I don't know if I've told you how much I love good comedies! I love to take a laugh break - especially if things have been rather stressful or I've been burning the candle at both ends - going to meetings, events, planning sessions - or if the meanstream media is providing it's bill of faire of CNN - continuously negative news.
So with all the T-Rump hype, and the attempts at lynching Bill Cosby via the meanstream media, recently I took a walk down memory lane and plugged into some of the predecessors of our contemporary comedians: Amos and Andy from the TV series of the 50's and Mantan Moreland from the 30's and 40's. Yes, these are the guys who have been castigated as being
"coons and buffoons" by their own people - rather than being valued for what they truly were - absolute comedic geniuses - and you had to be if you lived in the era of Jim Crow and segregation (i.e. American Apartheid). At least they were being funny on purpose - not like Ben Carson - who is a joke a minute. These men had honed their craft and did us proud.
They were able take the stereotype, turn them on their ear and make you laugh in the process - and not only get paid, but in the case of Mantan Moreland, if his name wasn't prominently placed in the cast, most people wouldn't even go to see the story. Can you imagine how Frankie Darro (his white counterpart in many of the movies must have felt? He was actually playing second fiddle to Mantan Moreland's reactions, turns of phrase - witty and witless sayings.
I am ever grateful to my Mother, Ruby Love, for showing us these characters when we were still young enough to develop a true sense of humor. She went to see them in the movies when she was a teenager. Oklahoma had its own Black owned movie theaters - the East Side, the Jewel and the Aldrich - all built, owned and run by Black entrepreneurs. They were still there when I grew up; and as a little tyke, I spent many a Sunday outing with my parents at the movies. We saw a great many of the classics in the movies, along with the contemporary - like Ruby Dee in Ana Lucasta, or The Jackie Robinson Story; as well as whatever was playing in the other meanstream movies.
But Mom always said that a good sense of humor is the sign of high intelligence; and that if you had to explain a joke to someone, they were ignorant, sick and sad.
After you guys loaded up my FB page with all these horrid photos and sayings of T-Rump, I snapped and decided I needed to take a "Brain Break!!" As I was scanning the YOUTUBE listings, I came across a movie that had Mantan Moreland's name prominently place. As I scrolled down, I began to notice that there were several movie titles with his name in it. Initially, I was turned off; then, it hit me - Mantan Moreland, a Black man, had made all these movies 80 to 90 years ago - wow! This was history in and of itself.
So I watched one movie, and found myself laughing hysterically. I watched another, thing plot, but same comedic genius. All totaled, I watched at least 12 movies where Mantan Moreland was either star or had second billing - and realized that he was waaaaay ahead of his time - using pratfalls and physical comedic routines as his tour de force - he had me rolling on the floor laughing myself silly. What was really special about him was that he was co-starring with a white lead actor in a day and time when most Black actors weren't mentioned until somewhere way down in the cast of characters - maybe around the 11th or 12th person. Here he was getting top billing. There are a series of movies starting around 1938 through 1946 where he was prominently placed as second banana - (NOTE: there were a couple of offensive scenes in the Mantan Moreland series that definitely warranted the criticism that came from the Black community as a result - one where whites appeared in blackface; and another where he was insulted by one of the white male actors - who later ended up dead in the story, by the way - but, I consider that mild, in an era of rampant Jim Crowism.) Actually, by and large the roles were no more negative than they would be had we been watching Laurel and Hardy; Abbott and Costello; the Marx Brothers; Danny Kaye; Richard Pryor - all of whom used comedic gestures, reactions, physical comedic routines to make the audience laugh - and I enjoy them just as much as I did Mr. Moreland's work. I also found that he had co-starred prominently in most of the old Charlie Chan genre movies with Keye Luke. They made quite a team.
NOTE By the way, if you want to see Mantan Moreland at his best, check him out in DRUMS OF THE DESERT - it will blow your mind! And it was made long before the Tuskeegee Airmen were even conceived of in the US.
I later had a flashback to Black in the back day when I was a kid watching Amos 'n Andy on TV with my parents. So I checked to see if there were any old Amos and Andy movies online - and I truly want to thank the person who posted their first year episodes 1 through 26 on Youtube. I've never laughed so hard in all my days. Malappropisms - which is the hallmark of their comedy - abounded - the plots were pure genius. And I realized how much we lost when this great show and the cavalcade of Black talent was removed from TV - a result of NAACP - our Civil Rights leadership at the time - viewed their work as it as an insult to the image of Black people; as opposed to the ability to laugh at one's self, despite the disparities of the overall meanstream society. They were too busy trying to "assimilate" and show they could be as "dignified" as any white person, that they picketed, wrote letters, and had the shows cancelled after two years on the air! It threw thousands of capable, competent, talented comedic and dramatic actors and actresses out of work, not to mention technicians, and craftsmen and artists! They actually set us back in TV by at least 30 years, with the NAT KING COLE SHOW being the sole survivor.
|l-r: Amos, Kingfisher & Andy|
They selected Spencer Williams, to portray Andy - who was always getting duped by his good old friend THE KING FISHER. Williams was a genius- Black producer, writer, actor, performer in his own right, having produced several all Black movies in the 40's. (NOTE: I've watched his original movies from the 30's and 40's and got a kick out of his capacity to go from comedian to villain in the same story. And what can one say about Kingfish! portrayed by Tim Moore. He was the key character in the story, around which most of the p)lots turned - always scheming and getting himself and others into hot water. When we were kids my classmates imitating him when somebody came up with something absurd "Holy Mack-el dere!" Hilarious! Ernestine Wade played Sapphire, his wife - who was always on his case; along with his mother in law. Amos, a taxi driver who proudly owned his own business, served as the narrator, straight man and wise one throughout the story line. And Calhoun - portrayed by the great Jester Harrison (who later starred in other contemporary sitcoms - "AMEN" with Sherman Helmsley, Anna Marie Horsford and Clifton Davis, comes to mind) - was hilarious as the almost lawyer - who was prominently figured in most of Kingfish's deceptions.
I can remember my mom and dad, and all of us, laughing til we hurt ourselves. I also remember how much we enjoyed seeing our own people on TV in the fine art of being themselves. We were so proud of them! While they used malapropisms liberally, not all of the dialogue was laced with improper English. In fact, Sapphire always spoke totally grammatically correct English, as did the other female characters - in contrast to the male characters. Amos, who served as straightman and narrator mixed it up, depending on whether he was imparting some words or wisdom, or in character with his co-stars.
Their community was set in New York City - presumably Harlem - but an upscale Harlem, where people dressed well, were employed, had their own businesses, private clubs, all the trappings of a balanced, positive, prominent community. Absent were the perjoratives, the profanity, the n-words, put downs and other hostile remarks that characterize our contemporary comedy. Missing is the gangsta attitude and behavior that are supposed to be funny, but miss the mark for me. They were Black but they didn''t have to say it - they just had to be it. It was like a private peek into our communities from Black in the day. They're not being or acting subservient to whites, each other, or anybody else - they're being who they are in the context of their community while the rest of the world is looking in. The number and caliber of guest artists who appeared in the show was amazing - some were recurring performing different characters. Joe Adams, who played Husky Miller in the movie version of Carmen Jones, was one of many actors who would repeatedly appear as a variety of characters.
(NOTE: in school, we kids would try to imitate Kingfish: "Holy makc'l, there - you wouldn't be tryin' to bamboozle me, no would yuh!!" And we'd all crack up laughing at the one who came closest to imitating him.)
Anyway, I'm saluting these Pioneer Black Comedic Geniuses who have blazed the trail Like they say - make 'em laugh!!
Now, of course there others from Black in the day - who do fit the perjoratives we've lodged against them as "cooning"- like Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry); Willie Best, and others, who epitomized the "uncle Tom" imagery we look down on; or the great Butterfly McQueen, who appeared in Gone With the Wind ("Ms. Scarlet, I don't know nothin about birthin no babies!") - I still cringe watching them. But they would not have had any opportunity to have been on the screen had they not brought that talent with them - sad to say.
The depictions in Bamboozled - staring Damon Wayons depicted some of the more stereotypical roles Black comedic actors were forced to play - of course off stage they were intellectuals, intelligent, upright and positive - but could never be cast to play the serious roles.
But where would Jack Benny have been without Eddie "Rochester" Anderson? Most people think that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were the first Black/White comedy team - but they would be on the late show with that. Not only was Rochester popular, other white artists wanted to work with him in their movies as well (TOPPER RETURNS).
|Eddie Rocherster Anderson with Lena Horne|
Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder (SILVERSTREAPY; Danny Glover and Mel Gibson; Bill Cosby and Robert Culp - I SPY; Will Smith and Tommie Lee Jones (Men In Black I, II, III); Ben Vereen and Jeff Goldblum in Tenspeed and Brownshoe - it didn't go any where, but we enjoyed it. Or how about Jackie "Moms" Mabley! She was amazing.
Not wanting to sound like a total prude - there were no four letter words, "b" words, or the other genre that passes for comedy today - and if you watched them now, you'll still find yourself rolling on the floor with laughter.
This is Black History Month! This is, in fact, the 90th Anniversary of the establishment of Black History Month by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Not everybody led a picket line, or sat down on a bus - there were many who took one for us by being the first, or only Black in a movie; or on TV, or on stage - and they were brilliant at what they did. This is not an exhaustive list - I'm sure there are others that you, your parents, or grandparents could name as well - please feel free to add them to the list. These are the ones who made it possible for the Richard Pryors, the Wayans (a comedic/production/acting dynasty in their own right), Bernie Mack, Trever Noah, and so many other great Black comedians of today, to be who they are. We have to salute those brothers and sisters who kept us laughing through our tears!
Now that you know, what are you going to do about it?
Stay Blessed &