audience that we already had,” said Lou Wallach, VP of original programming.

Mr. Chappelle’s success may provide entr%E9;e to other black performers. Comedy Central is looking at several pilot projects, including a “People’s Court”-type program with writer/comedian Paul Mooney and a reality show with a female stand-up known as Sommore.

“Dave really kind of cracked the nut here,” Mr. Wallach said. “We don’t want to lose that audience.”

Clint Wilson II and Felix Gutierrez, in their book “Race, Multiculturalism & the Media: From Mass to Class Communication,” suggest that one way the stereotypes of blacks came about was through the racism of early Puritan and Calvinist religions. Puritans considered white to be “good” and black to be “evil.” Early American audiences, the authors wrote, expected to see people like themselves portrayed as heroes. Black performers were expected to fill other roles.

Ginger Carter, a professor of media studies at Georgia College & State University, said those early expectations in some ways helped make music and comedy safe havens for black performers.

“[Audiences] wanted music and dancing and anything that fulfilled their perceptions of black culture. They also wanted comedy, and people of color were a convenient foil,” Ms. Carter said.

Seeing black faces telling jokes on TV seems natural in today’s world, but it wasn’t always this way. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was the medium’s first breakout hit to feature black characters. A hugely successful radio program (which featured white actors in the lead roles), the show made a successful transition to television with a different cast in 1951.

The show was so widely viewed, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, that movie theaters would play the audio over loudspeakers during the half-hour the show was on the air, to keep audiences in their seats.

But pressure from the NAACP forced CBS to pull the plug on the show after two years, a decision that still remains controversial among many black celebrities.

“It was a comedy show, a sitcom with funny characters. It was not black exploitation; it provided black employment,” said actor/comedian Reynaldo Rey in the documentary “TV in Black: The First Fifty Years,” airing on Chicago’s WGN-TV this month.

The early years of television, dominated by comedy and variety, offered up plenty of shows with diverse casts. “The Laytons,” believed to be the first TV show with a black lead character, aired briefly on the DuMont Television Network in 1948. Singer Nat King Cole became the first black performer to host a network variety series. “The Nat King Cole Show” struggled through two seasons-1956 and 1957-before NBC canceled it.

As interest in variety waned, the networks turned to producing programs with a Western theme, and black faces began to disappear from the screen. Civil rights turmoil in the early 1960s didn’t immediately help TV’s integration efforts.

In 1968 NBC added “Julia” to its Tuesday night lineup, making singer Diahann Carroll the first black woman to star in her own comedy series in a nonstereotypical role. In its initial season the show drew as many viewers as did the legendary “Gunsmoke.” It ran for three years, as audiences learned to embrace content over ethnicity.

“Her character was not so much about being African American as it was about being a woman whose husband had died and she was trying to raise her child,” said Tom Hill, creative director of Nick at Nite and TV Land.

That “Julia” could succeed at all in 1968 was a major achievement. That was also the year that British songstress Petula Clark broke protocol by touching the arm of guest host Harry Belafonte during a duet at a taping of her NBC special. The move caused the show’s sponsor, Plymouth, to threaten to pull its support. Ms. Clark held firm and the show aired uncut.

In the 1970s, just as America was settling down from a lengthy period of racial strife, producer Norman Lear came along to blow the lid off television’s banality. His “All in the Family” was a show like no one had ever seen on American TV. An intolerant lead character played by Carroll O’Connor made no bones about his bigotry toward blacks.

“There was a not-so-subtle acknowledgement that Archie Bunker and [Archie Bunker’s neighbor] George Jefferson were in many ways the same character,” since George Jefferson was as intolerant of white people as Mr. Bunker was of blacks, Mr. Gaither said.

One of the most successful sitcoms ever, the show ran on CBS for 12 years. Mr. Lear’s characters frequently tackled issues of race and bigotry over a heady dose of laughter. In one notable episode, singer Sammy Davis Jr. planted a kiss on Archie Bunker’s cheek, which Mr. Lear later said evoked one of the longest audience laughs ever heard on television.

In 1975 the Jeffersons moved on up to the East Side, starring in their own spinoff, “The Jeffersons,” that portrayed the black characters in a new light as a successful middle-class family living in a high-rent district of New York.

By the early 1980s “All in the Family” had run its course. Other comedies, like “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and Flip Wilson’s popular variety show had left the screen and the wave of div
ersity that had introduced television audiences to a rainbow of colorful characters faded from black. Not only that, but the sitcom genre went into a decline.

“I can’t tell you how many eulogies I read during that era. Everybody was writing off the sitcom as dead,” Mr. Thompson said.

Veteran comedian Bill Cosby had been shopping an idea for a show based on a blue-collar couple’s struggle to raise their kids in a changing world. When both ABC and NBC passed on the project, Mr. Cosby reworked the lead characters into upscale professionals. NBC, desperate for a hit, picked up “The Cosby Show” in 1984. The move revived not only the sitcom genre but the network’s fortunes, forging the foundation of “Must See TV.”

“‘Cosby’ was a milestone, but in truth it was a very traditionally structured program about a family and how they dealt with the problems of parenthood,” Mr. Brooks said. “It was not so much about the black experience as about the human experience.”

“The Cosby Show” and “All in the Family” are the only two programs in the history of television to finish No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons, Mr. Brooks said.

While family-style comedies like “My Wife and Kids” and “The Bernie Mac Show” remain TV staples, a new generation of black comedy has emerged, identified by sharp-tongued stand-up routines like those of Mr. Chappelle and Mr. Rock. Rolling Stone described Mr. Chappelle’s humor as some of the edgiest and most racially charged comedy in America.

It’s a natural progression, Mr. Gaither said, precipitated by programming executives looking for a more edgy presentation to counter what he called “some very bland years.”

“What you see right now with guys like Chappelle breaking out, is that we’re just starved for a point of view. That is when the most artistic voices really begin to rise above the rest,” he said.

Though the racial barrier may be broken, comedy suffers from its own de facto glass ceiling. When women appear in the comedy genre, they typically play “straight man” to a male jokester. Mr. Thompson cited a recent example involving comedian Aisha Tyler, cast as the girlfriend of Ross Geller, the “Friends” character played by David Schwimmer.

“Interestingly, [even though] she appeared in several episodes, she didn’t get to tell many jokes,” Mr. Thompson said.

Ms. Carter said the issue may have more to do with sex than with race. “Look at Comedy Central’s recent list of the top 100 stand-up performers. There are also many fewer white female comics than white males,” she said.

Cable looks to be the logical venue to launch tomorrow’s black comic stars. HBO led the way in the mid-1990s with shows like “Def Comedy Jam,” which gave national television exposure to a new generation of comedians.

Mr. Brooks questioned whether many of the acts built around foul language and sexual references will ever catch on with mainstream television viewers.

“They definitely appeal to a younger, hipper audience, but they don’t play to the mass audience. They are not Carol Burnett,” he said.

Not yet, perhaps, but Mr. Wallach said it’s just a matter of time.

“Opening up Chappelle’s joke book was never going to happen on a broadcast network,” he said. “But in the end, in doesn’t matter whether you’re black or not, just as long as you’re funny.”