On Black Comedy


Finding an antidepressant that works with my unique mental system has been a long game of trial and error. Nurse practitioners and a family doctor bounced me to and from one another, all leaving me with one caveat: we don’t know if this medicine will help or hurt you. So, for the many times my medications failed to elevate me from my depression, I medicated myself by watching stand up comedy on YouTube until I dozed off and dropped my phone on my face. My face mildly bruised but mood elevated, the next morning I brightened gloomy commutes by listening to audio recordings of Carrie Fisher talking of untimely deaths and electroconvulsive therapy as if they were light materials of everyday jokes.

Many comic stars rise from the darkness of mental illnesses and humble careers. Ellen DeGeneres launched her television debut by joking about the grief, loneliness, and flea infestation raiding her humble apartment. The key word of “stand-up comedy” is “stand,” because even when the comedian sits down while telling jokes, the act of transforming demons into comic material gives an impression of rising upwards in power. Planned Parenthood, for example, markets its solidarity campaigns with the word “stand,” printing “I stand with Planned Parenthood” on its slogan stickers. Stand-up comedy invites solidarity to stand with traditionally disenfranchised citizens, allowing unheard voices to become witty stars of the stage and laughing at their troubles, rather than just commiserating.

Black comedy came to existence in 1619, when on the middle passage, African captives maintained one another’s sanity by performing poetry and impromptu shows from their African tribes. The Middle Passage's black comedy stemmed from African comedy (performed by jesters to African royalty), but the Middle Passage's performers and audiences developed their comic acts in a setting of extreme dehumanization and grief instead of in an already jaunty jungle. From then on, black comedy has helped uncover rugged hope among the shadows of society.

Comedy has served as therapy for other marginalized groups in the US who sought to assuage their own shadows of social exclusion. Zach Anner and Geri Jewell, for example, have cerebral palsy and form their comic acts from their experiences with disabilities. Rachel Rostad famously mocked pathetic and docile Asian woman stereotypes in her punchline-strung poem, “To JK Rowling from Cho Chang.” George Lopez and Anjelah Johnson brought Latinx content to the comic stage and Charlie Hill brought Native American presence to the Richard Pryor Show.

Before Latina-American comedienne Melissa Villaseñor landed her fateful role on Saturday Night Live, she shyly strutted across a red curtained stage on an episode of America’s Got Talent. Villaseñor's wonky impressions of Christina Aguilera and Brittany Spears became my first encounter with stand-up comedy. She said she felt like she was flying when she listened to audience laughter. Perhaps Villaseñor enjoyed the audience participation that characterizes stand-up comedy shows and comedic spoken word performances (wherein audiences warmly snap instead of clap). Audience participation stems from black comedy because black comedy, unlike Anglo-American vaudeville shows, relished the informality of rowdy, loud audiences that came with the rowdy, run-down black-only showrooms of the Jim Crow South.

The “inside joke” nature of black comedy contributed to the secrecy and intimacy of humor that only people in their marginalized community completely understood. Dave Chappelle in his Netflix special invited audience members to recall “that first sleepover at a white friend’s house” wherein nobody wears a coat indoors because the heating system actually works. Similarly, in the Jim Crow era, Black audience members sat in segregated theater seats and laughed communally at scenes and images in films that white viewers did not find comedic. These inside jokes created a tiny privilege among minority groups. In these moments, those who had excluded Black and other Americans became the ones who were excluded and clueless from the joys and laughter marginalized Americans enjoyed.

What do we make of the problematic black comic figures like Jim from "Huckleberry Finn" and Mammy from Gone with the Wind, or blackface acts on vaudeville? These happily enslaved comic figures glossed over the terrors of the American South and promoted the delusion that black Americans needed white men to enslave and domesticate them. While black artists produce their own comedic personas that articulately challenge white institutions, white authors like Mark Twain and Margaret Mitchell created blackface comic relief caricatures.

The difference between a black comedian and a blackface character is as stark as the difference between reality and imagination: black comedians are real humans drawing acts from lived experiences, whereas blackfaced figures live only in the imaginations of white onlookers. The elite of society laugh at blackface jesters while black comedy invites the underdogs of society to laugh at the elite and other contributors to their struggles.

Sometimes while lying listlessly at the spinning of a ceiling fan, my mind begins to replay absurd and oppressive conversations like uninvited videotapes playing automatically. I consider history’s most degraded people finding shared humor amid a seasick brew of bodily fluids on the Middle Passage. Then in my mind I spin my ruminations into a comedy monologue and transform my sorrows and gloom into just a punchline to brush off with a breath of laughter.

Amy Gu is an aspiring teacher and an unyielding advocate for underdogs. Between graduate school, daycare work, and volunteering at the animal shelter, Amy sips coffee and Chinese green tea with her cat-children in Austin, Texas.