Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Wanda Sykes, Dave Chappelle... say any of their names to a serious fan of comedy and you're likely to elicit a reverential sigh of importance, followed by a word-for-word recitation of one of their most famous bits.
Black performers have played a pivotal role not just in entertainment, but in changing the way blacks and whites in America lived, worked and related to each other. And comedians especially, with their penchant for crossing lines and speaking uncomfortable truths, have been some of the most influential artists of the last century.
In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to take a look at the influence of black comedians through the eyes of the artists who are following in their footsteps.
So we brought six up-and-coming young comics together for a unique roundtable discussion about comedy, race and the most influential performers of the past and present. Their conversation touched on some of the most seminal voices in comedy, from the ongoing influence of Richard Pryor to the enormous loss of Patrice O'Neal, and everything in between. They also endeavored to answer the eternal question: What does it mean to be a "black comedian" anyway?
Taking part in the discussion were: San Francisco comedian and political satirist W. Kamau Bell; comedian, writer and acrtress Desiree Burch; New York comedian Michael Che; Stand-Up For Diversity finalist Calise Hawkins; Cleveland native and another Stand Up For Diversity finalist Phoebe Robinson; and comedian, actor & star of "Fairly Legal," Baron Vaughn.THE COMEDIANS
Comedian Michael Che. Credit: Mindy Tucker, withreservation.com
Comedian Phoebe Robinson. Credit: Mindy Tucker, withreservation.com
Comedian Baron Vaughn. Credit: Mindy Tucker, withreservation.com
Comedian Calise Hawkins. Credit: Mindy Tucker, withreservation.com
Comedian Desiree Burch. Credit: Sarah Sloboda, sarahsloboda.com
Comedian W. Kamau Bell. Credit: Beth Allen, twitter.com/BeedleDee
HuffPost Comedy: When you look back at the biographies of some of the legendary black comedians, you see something interesting. For example, Richard Pryor, in addition to being noted as a comedian and actor, is thought of as a social critic, Bill Cosby as an activist, Paul Mooney, also as a social critic. Do you think that critical aspect of comedy is as important today as it once was, and is it important to you?
Phoebe Robinson: I think there's a lot of social commentary still going on, like what W. Kamau Bell is doing with Laughter Against The Machine, and a lot of other people, like Jamie Kilstein. A lot of people are getting out there and getting that social voice. So I feel like it's still present and prevalent, but I don't think it's as big as it was during Paul Mooney and Dick Gregory's time. With the recession and a lot of things kind of up in the air, I'm seeing this sort of alt-comedy thing that embraces silliness more, as a reaction, to say let's just have some fun. Everything else is crazy around us, let's have this moment where we don't have to think about that and we can just laugh and be silly and be goofy.
Michael Che: I agree, but I don't think it's because people want silly. I think everything is so corporate that it's about, "What can you sell?" So comics that have real silly humor or real abstract humor -- it's good, it's still funny -- but I think it's easier to sell because it's so inoffensive. They're not offending anybody.
W. Kamau Bell: I guess the way I would describe what I do is, it's social-political comedy that has an agenda, so I always feel like the jokes that I write, if I only have an hour to be on stage or less, I should probably only talk about the things I really care about.
Desiree Burch: Can I ask a question? Just speaking to what Kamau is touching on, does every comedian come from this place of having that agenda and thinking they're going to save the world? Because I live in that delusion, and I don't know if some people are like, "I just want to make people laugh and relieve some tension," and other people are like, "I need to get across what I have to say."
Phoebe: I guess for me, my agenda is when I get off stage I want people to feel like they know me.
Baron Vaughn: I guess that I do have a bit of an agenda in that I want to enlighten and educate, but my problem is that I feel I'm coming at it more intellectually than from a visceral place.... Someone told me that I was a kitchen-sink comedian, meaning that I throw everything at the audience, including the kitchen sink. I've trafficked more in absurd-ism and silliness.
Baron Vaughn on 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon'
Calise Hawkins: My agenda on stage, is the same as mine in life, I want to represent myself now as a black female. As a black female from the midwest, and having a lot of color-type tension and stress through my life and now having a lot of female shit going on that I'm old enough to experience... I try to represent myself as a black woman as realistically as possible, because I think that most people hide behind whatever idea somebody gives them to be, and I'm just trying to show exactly what I am, all of my flaws, all of my good stuff, all of my bad stuff, and I just want to be real, because I don't think people are. So that's my point on stage.
Michael: That's interesting though because I think I try to do the opposite, where, I like - this might sound fucked up - but I like stereotypes a little bit because I know that they come from somewhere, for one, and two, they're not that bad. Like certain things that people say...like I don't like when people say "ghetto" as a bad thing. Like my mother's parents grew up in the same projects as my father's parents. I grew up in the ghetto my whole life, like I don't get why that's this awful connotation that everything from the ghetto is so fucked up. We're just poor people.
Calise: I think I embody different stereotypes myself, but I'm honest about those things and if there's something that I'm not, then I'm honest about that as well.
Calise Hawkins on Comedy Central
Desiree: Well, does it seem like they're two different points, not to get all gendered and racial and whatever, but like, as far as comedy, I think that black men have been being themselves on stage a lot longer than black females have. As you were saying, Calise, letting people see you as you are and fully representing yourself and being a dynamic, nuanced human being, I feel like that's a relatively new thing.
Calise: I think that's new for black men, too. I don't think black men have been able to be themselves on stage. There's a certain idea that is expected from a black male comic, and I think that's just now getting shattered.
Phoebe: I would say with the greats, though, with the great black male comics, they've all kind of been authentically themselves.
Desiree: Like Pryor or Foxx or any of those people.
There are some people who impact your life forever. Richard Pryor is such a person. It is un-defining to call him a comedian, for he seemed to transcend comedy when he spoke to us.
Baron: Well you know, something that I always loved, that Dick Gregory said about Pryor, he talked about the generation of comedians that followed Pryor, and he said something about how if you took Pryor's quote-unquote foul language out of his act, then his genius is still apparent. But he thought that what happened was people came up that were copying the surface of what Pryor was doing, copying the language and felt that that was the key to the content. And in my personal opinion, and this is going to be the most controversial possible thing I could say, but I personally think that Eddie Murphy is the best-slash-worst thing that has happened to black comedy.
Phoebe: I could see what you're saying with that.
Calise: Right, because that cadence and that sense of humor... a lot of people take from that.
Baron: Exactly, a lot of black comedians said, "Hey I can do this." So he made it ok, or people felt, "Oh, I can have a voice on stage, too," but then at the same time, people were copying this bravado, if you will.
Kamau: Here's the thing: when people talk about Eddie Murphy as a stand-up, one thing that I've realized recently, is that he stopped doing stand-up when he was like in his mid-20s. His stand-up career only lasted publicly for like 6 or 7 years.
Desiree: That was a big 6 or 7 years, shit.
Kamau: I'm just saying, I feel like his stand-up career was not finished, you know what I mean?
Desiree: Yea, I know.
Kamau: I feel like we're judging Eddie Murphy. Like he's one of the most gifted comedians of all time, no question, and I sort of feel like it's like an athlete who sort of pulled out right as he might have gotten really good.
Desiree: Yea, and it takes that time of earning it and working at it and figuring out what exactly you actually have to say.
Kamau: I mean Chris Rock had been around for a long time before he did "Bring The Pain".
Baron: Pryor was always vulnerable, always let you in, but Eddie Murphy was not vulnerable. And I'm quoting Pryor on this, in his own book, "Pryor Convictions", in which he said he never jived with Eddie Murphy. And everyone was like, "Oh he's so influenced by you. He's so inspired by you." And he was like, "I do not see it. I always thought Eddie Murphy's comedy was mean." That's what Richard Pryor said about Eddie Murphy. Continue.
Richard Pryor, Live On Sunset
Phoebe: Thank you professor.
Kamau: Baron's got his big, black book of black comedy open.
Baron: It's hard to read it because all the pages are black.
Michael: I always felt like Eddie Murphy sounded more like Cosby just because he told a lot of stories like Cosby. But he was like a dirty version. It's also a generational thing. I think the country changed so much from the 70s to that hip hop era and that kind of brash persona. I thought Eddie Murphy was more of a rock star. Like he kind of brought that rock star element to stand-up comedy.
Desiree: Coming out in those ass-hugging fucking red pants.
Michael: Yea, like he was cool. There weren't so many cool, street comedians that you felt like, he wasn't a clown, he was the guy who could take all the girls. There's not that many comedians that you feel like could take all the girls.
Desiree: He's definitely like a rock star. It's interesting that you point that out because he is kind of like the child of Cosby and Pryor in that way.
Eddie Murphy in 'Delirious'
Kamua: What you have to remember though, is hardly any comic had the life that Pryor had growing up. Bill Cosby was a dude from Philadelphia who went to college and was a track star. What he had to pull from was way different. I don't think there's any way he could get as vulnerable as Richard Pryor even if he had the ability to. We all weren't lucky enough to grow up in a whorehouse, is all I'm saying.
Baron: I want to piggyback off of something that both Michael and Kamau were talking about before, with the corporate thing. Nobody has had to deal with more more comedy than we have. We're completely saturated by all sorts of comedy, and you know, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby didn't have Comedy Central. So how do you separate yourself from the pack when there's just so much comedy to be had.
Calise: Do a "Shit Something Girls Say".
Phoebe: Yea, just copy that a hundred times and then maybe you'll get viral. I think if you have just such an authentically pure voice, you're going to stand out. You will just separate.
Baron: You say that like it's the easiest thing. "Just have an authentically pure voice."
Phoebe: I'm not saying it's the easiest thing in the world. It takes time, but you'll see people that, once they're 12, 15 years in, they just take off. They finally reach that point where they're so different from everyone else that no one can deliver their jokes the way that they do.
Calise: They've gotten so good at who they are. I think the one person that has proven that point and was just about to...
Calise: Yea. Patrice is one example of somebody who, he wasn't taking any easy roads, and he wasn't compromising his personality ever, and he was on the verge of everybody discovering him. It was going to happen.
Phoebe: I went to his last show at Caroline's, and I was just like, "Holy shit, I am not a comic, man! I am not a comic. This is a comic!" There was no one like him, there will never be someone like him, and I think that, to answer your question Baron, I think that's the goal. That's how you stand out.
Patrice O'Neal on Comedy Central
HuffPost: It's interesting to me to hear the women talk about Patrice. I was a huge fan of his as well and met him several times, and found him to be a lovely person. But I know so many women who could not stand him, and for good reason considering some of his material. But I think that speaks to that authenticity; not being afraid to say something that will offend people. Given the rash of comedians apologizing for something they said on stage lately, it makes it even more sad to me that someone like Patrice, who had no fear of what he was going to say on stage, passed away so soon. How did you guys feel about that aspect of Patrice, did it disturb you? Did it anger you? Or was it just, "He's a comedian."
Phoebe: Never bothered me.
Calise: I've seen him develop over the years since I started doing comedy, and I just think he was so honest. That's all Patrice was, was honesty. So I can respect that. If that's where he's coming, that's where he's coming from. He has a history. So he has his own opinions about women. And I can respect that. And I noticed that from the time I first heard him talking about women, to the time he had his girlfriend, Vonn, and as their relationship developed, he started developing other opinions on women that started to come out. He started to describe how women love, and he wasn't talking about that before. He didn't care about that before. So I thought it was even going to go further. He would have a full circle-type something where eventually, he came to terms with his issues with women.
Desiree: He always had nuance in his work. So he wasn't just saying blanket statements about women. He might say a joke like that, and two minutes later he'd be talking about something else in the same type of insight and depth that let you know, "At least he's an aware, real person." And I feel like even though there was something where I was like, "Oh!" [horrified face] I could see that it was hilarious. And I'm also quite aware of my own humanity, and I have equally bigoted opinions about men.
Baron: I think comedy is like food. If you like it, you will defend it to the death, and if you don't like it, you can't understand how somebody else can eat it. And I feel like that's the same thing with Patrice.
Kamau: But don't you think that if Patrice wasn't offending some percentage of people, he would have felt like he wasn't doing what he wanted to do?
Calise: I think I heard him say he wanted to walk 20 percent of the crowd all the time or he didn't feel like he did his job.
Kamau: I think Patrice wanted some people, to some degree, to be offended, and I think that's awesome.
Patrice O'Neal at 'The Roast Of Charlie Sheen'
Michael: It's a weird thing for a comedian to be on stage and for someone to take offense. It's like Archie Bunker. I thought "All In The Family" was hilarious. I think Archie Bunker is hilarious, but it's not because I identify with why he's racist. I'm watching his point of view. So it's funny to see him in those particular situations.
Phoebe: I think we live in a snippet society, where people just take, "Oh you said this thing? I'm removing all context. Look at you! You're a horrible person!" And it's like, "Well you took everything that surrounded that, that made it funny!"
Baron: Context is key. And with Patrice I think, you do not have to agree with him. And people think you have to agree with something for it to be funny. A friend of mine once told me the best thing about Patrice. He said, "Man I didn't agree with anything he said, but I could not stop laughing." Yea, because you know that's what HE thinks." Context is key. There was this whole weird thing that happened in LA where Patton Oswalt was rude to someone at a show and somebody put up a blog post about it, and Dane Cook showed up at a couple shows and Twitter blew up. And I'm like, "You know what? Motherfuckers need stage time." Again, we're over-saturated with comedy and we have the ability to instantly report anything that happens at any point, and it's like, people have been blowing up and having breakdowns and getting into fights with audience members since there's been audience members.
Kamau: I think that's a part of being a comedian now, is recognizing that the world is such a smaller place than it was, even in the day of ten, fifteen years ago. I think about the Michael Richards situation; if that had happened five years earlier, nobody would have heard about it except for the people in that room. There was no cellphone camera, there was no internet, and it would have been a folk tale that comedians shared with other comedians. "Did you hear that Michael Richards said the word 'nigger' on stage 8 times?" But because the world is so much smaller, everything immediately gets beamed out, and I think as comics, we have to sort of realize that's the world we live in. Be as offensive as you want to be, just recognize that someone's Tweeting about it.
HuffPost: How did you feel about the Tracy Morgan situation, where he was called out for a pretty intense bit he did on stage at a show and then had to apologize for it?
Phoebe: I kind of was bummed out. I know he had to apologize, but part of me was bummed out. Like, "C'mon man, don't apologize. You're doing you."
Michael: I think you should have to apologize if you really want to apologize. But I think this generation is weird... I think we feel entitled to comfort. Like, "...if you say something offensive, you should have to apologize to make me feel better because I'm entitled to feel comfortable in this space." We feel that way. Years ago, if somebody said something offensive, you could just say, "That guy's an asshole." Now it's like, "Apologize", or, "He shouldn't be able to work because he made me uncomfortable".
Phoebe: I like that Kat Williams didn't apologize.
Michael: Kat Williams is selling out theaters by himself. He's not on TV every week, he's not on Pepsi commercials. Like who's he apologizing on behalf of. Tracy Morgan is on NBC, like he has to.
Kamau: Yeah, you have to remember, Tracy Morgan is not on some edgy, independent cable station. He's on NBC. That's an employee of NBC apologizing.
Tracy Morgan Apologizes
Baron: But still, that should have just been a show that happened. We don't know what that bit was, what Tracy Morgan was talking about, where he might be going. It could have been the early stages of a bit that could have turned into something completely different, but now he does not have the opportunity to explore whatever he wanted to explore, regardless if it's his character or not. It's stand-up. He should still be able to say whatever the hell he wants, but instead, we just have to kowtow to people's egos. It's like Michael was saying. People don't like to be uncomfortable. There are two kinds of audiences: those who like to be challenged, and those who like to be confirmed. And guess who has more money?
Desiree: But is that just the nature of having more and more renown, is that you have less and less ability? In general?
Calise: Yea, unless you decide to take that crusade upon yourself and be that person who's always getting trashed and cut down and overcoming it. There's not that many people doing it.
Baron: Well you've got to think: Tracy Morgan's audience...like JB Smoove, for instance, I opened for him in New York. And JB Smoove's audience was so fucking strange, because it's half black people who know JB Smoove because he's JB Smoove a black comedian, and then it was everyone else who knew him from "Curb Your Enthusiasm". So these people who were "Curb" fans had come to see JB Smoove, and they were not prepared. So Tracy Morgan's audience must have been motherfucking "30 Rock", so of course they were going to be like, "What? Tina Fey didn't write this!"
Desiree: Wait so what are you guys' audiences like? Can I ask, like who supports you? Who's the most interested in your kind of work in particular?
Phoebe: It's a lot of white people, I'll be honest. I think that is what pushed me more to talk about race, because I know if I'm making them uncomfortable and making them laugh, then I'm on to a good bit. I would like to reach everybody, but mainly it's white people... 18 to 50 is my demo.
Desiree: My audience is predominantly the same, where it's just like, I would not be saying what I get to say if it weren't for a bunch of white people being like, "Oh really? Tell me more! Hahahaha Make fun of us, you're a nice one!"
Michael: I tend to do best in front of any college males. Not really specific color, but any college-aged males I tend to have the best shows for those. Nobody's paying for a ticket with my name on it, so it's hard for me to say. I do well when I do well, I don't know. It depends. I did well for nuns once.
Kamau: Because I live in San Francisco, white people come out no matter what's going on. If there's something happening in a theater or a club, white people show up. When I started doing my solo show, I was like, "I gotta try to get other people of color in here," so I did this thing of where I promoted it with, "If you bring a friend of a different race, you get in two-for-one."
Calise: Oh I saw that. I loved that!
Kamau: I'm trying to be the interracial couple comedian.
Baron: I tend to not do well in front of audiences where everyone is the same. The two hardest bombs I've ever had in my entire life: one was in front of an all black audience and one was in front of an all white audience. So if I don't have a little of everything, I usually don't feel like it's going to go that well. The people who seem to love me the most are black people who have been turned off to black comedy. They expect it. They're like, "Aw it's going to be this and that." But then usually those are the people who come up to me who are like, "Oh my God you're different!" And I'm like, "Yea I'm not the only one. There's a lot of black comics who are not quote-unquote 'black comedians' whatever the hell that's supposed to mean."
Calise: You have to have representations from every side of the thing you're discussing so they can be called out and so that they can see the reactions and they can react together. Otherwise it would feel like a rally.
Michael: See that's why I try to make jokes where I know nobody's going to agree with it. It's never rousing. No one cosigns it.
Baron: Here's a weird question. There's been one gigantic black comedian every decade. Pryor, Murphy, Rock, Chappelle -- Chappelle, in a way, gave up his throne. He walked away from it. And there's been this void, like a black leader void, where many usurpers have come and said, "I'm the one!" Maybe not. "I'm the one!" Maybe not. But who are your favorite black comedians right now?
Phoebe: For me, Hannibal Buress. And Damien Lemon is, I think, absolutely brilliant and very funny, and his voice is getting stronger by the second, and it makes me sweat because I'm like, "Holy shit, I need to step it up." I like Calise a lot. I feel like a lot of times when female comics have kids, they can kind of go to hack-ville a little bit. But I think Calise finds a way to make it interesting, and has a unique perspective. I like Marina Franklin a lot. I thought her Ferguson set was very, very strong.
Calise: Marina is one of the reasons I started. I saw her perform and I was like, "A black woman who's hilarious?" And I approached her after and I was like, "Oh my God if I could only be as funny as you, this is what I want to do with my life." And Wanda [Sykes]. She's great.
Phoebe: Obviously Wanda. If I had to be like, who's my favorite black comic right now? It'd have to be Wanda. I think she's brilliant and I hope one day to be as good as her.
Wanda Sykes on Comedy Central
Calise: I'll say Patrice O'Neal. I'm not willing to let him die just yet, for me for comedy. He still has another CD coming out.
Phoebe: February 7th.
Michael: I think probably Patrice. I always thought Patrice was the best anyway. Not just because he passed away, I always thought he was the best. And Hannibal, I love Hannibal too, Hannibal's great.
Calise: Hannibal's a close second.
Hannibal Buress on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live'
Desiree: I'm a big fucking Mo'Nique fan because she's dirty like me and I love her.
Calise: I'm a big Chappelle fan too.
Desiree: Oh God, yea.
Calise: If Chappelle's out, I get so excited if I happen to be in the same club. I'm like, "Holy shit I'm gonna see Chappelle!" I want to see Chappelle do nothing for an hour, I can't wait!
Kamau: Move to San Francisco, he comes here every 6 weeks.
Desiree: And I haven't seen Kamau, I haven't seen a lot of your stuff, so I can't jump on the lovely train for you, but I can jump on the Baron train.
Calise: Baron I think you're one of the most interesting people I've ever seen on stage. You're such an entertainer. I saw him last time at Hannibal's show at the Knitting Factory. And Baron's gotten to another level of what he's doing.
Baron: Actually Kamau's on my list. I like Kamau's comedy and I like that you say that you're not specifically political, which I totally agree with. Your opinion, it's so effortless, what you do on stage. And it's so infuriating. I'm like, "God! It seems so easy when you do it," and then I'm like, "That's not easy though!"
W. Kamau Bell in 'The W. Kamau Bell Curve'
Baron: And Dwayne Perkins who has become a friend is, I think, another comedian who makes it look very easy. And someone who I don't see performing as much as I would like to anymore because she's on "Parks and Recreation" now is Retta.
Desiree: She's so amazing, I love her.
Baron: She has such a presence, a commanding presence on stage, and talks about what the hell she wants to talk about.
Retta on Comedy Central
Calise: Michael reminds me a little bit of all the great guys I like. He's got a little bit of essence from Chappelle, a little bit of Patrice, a little bit of Chris Rock. Honestly, he has the essence of greatness developing right here. This is one of the guys to watch for sure.
Michael Che at the New York Comedy Festival
Phoebe: Lamont Price, he's a Boston guy. Lamont is amazing. He did Montreal and Aspen last year and he's very, very funny. Very brilliant. So yea, he's one of my favorites to watch. He's a beast in training.
Kamau: I'm also a huge fan of Hannibal. Here's a term that gets thrown around a lot, but Hannibal to me seems totally post-racial. Even though he's absurd, and he speaks in absurdities and it's all sort of crazy stuff, you really feel the presence of a very strong black man on stage. I love watching Paul Mooney. From the standpoint where I might not agree with everything he says, but there's something about the fact that that's a 70-year-old man on stage firing jokes at seemingly the top of his game. And I worked with Dick Gregory a couple times and I was amazed at how good he was, in his late 70s.
Baron: I was hoping you were going to bring them up. Paul Mooney, when you guys were talking about Patrice I kept thinking about Paul in some sort of way. Just because it's like they're of the same ilk. And Mooney is still doing it. I've seen him maybe three times, and just the way that he does a show and how he starts off... he walks people and he loves it.
Kamau: He escorts people out of the room.
Baron: And he will talk at them. "Get the fuck out of my room you fucking..." Oh, it's kind of amazing.
HuffPost: Along the lines of Mooney and Gregory, who were the most influential comedians for you, black or white, when you were a first exposed to comedy?
Michael: Damon Wayans. Other than Eddie Murphy, Damon Wayans was probably the first comedian...like the whole Wayans thing, like the "Hollywood Shuffle" and the "I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka" movies, and then "In Living Color" came out, like that was comedy to me. I think [Chris Rock's] "Bring The Pain" was, kind of, for my generation, the perfect storm of "Wow that's what a stand-up comedian can do."
Desiree: I think Bill Cosby "Himself" was the first thing I saw that was like comedy. And then Eddie Murphy, "Raw" and "Delirious" and I was like, "Ahhhh". And then Chris Rock came around when I was in college, and I was like, "Oh shit! Yes! Yes!" But I think my bigger influences, or just people that I was like, "This is what I want to do in comedy," have been Eddie Izzard and Bill Hicks.
Calise: What probably got me very interested was when I saw Andy Kaufman. I saw him when I was in college. A friend of mine showed me his special, and I was like, "Woah, who is this guy? What is he doing? What's his life like?" Andy Kaufman, Dave Chappelle, Billy Burr, Patrice O'Neal. That's my top four.
Kamau: One I would say that has been said before, but I can also relate myself to is Bill Hicks. When I heard Bill Hicks "Relentless", I was like, "That's how you can be a comedian?"
Baron: I have three paintings in my apartment, which are Pryor, Cosby, and Steve Martin. Those are probably my biggest 3 influences. And Eddie Murphy. And Robert Townsend, who was responsible for the "Partners In Crime" specials on HBO which I saw. And that was like the beginning of black sketch. If you saw "Partners In Crime", you saw all the Wayanses, but then you had Kim Coles, and you had Franklyn Ajaye, and you had Paul Mooney, and you had Robin Harris, and you had David Alan Grier...
Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime
HuffPost: Ok, to sort of wrap things up here. In the movie "Basquiat" with Jeffrey Wright, there's a moment where a writer is telling him why he's such a big deal, and the writer says, "There's never been a black painter in art history who's been considered really important." And Basquiat kind of balks at that and asks, "Are you a writer or a white writer?" How do you feel about that? Do you want people to see you as a comedian or a black comedian? Do you care?
Desiree: I just want people to see me.
Michael: I really don't care. It's not even about addressing it or anything. It's just, I'm going to say what I want to say. It might be about that I'm black, it might not be. I might not bring it up. But it's a unique living situation to be black in America, so there's going to be times where that becomes a part of what I have to say.
Calise: I definitely would like to be seen as a black female comedian, because I feel like when they cast these shows and when they promote comedians, they always get an ethnic person, whether it's a black man or something else, or they'll get a white girl. And then they go, "We don't need to hear from a black woman because we have a woman and we have a black".
Desiree: We have a black, we have a woman, we're done. The boxes have been checked off, yea.
Calise: So I want to be seen as a black female comedian because I don't feel like we're very well represented in the mainstream.
Phoebe: When you asked the question, I was like, "I just want to be seen as a comic!" But I kind of like Calise's answer! I think it's a good answer.
Kamau: I really like what Michael said about it. I think that as a comic on stage who talks about race a lot, which is me, I insist people see me as black. So I think it would be foolish of me to think, "I just want them to see me as a comedian!" when I'm the one who's reminding them that I'm black at all times. I do think that comedy is one of the few things out there where the funniest person in the country can be a person who's not white. Like, Chris Rock has been the funniest person in the country, not the funniest black person in the country, and I think it's an interesting thing about the entertainment industry and also athletics, that if you're the best at what you do, you can get that credit in comedy, and the color starts to melt away.
Baron: I want to be seen as a comedian by black people.
Calise: Pause for significance.
Baron: I guess I don't really care what people think as long as they are enjoying what I'm doing. I'm very conscious, maybe even too conscious, of what it means to be a black comedian and what people are projecting on me because of that. And I know it's the thing that probably gets in my way the most, that I get into my head about it. Like, "Oh, ok people aren't going to believe it if I say this!" I just want people to like what I'm doing.
Desiree: I have a thing where people don't want to see me as a black comedian at all. I've had too many people who try to make me not black, who are like, "You're not really black. You're light, and you went to Yale, and you talk like this, and you talk about this." So, somehow I'm not black. Although, fuck it, from 100 paces, I'm black. Ultimately, I just want people to think that I'm funny, and so that when I say what I have to say they're going to be listening and taking that in regardless of whether it's a gender thing, a racial thing, or just a thing.
Michael: Yeah that's the interesting thing because when people say, "Are you a black comedian?", they're really talking about a style as opposed to just, "Are you a black person."
Calise: We don't have to fall into the rhythmic stereotype of the performance, this black style of comedy, but we're all black people, so we're going to be speaking from a black perspective.
Baron: A black perspective. A bla-spective.
Phoebe: You're trying to make that work.
Michael: I don't mind it though, the whole black thing. Because I get what people are saying. There's a very specific culture that we have that everybody with black skin gets kind of broad-brushed with, even though there are black people from the Caribbean that might not have the same kind of upbringing as I had, or there might be black people that might have been brought up in white neighborhoods and went to Ivy League schools, and they have have all-white friends, and they don't talk like me, they don't dress like me. That's the thing, they're going to get painted with the same brush and say, "Well this is what black is because this is what we know black to be, and since you're not that, then you're not black," which is bullshit. But I also get what they're trying to say. It's like saying "black music". We all know what they're saying, but it's just for a lack of a better word in a lot of ways. We really don't know how to pinpoint that particular culture that we're talking about. We can call it, I don't know, urban or whatever. Black people, we're not really good with names. We don't like to be called anything. We hate to be called anything.
Baron: The only thing that bothers me is when black people don't like me. Like when I'm at a show and there are black audience members, if they don't enjoy me, that is what hurts. If white people don't enjoy me, anyone else, Asians, if they don't enjoy me, whatever. But if like black people are like, "M'eh", then I'm going to be bummed about it for a very long time.
Kamau: I always feel like some black people want a specific style of comedy, just like some white people expect black people to be a specific style of comedy. And I'm always of the opinion that we can agree to disagree, but that doesn't mean I'm not a comedian.
Calise: You know what else? There's a tone behind different styles of comedy that cross over even without the stereotype. There's a certain tone behind the old fashioned stereotype of the Def Jam style of comedy that also crosses over into a white style of comedy that has a very similar energy and tone to it. And people in the seats respond the same way to this kind of tone. It's not just the personality vocalizing the tone. Like what they said about music. If you're listening to a certain type of music, you dance a certain type of way. You laugh a certain type of way at a certain type energy. But I've seen every type of audience respond in every type of way.
Michael: I just think that there are so many taboos when you talk about "black this" or "black that." I know there's a particular culture that's going to be considered black culture. There's a particular way of doing things, there's a particular community, that's going to be representative of that, and it sucks but that's the way it is. And it's not about skin color. Of course I'm a black comedian. I can't not be a black comedian. I was born a black comedian. But there's gonna be jokes that I say where they're going to be like, "That's a black joke. That's a white joke." So whatever.
Calise: Every joke we tell is a black joke. That's all it comes down to.
Baron Vaughn & Phoebe Robinson can be seen at UCB East in NYC on February 4 at 8:30
Calise Hawkins can be seen at Luca Lounge in NYC on February 9 at 9pm
W. Kamau Bell can be seen performing at various colleges around the country in February
Desiree Burch can be seen performing her one-woman show in San Francisco from Feb 13-March 3
Michael Che can be seen Mondays at 8pm at Matchless Bar in Brooklyn & headlining Carolines on April 3rd