On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying and Signifying - the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor

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At a time when Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy are major stars and In Living Color is a hit show, it is easy to forget that it was only thirty years ago that Bill Cosby became the first black star of a network series. Now Mel Watkins has written the first comprehensive history of black American humor - from the public face of minstrelsy and vaudeville to the "real side" of the slave enclaves and urban street corners, from folklore to prime time. On the Real Side is a thoroughly documented account of a rich comic...
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Overview

At a time when Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy are major stars and In Living Color is a hit show, it is easy to forget that it was only thirty years ago that Bill Cosby became the first black star of a network series. Now Mel Watkins has written the first comprehensive history of black American humor - from the public face of minstrelsy and vaudeville to the "real side" of the slave enclaves and urban street corners, from folklore to prime time. On the Real Side is a thoroughly documented account of a rich comic tradition that grew out of slavery and remained underground for a century, before entering the mainstream in the 1970s. On the Real Side documents the stereotype of Negro humor established by nineteenth-century white minstrel performers who invariably portrayed blacks as irresponsible clowns or fools. Watkins traces the evolution of that distorted image in motion pictures and on stage, radio, and television - in the nation-wide craze created by the Amos 'n' Andy radio show, in Hollywood's representation of domestic servants (as portrayed by comic actors such as Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best, and Stepin Fetchit), and in the controversy surrounding the 1950s television version of Amos 'n' Andy. At the same time, Watkins chronicles the authentic underground humor that had originated in African-American communities and, although virtually unnoticed by mainstream society, was nurtured by word of mouth, passed on through folktales (from animal stories to trickster tales and urban tales such as "Stackolee"), and captured on race records and in all-black cabarets, films, and theaters. After generations of stereotypes and neglect, this hidden tradition finally emerged before general audiences with Richard Pryor in the 1970s. On the Real Side tells how pioneering humorists and comedians gradually altered the distorted stereotypes and revealed the impious undercurrents of black American humor and its critical appraisal of mainstream values. Watkins offers surprisi
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Declaring that African American humor ``shadows, satirizes and humanizes America's main body,'' Watkins delivers a rich and ambitious history of such humor both in the mainstream media and in the black community. A former editor at the New York Times , he draws on prodigious research to describe such aspects of black humor as the African sources of slave wordplay, the sources of the minstrel tradition, the Negro caricatures of Hollywood silent films and the controversy over Amos 'n' Andy. He examines the contributions of the oft-forgotten early 20th-century comedian Bert Williams and the brillant Richard Pryor, and ventures into such topics as literary humor and street folklore. Because Watkins's research is so deep and his interest historical, his study of the varieties (and controversies) in black comedy after Richard Pryor is brief. This extensive compilation makes a valuable contribution to our cultural history. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Feb.)
Library Journal
This book is a detailed look at the history of black humor from slavery days to current times. The author has been an editor of literary magazines, lectured at several universities, and written numerous magazine articles. Here, he assembles every fact he could find on African American humor and demonstrates how it is different from the humor of other ethnic groups, and shows where pieces of it have found their way into mainstream comedy. He includes many examples of the comedy styles of prominent comedians of each era he discusses. The research here is carefully documented and detailed. Highly recommended for academic libraries and larger public libraries with collections on humor, black studies, or entertainment.-- Anita L. Cole, Miami-Dade P.L. System, Fla.
Alice Joyce
Watkins surveys African American humor in an expansive and penetrating study that probes many facets of black American culture. Exploring ties to tribal sources in Africa, Watkins traces modes of behavior employed by African Americans for coping with the untenable situation of slavery. He also examines traditions such as minstrel shows, where distorted portrayals of blacks were commonplace. Watkins goes on to examine images of black Americans in vaudeville and silent movies, and to highlight entertainers in radio and television, literature, film, and the music industry. Above all, Watkins comprehensively records the history of African American comedy performers and the social constraints affecting their artistry. Fascinating and highly readable, this is also a copiously researched work of scholarship.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671689827
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/4/1994
  • Pages: 656

Table of Contents

Introduction 11
Prologue: Black Humor ... what it is 15
Pt. 1 Antecedents
Ch. 1 Slavery ... "don't nobody know my name but me" 45
Ch. 2 Minstrelsy ... the die is cast 80
Ch. 3 Black Minstrelsy to Vaudeville ... black on black 104
Pt. 2 The Outside: African-American Comedy on Stage, Screen, and Radio
Ch. 4 Vaudeville and Early Twentieth-Century Black Humor ... the blackening of America 137
Ch. 5 Hollywood's Silent Years ... the curse of a nation 181
Ch. 6 The New Negro: Harlem and Hollywood ... exotics, imposters, and other misshapen identities 200
Ch. 7 Radio and Early Television ... racial ventriloquy, black soaps and servants 266
Pt. 3 The Real Side: Invisible Lives and Clandestine Humor
Ch. 8 Race Records and Black Films ... sounds and visions in black and blue 327
Ch. 9 The Theatre Owners Booking Association and the Apollo Theatre ... changing the joke and slipping the yoke 363
Ch. 10 Literary Reflections of African-American Humor ... depictions of things unseen 400
Ch. 11 Folklore and Street Humor ... "if you grinnin' you in 'em" 443
Ch. 12 The New Comics ... what you see is what you get 479
Ch. 13 Pryor and Thereafter ... on the real side 526
Notes 571
Selected Bibliography 603
Index 623
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