A standout image from this capsule history of black comedy is Dick Cavett interviewing Richard Pryor and Eddie
Murphy. The whitest man in America trying to understand why these black comics make him — us — laugh. He doesn’t get anywhere, but the bits are very funny, as is much of this clip-rich HBO special.
From Stepin Fetchit to Sinbad, black comedy in America has come a long way in the century coveredhere. Its thorough chronology traces roots of “In Living Color” in minstrel shows. How Eddie Cantor learned from Bert Williams. How Eddie (Rochester) Anderson turned the “comic servant” cliche on its head.
Early accounts of forgotten performers from the ’30s and ’40s are fascinating. Clips of a skinny-kid Pryor (who also exec produced this special) and a beardless Dick Gregory on “The Steve Allen Show” are a revelation. Allen, along with Gregory, Russell, Della Reese and Keenen Ivory Wayans, are interviewed for insights and influences.
This being HBO, there are also lots of dirty jokes, thanks to Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy and up-and-comers like Martin Lawrence. Inevitably, nerdy academics are consulted for boring theories on Comic X’s use of “the frank sexuality of today’s relationships.” Zzzzz.
Then it’s back to a clip of Flip Wilson doing “Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now,” which was mo’ funny than a lot of what passes for comedy (black or white) today.