Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America

Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America

Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America

Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America

Excerpt

"MY JAW WAS TIGHT." I can't remember the first time I heard this phrase but I'm sure that it was my father who spoke it—whether in response to a slight on the job, an injustice in the world, or a blatantly bad call made by some person in a position of authority. When recounting the incident, which in a different man might have elicited either a stream of obscenities or other exclamations of anger and frustration, my father would say with a mild smile, "I wasn't angry, but my jaw was tight." Decades later, when I heard Richard Pryor say, in a sketch on his short-lived television series, that his jaw was tight—expressing his resentment that the then Los Angeles Rams had released their first and only black quarterback, James Harris—I was struck by the resonance of those words. Arguably, there have not been two more different black men on the planet than Richard Pryor and my father—one a comedy icon who profanely and profoundly gave voice to the black experience and lived life with operatic bravado, the other a strong, gentle working man, who was raised in the segregated South, served in World War II, a former sailor, whose idea of "hard" language was "hey, fella," and who, along with his wife of forty-nine years, struggled to make sure that his six daughters attained a larger piece of the American Dream. Yet the phrase ties them together—and me to both of them. What does it mean when "your jaw is tight"—the physical reality of teeth clenched, unable or unwilling to speak, biding your time, holding your tongue, not saying the things that you yearn to say. And what do you mean when you say, "My jaw was tight," and how does one respond to the African American legacy of enforced silences: with covert conversations, with sly stories embedded in trickster tales, with kitchen-table witticisms and wisdom. The antithesis of one's jaw being tight has been performed in monologues on the Chitlin' Circuit, on comedy club main stages, and on myriad screens, large and small: mouths open, laughing mad is a liberatory act.

Rooted in a history where commentary and critique had to be coded for the folks (to borrow Zora Neale Hurston's oft-repeated moniker for African American communities), black comedy is tied inextricably to the African . . .

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