Black Comedians Adapt to Obama Era. Is ‘Angry’ Out?

Daniel B. Wood and Gloria Goodale, Christian Science Monitor, November 28, 2008

When Richard Pryor appeared as a black president in a skit on “Saturday Night Live” in 1977, it was his angry black street patter that got the laughs. Now that the one-time fantasy has become reality, African-American keepers of the national funny bone are having to reassess much of their material.

Can they rail against the establishment now that a black man’s in charge?

African-American comedian Joe Holt had the audience howling at the Los Angeles Improv Nov. 2, with his portrayal of a fictitious presidential debate moderated by his own father, playing the stereotypical, angry street black: “Obama, where do you get off?”

“Uh, well, I, uh, will tell you exactly where I get off. I am going to help Joe the Plumber, end the recession, and restore sight to the blind.”

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If the 2008 election signals a sea change in American racial and class attitudes, the first signs are likely to come from African-American comedians. At comedy venues all over Los Angeles, they’re trying out new material about Obama—his nearly angelic politeness, his youth, vigor, good looks, and model family.

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“We can’t just rely on the woe-is-me clichés anymore,” he [D.J. Lemon, a New York-based comedian] says in an interview. Dealing with being hopeful is much trickier than relying on the social barriers against blacks, he adds. “The audacity of hope was his mission and he was successful with that, and we are going to have to go as far as we can with that.”

Ditto for John Henton, a two-decade veteran of the “The Tonight Show” as well as the “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Mr. Henton says he is already working up a bit based on the fact that wife Michelle is taller and huskier than Barack.

“Barack is kind of skinny, and so I’m figuring they don’t have arguments, they have fights,” says Henton. “One day Barack will appear at a press conference with a Band-Aid, get asked about it, and reply, ‘I fell, I’m clumsy. Next question.’”

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Obama’s election is a “momentous occasion, a game-changer for many blacks as they readjust their perspective on what’s possible,” says Joseph Boskin, professor emeritus of history at Boston University and author of “Humor and Social Change in Twentieth Century America.” “Many black comedians who have based their humor in victim mentality are going to have to reassess.”

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