COMEDY in BLACK AND WHITE
It’s Thursday night at the Comedy Cellar Underground in the West Village. Ardie Fuqua, a frenetically cheery, fast talking MC stalks the stage. “It’s African History Month, folks. And I see we got people from fucking Finland here and England and Kansas and L.A. We got Latinos here. I love Latinos. But where the fuck are my people?” I look around me. He’s right. There isn’t a single black person in the audience. Yet half of the comics in the line-up are black.
Greer Barnes, for instance—-a grizzled, slow talking veteran from the David Chapelle Show and Comedy Central opens with a fairly innocuous riff about basketball.
I know. I know. I’m a tall black man. I should be a b ball player. And I tried. But my vocabulary’s too big.
The house cracks up. He then segways into a routine about black vs white parenting.
All you white people. You parents? You need us. You do. You ever see white kids screaming on an airplane. Their mothers all smiling and pleading. Come on, Johnny. Let’s use our inside voice. Last time I was on a flight, I finally stood up and turned around.
Why don’t you just shut the fuck up, kid, and sit down. The house howls.
And so do I. Not because I relate to the white mother. Or because I believe in Barnes stereotype of a black parent. No, I laugh because Barnes speaks the truth. Because he says out loud what I only wish I could say in similar situations.
All great comedy is based on truth, of course. Often ugly truths. But men like Barnes, who is a great comic, give the audience permission to laugh at these ugly truths by laughing the loudest at themselves. Take his New York City cops on horses routine.
Barnes mimics the clip clop, clip clop, the shying, prancing movement of the horses, and the cop leaning down to speak to the man.
You’re under arrest, buddy. Get on.
Barnes laughs and looks out at the audience.
You can’t put a brother on the back of a horse with hands tied behind his back. Barnes laughs again. Ditto the audience.
He’s gonna fall off is all I’m saying. So what they gonna do is tie you to the back of the horse. (And here he mimics being dragged behind the horse on the street.)
Water, Water, Greer whispers. Mr Lincoln says we free!
I smile. I’m also uncomfortable (which is a good sign. Great comedy is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable.) But no one laughs harder at the ‘punch line’ than Barnes himself. And had there been a single African American in the audience, they would have shared the laughter in a way I could not. They would have recognized and appreciated that this wasn’t a routine, it was a reality. A desolate, desperate reality. Obviously, cops don’t drag African Americans behind them on horses. Not anymore. That’s a gross exaggeration. But the ugly truth is that it’s no joke, living as a black man in America today. It’s a nightmare. A fact Barnes underlines, yet again, when he veers onto the subject of Trayvon Martin.
So, who stood up for him? Where were all those famous NBA players? You
imagine if they’d just refused to play a couple of games? Now, THAT wouldda made you white people pay attention, right? But no. They all put on hoodies. Shit. What a difference that made, huh? Putting on hoodies.
There isn’t a sound in the room.
OK, I hear you. Let’s talk about penises . The room guffaws.
Talk about a fine art. Not the penises. That’s an easy laugh—like jokes about drinking, drugs, and excrement. It defuses the tension. But watching this incredibly delicate dance, the balancing act between what an audience senses is dangerous and what they feel is safe when it comes to acknowledging a truth? And how Barnes makes us complicit, responsible, for helping create that truth? Sublime.
I used to think that paying someone to make you laugh was like paying someone to make you come; that it was exploitative, sad, a form of cheating. As for stand-up? It was scary to watch.
“The verbal equivalent of rock climbing in a blindfold,” is how my brilliant friend/writer, Brendan Bernhard, describes it. But this might also be why I have now become so addicted to it. I admire the rawness, the risk, the recklessness. I’m also astonished by the age of the audience. They are so ludicrously young. As a generation that otherwise lives in a culture as earnest and unfunny, as terrifyingly cautious as ours—a culture obsessed with the selfie and cat videos, and endless Instagram photos of food and beach vacations … Well, maybe, these brief encounters with uglier truths, maybe their passion for comedy, will save us.
Then again as comic, Dan Soder, points out:
This new generation? They’re the ones gonna defend us, right? But how are they gonna do that when they’re allergic to gluten and lactose and fucking peanuts and the sun. How they gonna win a war when they’re armed with nothing but EPI pens?