Some of the most iconic moments from HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” were about relationships, sex, and culture. But the comics who appeared on Russell Simmons and Bob Sumner’s stand-up show didn’t shy away from the current events of the time, either – everything from O.J. Simpson’s freeway chase to the beating of Rodney King and subsequent L.A. riots were fair game. So it’s no surprise that reuniting some of the best from the show’s original run for Netflix’s 25th anniversary special would come with ample commentary on the politics of today.
The “Def Comedy Jam 25” special, which was taped on Sept. 10 in Los Angeles, mixed live performances from Def Jam legends like Cedric the Entertainer, Adele Givens, Eddie Griffin, Tracy Morgan and Mike Epps with pre-taped messages from stars like Chris Rock and Kevin Hart as well as footage from classic sets.
Putting together so many quick-witted comedians under one roof for the taping (which Variety attended) meant a lot of riffing — and for most, that material came from what’s going on in the world around them. D.L. Hughley acknowledged those who were fighting for their lives aas Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on Florida. “As soon as there’s something like a hurricane, we’re all one America,” he said. “But as soon as it dries up, we go back to being shot.”
For the most part, Steve Harvey tried to stay out of the politics — and he didn’t want to partake in the cursing, either, often citing his family-friendly NBC show “Little Big Shots” and joking he wanted to still have a job in the morning. “The Talk” co-host Sheryl Underwood wasn’t as worried about offending her bosses at CBS, and set the tone early in the taping when she noted that comedians like the ones being celebrated as being a part of the Def Comedy Jam family “hold the mic” and will be heard enough to “not let this country go back to the old ways.”
After being tasked with one of the more serious scripted tosses to a clip package, Dave Chappelle asked for another take. The final line of his dialogue was, “Because that’s basically being black in America,” after discussing not always being accepted. “If we told them what being black in America is, would they believe us?” Chappelle asked the crowd. “There’s a white supremacist starter kit at Target – ‘Let me get some tiki torches and khaki pants and a f–ked up hair cut.’ And have we seen it all before? Yup!” Seeing actor and activist Jesse Williams in the crowd, he said, “Jesse, get up here and say something that will make white people feel terrible for 20 minutes.” (Williams famously delivered a speech at the BET Awards about the history of violence against African Americans in the U.S.)
But Chappelle didn’t stop there. He then pointed out his public school education meant he learned all he knows about politics from “Schoolhouse Rock” before leading the room in the first verse of “I’m Just a Bill.” He joked that most people probably know more of that song than the black national anthem, which he then led the room in singing.
Later in the show, Harvey was back on stage, this time with Hughley. Earlier this year, Harvey had sat down with Donald Trump to talk about inner-city issues and was quoted as saying Trump seemed “sincere” about change (and had called Trump “the most exciting candidate” he’d seen in years). Hughley turned to Harvey and said, “I loved you before he became president, and I’ll love you when he’s carted off to jail.” Harvey responded: “I’m not the reason he’s the motherf—ing president!”
Deon Cole went political, too, when he said, “Donald Trump said he was the worst treated president. So we’re just going to overlook the four that got murdered?” And Katt Williams, who spent a good amount of his time on stage making fun of himself (“Legally I can’t make it to all of the events, but Def Jam represented for us, so I have to represent for them”) made a graphic comparison between Trump’s behavior in the White House and erotic asphyxiation.
But “Def Comedy Jam 25” wasn’t all politics all the time. Former host Martin Lawrence applauded the producers who championed the show and gave voices to so many unknowns. Morgan paid tribute to Lawrence, who gave him his start in stand-up. Givens, who holds the record of being the other person (besides Lawrence) with the most appearances on the show, performed a set about getting older and dealing with everything from bad knees to false teeth but still being a “f—ing lady.” Tiffany Haddish moderated a mini panel of the women of “Def Comedy Jam.” A special “In Memoriam” clip package played, followed by a celebration of Bernie Mac (and yes, it came with cigars). And every “Def Comedy Jam” comic in attendance got on-stage with Simmons, who called himself the “face of so many hard-working individuals,” for a class reunion photo op.
Thankfully, what ultimately made the final cut of the special is not just the pre-scripted pieces, carefully crafted to tell a timeless narrative of “Def Comedy Jam’s” history, but also many of the ad-libs Variety witness at the taping that prove why these comedians are such legends. What truly makes “Def Comedy Jam” a classic is how it bred so many fearless comics. In 1992 “Def Comedy Jam” started a platform for these comedians to point out indignities in accessible ways. In 2017, the dialogue continues, with new generations of comics jumping in — and hopefully leading to change.
“Def Comedy Jam 25” will be available on Netflix on Sept. 26.