Chapter 4 Comedians and Actors

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Chapter 4

Comedians and Actors

I laugh so hard I almost choke, when I think about myself. Maya Angelou

One of the surest indications that Spoken Soul is alive and well (and well-appreciated), despite assertions to the contrary, is its vibrant and pervasive use among black comedians. Groundbreaking old-school humorists like Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley and new-jacks like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, all were (or are) connoisseurs of the tongue. And although these comedians draw on the vernacular to cover a wide variety of topics, it rises to the fore especially when they contrast how black and white folk think and talk and act.

Comedian Steve Harvey captures this duality with his parody of two ill-fated colleagues, one white and one black. First he sets up the scenario: A white corporate executive is preparing to fire one of his white underlings. Harvey gets into character, striding stiff-backed across the stage as if he were making his way out of a private office and into the cubicle of a low-level drone. Next "Tom" (the boss) asks "Bob" to meet him in his office, and Harvey, impersonating the doomed man, trots after his supervisor. A dialogue ensues:

Tom: Ya know, Bob, at the end of the board meeting this past week, and after going over the board we were kinda looking at your evaluation. And, well, to tell you the truth, you're just not cutting it.

Bob: Tom, what're you saying? [Harvey slips out of character and speaks to the mostly Black audience: You know good and hell well what he sayin'. Yo ass is almos' outta here. You see what da hell's goin' on. But denial.]

Tom: Listen to me. You're making this so difficult. I know you're going to have a tough time explaining this to Becky, but we're going to have to let you go.

Bob: Oh! Oh, Jesus! Oh Tom, what am I going to do? What about the mortgage? What about the children's college fund? Oh, Father God!

Harvey is "marking" the white characters here. Not simply mimicry, marking as a speech act involves the presence of an evaluative component, with the marked folks usually existing outside the racial and linguistic "neighborhood" of the marker. It is a ubiquitous device in black comedy, one that has been described as:

… essentially a mode of characterization. The marker attempts to report not only what was said but the way it was said, in order to offer implicit comment on the speaker's background, personality or intent.

To mark Tom and Bob, Harvey puts on an outlandish, nasal voice, and keeps their speech close to Standard English (note how vernacular features like zero copula, r-deletion and s-deletion are absent from their speech, but resurface in his aside to the Black audience: “what he Ø sayin', Yo, almos’). Thus the white characters' speech comes across as stilted and, in the latter's case, corny (“Oh, Father God!”), accommodating and hopelessly submissive.

But when Tom tries to fire brotha "Willie" in the same manner, Harvey submits, the employee’s attitude and language change dramatically. Willie lets off sparks of defiance from the jump, “What da hell” replaces “Oh Father God,” and vernacular pronunciation (fo’, da, goin, som’n) and grammar (“we Ø goin,” “ain’t”) come on strong:

Tom: Willie, can I see you in my office for a moment please?

Willie: What fo'? What da hell we goin' in da office fo', Tom? You got som'n ta tall me you tell me right here. I got a desk right here. I ain't goin' in da office. You got som'n ta tell Willie, you tell Willie right here!

Even after Tom finally coaxes the black employee into his office, things don't seem to go much smoother:

Tom: Ya know, Willie, we were at the board meeting the other week. We were going over your evaluation…

Willie: What 'valuation? I ain't see no goddamn 'valuation! When did you have the 'valuation? I didn't--I wouldn't dere fo' it. Did ya pos' it on da board in da cafeteria las' week? I ain't seen nothin'. I ain't signin' shit!

Of course, the crowd instantly recognizes the contrast between Bob and Willie. One can easily differentiate between the characters' styles, grammar, pronunciation and disposition. Willie's got more bass to his voice, and his street demeanor and suspicious attitude run contrary to Bob's sprightly ignorance. Willie is boorish, and the audience chuckles at his abridged pronunciation of "evaluation." But he's also much savvier than Bob, and more vigorous and confrontational in his defense. (The portrayal of African American characters as more clever, aware or pro-active than their white counterparts is a recurrent theme of black comedy, one that can be traced to the jokes and “lies” that involved outsmarting "massa"). In Harvey's skit, the audience associates Willie's speech with expressiveness and spunk, while Bob's speech is associated with submissiveness and an almost android-like restraint. Some might suggest that Willie's vernacular is well suited for the fire in his remarks. Thomas Kochman would agree. In Black and White Styles in Conflict (1981), Kochman maintained that:

The modes of behavior that blacks and whites consider appropriate for engaging in public debate on an issue differ in their stance and level of spiritual intensity. The black mode--that of black community people--is high-keyed: animated, interpersonal and confrontational. The white mode--that of the middle class--is relatively low-keyed: dispassionate, impersonal, and non-challenging. The first is characteristic of involvement; it is heated, loud, and generates affect. The second in characteristic of detachment and is cool, quite, and without affect.

(Whether this generalization holds true in most real-life cases is open to debate, but the impression that it does, at least, is widespread, and that paradigm certainly applies to Harvey's bit).

Obviously, Harvey is playing on a black-white cultural disparity (and whether that disparity is more perceived than authentic or more authentic than perceived, it motivates behavior). Even though ALL of the cultural traits are exaggerated--few whites are so retreating or speak so properly, and few blacks are so aggressive or over-the-top--some of the characteristics are familiar. And that hint of familiarity is entertainment enough for the ladies and gentlemen of the audience, who have paid to laugh not at a comedian, but at themselves. Laughter, we must remember, is often nothing more than that fleeting moment when one lays aside pretension and peers into the shadowy corners of one's own self-image.

Even as Harvey mocks white speech and white mannerisms (with Bob's stilted walk), he pokes fun at his own folk (with Willie's emotional eruptions). There's no question that this self-chiding instinct is a cornerstone of black humor, a long-standing strategy for taking the edge off slanderous caricatures of the race created by outsiders. But the most compelling aspect of Harvey's skit is clearly the clash of black and white styles themselves. And the most fundamental conveyor of those styles is the manner in which the characters talk, a fact the audience acknowledges and delights in.

To set up the contrast that really makes the routine funny, Harvey must master both cultural extremes. He must "do" the diction and delivery of not only a Bob, but a Willie. And it is thus that Harvey, like legions of other black folk in this country who deal with middle class whites every day, proves that he is able to toggle seamlessly between the most proper whitese and the most personal soulspeak. Of course, few middle-class African Americans use such pronounced vernacular at home, much less in the boardroom. And even in the office, few whites enunciate as precisely as Bob. But as the skit suggests, the gap between home talk and office talk tends to be much wider for blacks than it is for whites. (How comical for a people who have survived by laughing at themselves, that the corporate mask may grin while the true face grimaces, or speak standard English flawlessly during the workday while the concealed self often itches to speak something else entirely)!

Some of the same blacks who talk solid soul after hours are actually more skilled than their white colleagues when it comes to affecting the conservative voice of Wall Street. Givens confronts this change-up routine with her irreverent "Fake Bitch" bit, recalling how her mother used to switch from vernacular to straight English depending upon who was on the telephone. (Note the last line’s explicit association of the vernacular with speaking in a relaxed and natural manner):

[Because everybody here, when you were little, you could tell who yo’ mama--who she was talking to on the phone. You just heard the ‘fake bitch’ when she took over, didn’t you? 'Cause when her friends call it's like,]

"Hello…? Oh, hey, how you doin', Girl? I ain't doin' nothin'… Cookin' these beans! Yeah, I know we had them yesterday, but beans taste better the second day, ya know? Girl, I can't hardly hear nothin' you sayin', these kids with all that damn noise. Yah… yah. Hold on. Let me--“Y'all kids stop all that damn noise! People think I ain't taught you nothing."

[That's how she talk to her friends. But you let the principal ... or the insurance man ... or somebody white calling: "Hello. Oh, hi Mr. Kennedy, how are you? Gee, you haven't received it yet? I mailed it out on Tuesday. Well, don't you worry, I've got the account number. I'm gonna track it down. Can you hold on for just a second, Mr. Kennedy? I can barely hear you. “Children, Mommy's on the phone now!"

[Get to know me white people so I can relax and just talk to you like I talk to everybody else...]

It's safe to say that this talent for playing dialect hopscotch, at least to the degree we see here, is much less of a convention in mainstream culture. Few white comedians parrot the black vernacular with the same panache that Givens or Harvey mark white speech. Of course, those two were not the first to exploit the behavioral dissimilarities between blacks and whites for a laugh. And we include their skits not to harp on some profound black-white dialectic, but simply to reveal how language has long been used, onstage and in the street, to delineate black and white styles.

In a 1981 standup routine, for instance, a young and unpolished Richard Pryor wondered aloud what would happen if the white victims in all those old Dracula movies--the ones who always wound up getting bit--were replaced with "niggas." Surely, Pryor mused, the scripts would have to be scrapped:

[That's why you never saw a movie where Dracula be walkin' down the street wit a nigger, right? Like say he an' a brother be walkin', right?]

Brotherman: Uh, ay, bro, whas' happenin'?"

Dracula: You got it.

Brotherman: Yeah, I can dig it, you know. Uh, whas' yo' story, mornin' glory?

Dracula: There's nuttin' to it.

Brotherman: Uh, look man, where you goin'--which way, cuz I don't even wanna be walkin' wit you, you know what I'm sayin'? I ain't for dat shit, you know what I mean? I ain't into that. Ain't nothin'--ain't no faggot in me.

Dracula: But I'm not a fag. I want to suck your blood.

Brotherman: You want to suck my blood. I know what you want to suck, muthafucka, but I don't play dat.

Edgy, brash, self-conscious and sarcastic, Pryor's work offers keen insight into the ghetto ethos. This skit is compelling (and funny) not just because Pryor is so raw, but because he's so honest. Yes, homophobia takes on epidemic dimensions in the 'hood. Yes, artful cussing can be an integral element of rhetorical flair for those who live there, too (see the comments on "signifying in the following chapter). And yes, as Pryor unobtrusively reminds us, blacks just don't find themselves in certain cinematic roles with great regularity. If we take a more fundamental look at Pryor's strategy, though, we see that black social values and the norms of whites--who are depicted (not insignificantly in the performer's mind) by a vampire--once again juxtaposed.

And what role does language itself play in Pryor's performance? Well for one, it establishes atmosphere. If comedy is what happens when folks relax, "get down" and "let it all hang out," then one would expect to find vernacular--the variety of informality--where there is laughter. In particular, though, Black English symbolizes the autonomy of the African American comedian. Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Eddie Murphy and Steve Harvey all possessed or possess a kind of unrestrained aura, a self-issued license to say just about whatever they pleased, however they wished to say it. Because they were so wickedly funny they got away with confronting even politically-charged or taboo topics head-on, including poverty, crime, sex, homosexuality, drugs and race, race, race. The vernacular simply reinforced their footloose styles, adding, for instance, to the wry flavor of Dick Gregory's political remarks:

This is the era today of the new Negro. An' we doin' alright. At the rate they hirin' us today, five years from now it won't be enough uh us to go 'roun'. Oh yes, won' be nothin' to drive down the street one day and see a big sign: "Hertz Rent-a-Negro."

Moms Mabley was equally incalculable. This "chitlin circuit" darling addressed topics such as the fall of President Nixon with homespun wisdom and a veneer as seemingly innocuous as the housecoat she always wore:
Even old Moms couldn't do nothin' for that man 'cept give him a few licks upside the head, that is… he was just too far gone. Only thing I got to say about him is, your sins will find you out. Like old Joe Louis says, you can run, but you can't hide.

There is no question that Black English bolstered the comic effect of these quipsters. But the dialect should be regarded as much more than a prop for the burlesque, as vastly more essential than say, Pryor's casually dangled cigarette. Black English must be recognized as imperative to the African American man-and-woman-of-words culture, and as indispensable to whatever blacks consider funny. For after hours and hours of videotape are analyzed, the most striking revelation to surface about the delivery of black standup may be that the language of Mabley, Gregory and Pryor brought them pleasure. To these entertainers (and to masses of Americans, black and otherwise) Black English was and is a mechanism for slipping the fetters of polite convention, a medium for letting loose. Small wonder that Redd Foxx couldn't help flashing his trademark grin when he delivered these lines in a 1984 performance:

Yes I eat pork. Thas' why ah neva join no group. Mos' group you had to give up pork. Shit, the hog ain't never done nuttin' tah me. You think about it--a pig is no uglier dan a cow. Look at a cow sometime wit dat big, snotty nose an' dem dirty tits. One thing I can't stan' is a snotty nose. But I'll clean up a dirty tit.

Granted, it could have been nervous laughter that left the African Americans in that audience gasping and stomping. As we have tried to show throughout this book, Black English has a remarkable capacity to arouse black shame. But Foxx's gruff dialect didn't make him a buffoon, now was it purely an instrument of self-deprecation. On the contrary. For Foxx's public persona was that of a cocky, macho wise-ass, a man who came off as being utterly in control of his sexuality and his environment (even more so than Fred Sanford, the character Foxx portrayed in the 70s television sitcom Sanford and Son).

But Foxx is just one toasting, lying, signifying, playing-the-dozens custodian of a cultural estate in which the power of the spoken word is preserved. In the 1990 film House Party, which would become something of a cult hit among black youth, Robin Harris' character "Pop" exemplifies the everyday nature of such exhibition. In the following scene, the stern, working class father confronts a couple of teenagers after showing up at a house party in search of his wayward son, who is supposed to be home on punishment:

Pop: Bilaal, whateva ya name is. Sounds like something you catch under ya' feet. You see my boy?

Bilaal: Nah, I haven't seen him, sir.

Pop: You sure?

Boy: Yo, why don't you go home and watch the late show, Pops?

Pop: Why don't you jus' go home? Test tube baby. Whas' yo' name?

Boy: Clinton.

Pop: Clinton what?

Boy: Clinton, ahm, X.

Pop: Clinton X, huh?

Boy: Yeah, Clinton X. I'm a Muslim.

Pop: Well go home and bring me back two bean pies and a pork chop sandwich, l'il trout mouf heathen. [Turning to face another partygoer,] Ohh, how you doin'? I shoulda known you was in here. I saw the drip in front of da' driveway. You know som'n, wit dat Jheri Curl you got on yo' head you betta not eva do a crime. Ain't no problem findin' you--follow da' drip, follow da' drip.

This scene is not just cinema. Almost every African American has a father or an uncle or a grandmother or a cousin who "talks trash" relentlessly. In fact, the fine art of "clowning," "dissing," "busting caps" or "snaps," and generally gouging some poor guy on account of his shortcomings or those of his kin, is for soul people nothing more than traditional playground banter. The following snaps, which zero in on the most frequently slandered relation, were overheard on a basketball court in East Palo Alto, California:

Yo' motha got a wooden eye, every time she blink she get a splinter.

Yo' mama got lips on her ass--she be talkin' shit.

Yo' motha got so much hair under her arms, look like she got Buckwheat in a headlock.

Yo' motha so fat she use a VCR for a beeper.

Yo' motha got half a leg, talkin' 'bout, "ain't no half-steppin'."

Yo' motha so bald-headed, she gotta roll her hair with needles.

Potent, if impolite vernacular in the schoolyard notwithstanding, Black English in the realm of comedy has often been allied with some of the most crippling and one-dimensional portrayals of African Americans. In the 1950's, for instance, the television show Amos n' Andy raised the ire of the NAACP and other groups who contended that its slapstick humor and its characters' antics presented blacks as inept and foolish. Two decades later, the myth that black life is rife with capers and jovial misadventure was still being pandered to on TV (though to a lesser degree). Good Times (1974-1979), for instance, chronicled happenings in the life of a black, working-class family from a public housing development. The sitcom's premise was that despite unstable employment, paltry wages, pitiful health care, the specter of crime, a corrupt police force and other circumstances of poverty, black people still managed to smile, hum and exclaim in pollyannaish fashion, "ain't we glad we got 'em…good times!" So although the Good Times represented one of the first authentic portrayals of Black English on the tube, some black folk were turned off by its content.

In one typical family crisis, J.J. (the show's most memorable character) is jailed on bogus robbery charges. Unable to come up with the $500 he needs to make bail, his folks (Florida and James) spend the night at the police station. Siblings Wilona and Michael don't show up until the following morning:

Florida: James…James!

Woman: You betta ansa, cuz I ain't no James!

James: I'm sorry, baby, I-I musta been dreamin'.

Florida: Yeah, yo' dream musta been in a dance hall, cuz you changed partners.

Woman: People ain't safe no place. You even get molested in a po'lice station.

James: I'm sorry, baby.

Florida: Ah, that's awright hunney, I was dreamin' too…I dream we was home and everything was awright…you know James, I was thinkin' dis experience might teach J.J. not to make a joke outa findin' things.

Wilona: Good morning, y'all.

Michael: Hi Ma, hi Dad.

James: Hey Michael. What you got there?

Michael: I made a picket sign: The Fuzz Unfair to brothers especially mine.

Wilona: You think that one's bad, you shoulda seen the one he was gonna bring.

Florida: What we gonna do with this boy?

James: I don't know what you gonna do, babe, but I' gonna get him some more cardboard so he can keep on makin' these signs.

Michael: Right on, Dad.

Two years before Good Times first aired, Superfly, one of the most successful Blaxploitation flicks ever made (with a reported gross of $6,400,000 at the box office), arrived in theatres. The film, which still glares like a polaroid flash from a time when black men were painted as rifle-toting pimps and pushers who lorded it over urban streets, featured Ron O'Neal as the shadowy cocaine peddler "Priest." In an opening sequence, two huddled junkies prepare to rob Priest for his dope loot:

Junkie no. 1: Did you get the money?

Junkie no. 2: I ain't got nothin'. She wouldn't give it to me.

Junkie no. 1: Wastin' all this goddamned time. We do it my way.

Fed up with such narrow big screen roles, comic Robert Townsend lampooned the motion picture industry's portrayal of blacks in the 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle. Its opening scene finds Townsend, who plays an aspiring actor looking for his first gig, rehearsing the part of a gangster in the bathroom mirror as his amused little brother looks on:

Townsend: Tommy. Tommy. You kill-ded mah brotha. He was ma only bra-tha. I love-ded dis dude, babee. An you gonna pay, jive sucka. You done messed wit da wrong dude, babee. Ahm gon be on yo' ass like a pair of Fruit-of-the-Looms. Ahm gon' bounce you harder than a cancelled check. As soon as you get yo' foot off ma face, I'm gon hurt ya, man. I'm gon hurt chyoo. Dis be ma turf, babee. Ah owns da East side. Listen…listen…Oh! You tough now! Oh, you tough now! Becuzin' you be got yo' gang. You be got yo' gang. But when ma gang finds out…Oh. Oh! Why you gotta pull a knife, man? Why you gotta pull a knife? [Slips out of character and addresses younger brother: "What's the line?"]

Brother: I ain't be got no weapon.

The spoof is hilarious, of course, not only because of Townsend's outrageous, whiny inflection, but because the lines themselves are pure gibberish. In fact, this is how Black English might sound if, as many columnists, policy-makers and pundits have suggested, it followed no hard and fast rules. With the mock script, Townsend not only jeers Hollywood's distorted images of black life, he alludes to widespread ignorance about the systematic nature of Spoken Soul.

With Black English so often placed in the mouths of jesters such as Good Time's J.J. and criminals such as Superfly's Priest, it's not surprising that many blacks let out a collective sigh when The Cosby Show came on the air in the 80s. Clifford and Claire, well-to-do professionals who spoke proper English and meted out textbook-perfect guidance and affection to their children, were redemptive in many ways. Once a week, like clockwork, black families across the country were ushered into that idyllic Cosby brownstone where standard English and $100 sweaters--not food stamps--were the norm. Now, there are many such real-life households in black America. But there are, of course, many black households in which neither parent holds an advanced degree, or any degree, for that matter. And in many of these homes, Black English is the norm. As Givens and Harvey have proven with their vocal dexterity, though, the black community's linguistic chameleons probably have as much Bill Cosby coursing through their veins as they do Redd Foxx. In a very real sense, both are the result of cultural confluence. And black folk are better off for having them both around. Together they speak to both halves of the soul, allowing us to play doctor on the job, and the dozens after quitting time.
See published book for notes to chapter 4

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