Retrospective: The Golden Era Of Black Comedy (1988-1996)

By @TrueGodImmortal

Once upon a time, black comedy was our truth. Long before the incessant need for overstated Vine videos (RIP, and we shall not mention this Vine 2 nonsense), comedians without their own identity, and an overly sensitive society, we were in a time of renaissance, a time of greatness. As the 80's were gearing up to come to a close, our culture was being permeated by the truth tellers and verbal geniuses of our time. When hip hop was hitting the very peak of its quality and popularity, so was black comedy. The 70s and early 80's had seem domination of the black comedy scene by names like Bill
Cosby, Redd Foxx, and Richard Pryor, all of whom are legends in their own right for different reasons. Pryor was outlandish for his time, more honest about his personal shortcomings and demons than most. Foxx was a mix of outlandish honesty and self depreciation in the same breath, while Bill teetered the line between good natured comedy and clean hilarity. Up until the mid 80's, it was mostly these three names mentioned as the faces of black comedy, while films and sitcoms like Uptown Saturday Night, Good Times, and The Jeffersons served as the fodder to draw in our demographic to the theaters and in front of the television. It was decent representation, but honestly, it wasn't enough. As the 80's moved on, things began changing, and soon, a new face of comedy would emerge.

As we reached the middle of the 80's, comedy had a new king and his name was Eddie Murphy. Inspired by Pryor, Foxx, and Cosby, along with others like Lenny Bruce and more, Eddie was essentially the face of black comedy for a number of years, turning his somewhat brief  Saturday Night Live gig into an iconic comedy special titled Delirious and a hit movie career. In many ways, Eddie was the true trailblazer for the path many other black comedians would follow. Pryor had been in a few movies that did well, but his success hadn't reached the level that Eddie would, and the same could be said for Redd Foxx, who would be most known for his role as Fred G. Sanford on the classic sitcom Sanford and Son. While he was successful as well, Eddie would be the one to knock down doors that comedians of the past  hadn't even attempted to unlock. 

With mainstream success and fame comes a bit of a backlash, and Eddie was surely not exempt from this. After the release of Delirious, he would face small backlash, but still manage to turn his success into a second (and better) comedy special, and even bigger movie success. After the roles he played in hits like Trading Places and 48 Hrs, Eddie would step into a different realm when he released Coming To America alongside fellow comedian Arsenio Hall and then he would step behind the camera to direct and star in his own film Harlem Nights, a passion project that would feature the aforementioned legends Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. While many consider the movie to be a classic, it is a landmark film that represents every era of black comedy up until that point and set the tone for what I like to consider, the golden age of black comedy.

It was around 1988/1989 when a larger influx of black comedians began showing up and became more visible. The Wayans family had arrived through their parody films that took badly executed movies and ideas and turned them into comedic flips, with their biggest success being the 1988 release I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. Hollywood Shuffle was a few years prior, and it would paint the picture of the reality of the industry for black comedies and actors at the time. Keenan Ivory Wayans would get his start here, given a shot by Robert Townsend, who directed the film. Keenan would receive another big look when the King of Comedy at the time gave him a chance as a writer and producer on his second big time comedy special. Eddie Murphy's second comedy special Raw would feature Keenan as a producer, showcasing that when black comedians work together, great results can be achieved. Following Hollywood Shuffle, Raw, and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a sizable amount of black comedians began rising to prominence through different avenues, mostly connected to other black comedians and outlets. Through the comedy circuits and clubs, a lot of comedians were making names for themselves, earning the attention of directors and producers who saw the benefit in black comedians for a variety of roles. Over the years, we would see these some comedians experience a rise in stature because of this. Some were seen as legends, some didn't get the credit they deserved, some are underrated legends. 

One of the most underrated comedians during this time would be Robin Harris. He was brash, outlandish, bold, and he was unafraid to say the things he felt necessary in his comedy, with no concern for those who may or may not be offended. He would have his acting debut in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, before having smaller roles in the Spike Lee films Do The Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues. His biggest claims to fame are his role as the father in House Party and of course, the hilarious Bebe's Kids routine that would eventually become a classic animated feature. He would unfortunately pass away while the original idea of a feature film was in pre production, so as a result, it became the animated feature. The result would end up being one of the most important things in his career, with his legacy carrying on even in death. My personal favorite role of his came in House Party, as he was the funniest part of that entire movie, but I also found his role in Do The Right Thing to be entertaining as well. He managed to bring his charisma to each role, providing a template for some comedians that followed him and carving his own personal lane.

The black comedy world was such a unified one at the time that another legendary comedian came about at the same time as Robin, and in the same avenues as well. Martin Lawrence, a brash young comedian at the time, would get his first big shot in Do The Right Thing and House Party, with House Party being the more prominent role in his career. Martin was a stand up comedian who came up through the circuit and would gain more popularity with each role he got. He would follow up those initial roles by appearing in House Party 2 and Boomerang, alongside Eddie Murphy, David Alan Grier, and yet another future comedic star in Chris Rock, who had a small but hilarious role. As I mentioned, black comedy was one big circle in this golden era, and the unity amongst those comedians was honestly amazing to see. 

Long before these names turned into superstars, they were giving each other shots and helping putting each other on in a way. For Martin, after smaller roles in House Party 2 and Boomerang, he would get two huge jobs that would change his life and career forever. The first would end up being his all time classic self titled sitcom that is still regarded as one of the best black shows ever and one of the best comedic programs in television history. The show is still my personal favorite sitcom ever, and the episodes have honestly aged like fine wine, remaining just as funny, if not funnier than they were initially. The second job that Martin would get that would change his career was as the host of a new stand up comedy program that was coming to HBO. This show was produced by Russell Simmons and it was titled Def Comedy Jam. Def Comedy Jam would become the breeding ground for a lot of the next comedians to take the world by storm and it all started with Martin as the host. He was brash, loud, wild, and not afraid to make fun of the audience or himself, something that made him relatable and fun to laugh at.

While Martin was the next in line for a shot at superstardom, there were paths and roads being paved for others through Def Comedy Jam. Previously, most of the comedians who were able to get attention had to have a connection or work hard on the circuit to gain a movie role or small time comedy special. Def Comedy Jam changed the comedy game for black comedians. Prior to Def Comedy Jam, HBO would have 30 minute specials for a number of comedians, including Damon Wayans, but none of those compared to the level of exposure that Def Comedy Jam could bring. It was fun, it was fresh, it was raunchy, it was hip hop, but most of all, it was a platform. This platform was used to bring about a number of hilarious comedians that you might not ever get the chance to hear from anywhere else, from Shucky Ducky to Hamburger to Laura Hayes to Adele Givens to Sheryl Underwood to a number of others. These weren't household names, but on Def Comedy Jam, they were treated like royalty so to speak. At this time, Martin was enjoying living both the host life and the television life, before getting back to the film world shortly after leaving Def Comedy Jam as the host in 1993. Before he left however, some bigger stars were born, and I'll get to those in a second. 

Martin would drop his first standup special, You So Crazy, shortly after releasing his first comedy album, Martin Lawrence Live: Talking Shit. While all this was going on, Def Comedy Jam was still flourishing, bringing new comedians to the forefront and making some stars in the process. Prior to Martin leaving, one of those stars, Bernie Mac, would become iconic based on one solitary performance that still resonates today. After Martin had trouble calming an unusually hostile crowd, Bernie Mac came out and let it be known, as simple as possible, "I Ain't Scared Of You Muthafuckas!", which has became one of his most infamous phrases instantly. What was special about his set was that he showed no fear of the hostile crowd. He went out, took control, and by the end, he had them on their feet giving a standing ovation. That's when the star was born. At that moment, Bernie Mac became the MAN. While his roles in films weren't hugely substantial, he would still manage to steal the show in every movie he was in. Whether as Uncle Vester in House Party 3 (Martin departed from the House Party franchise after the 2nd one), Flip in Above The Rim, the pastor in Friday, or even a brief role in the Wayans' hood classic parody Don't Be A Menace, Bernie would shine through the screen with ease. Of all these roles, my favorite of his would have to be his role in Friday as the pastor alongside Ice Cube and another Def Comedy Jam legend, Chris Tucker.

Chris Tucker would see his star grow based on his charismatic style and extremely unique and loud voice, and he too would end up taking his talents from Def Comedy Jam to the big screen. His most infamous bit on Def Comedy Jam has to be his imagining of Michael Jackson as a pimp, and from that one iconic moment, he would make his film debut in House Party 3 (alongside Bernie Mac, Kid N Play, and others... see how connected all these comedians were), as Johnny Booze. His breakout role would of course be in Friday, alongside another Def Comedy Jam alumni who had already made a name for himself prior in John Witherspoon. The world of comedy was so vastly connected in this golden age, and with Chris Tucker using his platform on Def Comedy Jam to catapult himself into a very successful movie career. He wasn't the only Chris who utilized a platform to gain more film success, as there is one Chris in the comedy with bigger stature than Tucker that came about around the same time from a familiar link.

Chris Rock got his official big start in the Wayans' parody I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a hilarious film that positioned him to steal the show with his infamous "one rib" scene. Prior to that, Rock had been featured in comedy clubs through New York, and had a small role in Beverly Hills Cop 2, thanks to Eddie Murphy. He would end up landing roles in New Jack City and Boomerang after ending up as a regular on Saturday Night Live, following a path that Eddie Murphy had set prior. His departure from the show would allow him to be on his own accord, and he was very successful in doing so. Starting with appearances on In Living Color, his own low budget film CB4, and his own HBO specials like Big Ass Jokes and Bring The Pain, Chris Rock took the opportunity he was originally given from Eddie, and he ran with it beyond what anyone could have expected. Speaking of Eddie, another comedian that came from Def Comedy Jam would garner a small but memorable role in a 1996 film of his, after making his name on the Def Jam stage. The biggest role for Dave Chappelle minus his role in the underwhelming Robin Hood film came in The Nutty Professor, and who could have guessed that Chappelle would go on to be one of the greatest comedians of his era and beyond. That's the beauty of the golden era of black comedy. There were so many talented names and faces that everyone worked to carve out their lane. We haven't seen anything quite like it since, and there's mostly just been one solid comedian at the forefront of every era that followed. With all the names listed so far, it's no telling this was the golden era of black comedy, but the quality of comedians doesn't stop there.

Def Comedy Jam gave us so many legends that went on to be successful, with Eddie Griffin gaining notoriety with a Michael Jackson joke that seemingly caught the eye of every producer and director that paid aattention. He would eventually go on to be a part of his own sitcom, Malcolm and Eddie, with Malcolm Jamal Warner as his costar. Another two comedians from the Def Jam stage are Steve Harvey and Cedric The Entertainer, and they would end up taking their comedy talents from the stage to the small screen on The Steve Harvey show. 
Even comedians like Joe Torry, Tracy Morgan, and Bill Bellamy would find success through their avenue on Def Comedy Jam, making this the most successful outlet for black comedy in history. Another important but smaller outlet would be In Living Color, which essentially introduced the world to Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, the younger Wayans brothers Marlon and Shawn, but most importantly, Jamie Foxx. Jamie Foxx is another legend that came from this era, and we've all seen his work, starting with the Jamie Foxx Show, which ran for 5 years, along with his roles in films like The Player's Club (alongside Bernie Mac), and Booty Call (alongside another solid comedian in Tommy Davidson). It's so interesting how many comedians in the black comedy world were connected and had their careers take off at the same.

In all honesty, we may never see a time like this in our culture again. A number of successful black comedians, all working together, and creating opportunities for each other? Nowadays, that would sound like a foreign concept, but in this golden era, it was the norm. Look at the names. Eddie Murphy, Martin, Arsenio, Bernie, Cedric, Steve, Jamie, Marlon, Shawn, Chris Rock, Chappelle, Chris Tucker, Eddie Griffin, Joe Torry, Bill Bellamy, Robin Harris, Sheryl, Adele Givens, and so many more in the same era. 1988-1996 is the golden era for black comedy and we will likely never see an era quite like this one. The golden era of black comedy gave us legend after legend, hilarious moment after hilarious moment, and I will forever remember this time period for every special joke and laugh it gave me and many others.



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