I have made it a point, since I started writing this column, to focus during February, Black History Month, at least one column on some aspect of “Black Experience.” I have written something about or related to Black folk each Sunday during the month. I could not let this month pass without saying something about Blacks and their contributions to the growth and development of our country.
Some of my subjects have been controversial, such as am uncle of ours by the name of Tom, and Willie Lynch. Brown v Board of Education and how segregation positively impacted economic growth for Blacks have been serious subjects. Yet other subjects like the controversial “Amos ‘n Andy” show were entertaining and funny. Thus, I went back into my archives and dug up a column that was not written for Black History Month but is certainly appropriate in terms of our Blackness. You must recall how we used to laugh; laughter that came from the jokes we told, as well as jokes from Black comedians. These clean jokes were quite prevalent in Black communities back in the day.
Today, you go to clubs or you watch cable television where comedians are featured and you know what to expect. The jokes are full of expletives and foul language; language I have characterized in past columns as only fitting for a drunken sailor. The f-word is used so often that some feel it has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. This is especially true of our youth. It seems that stories of violence and sex, augmented with the f-word, the b-word and s-word are considered necessary to make the joke funny. I am not one who finds these so-called jokes very funny. In fact, I find them disgusting. I suspect there are many who, have a thirst for those clean, funny jokes that caused us to roll on the floor, back in the day. Just consider the following, which not only resulted in our rolling on the floor but also caused our laugher to bring us to tears:
“The other day, my boyfriend came over to my house and hit me upside my head. I asked what that was for. He replied, for general principle. Now, I know that he was lying because I hadn’t seen General Principal in about nine months.” These are the words of the late great comedian, Jackie “Moms” Mabley.For my money, Moms Mabley was the funniest lady, if not the funniest person, in the world.
Most of you from the past will recall Moms Mabley … how she refused to tell her age and how she always talked about young men. Recall her saying, “The only thing an old man can do for me is to show me the way to a young man?” She said people accused her of liking young men, and she was guilty. She would say, “I’d rather pay the fare of a young man from New York to California than to tell an old man the distance.” She talked about her old boyfriend who couldn’t do anything because he got out of breath just picking his teeth? We laughed uncontrollably whenever we listened to her album, “Moms Mabley at the Geneva Conference.” Can you see the cover of this album, with Moms, Premier Khrushchev and Prime Minister Fidel Castro? Her reference to Khrushchev as “Mr. Clean” and her advice to Castro not to sit in a box at the theater because that is the way Lincoln “got it” are examples of her fresh, clean, humor. Many of “Moms” Mabley’s jokes will always stand out in my mind. I still tell her story about doing housework for a lady who would not pay her. Since her employer would not pay her for doing housework, she went upstairs and got in bed. She decided to stay in bed until she was paid. Her employer, thinking that she was ill, called the doctor. The doctor arrived and asked, “Moms, what’s bothering you? Are you real sick?” Moms replied, “No, I’m not sick, but I’ve been working for this lady for over four months and she won’t pay me. So, I’m going to stay in this bed until I’m paid.” The doctor replied, “Move over a bit.”
Moms was also hard on ugly people. She regularly told the story of the man who took his wife with him everywhere he went, as he did not want to leave her home. Why? Well, according to Moms Mabley, the wife was so ugly the husband did not want to have to kiss her goodbye.
I do not want to get involved in the controversy regarding the television series “Amos ‘n Andy.” It is my favorite show reflecting Black humor. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, one thing cannot be denied; the show was funny. “Kingfish, if you is thinking, what I’s thinks you is thinking, then I’s thinks you done ‘thonk’ something.” These are the words of Andy Brown, the sidekick of Kingfish on the show. Now, tell me that this is not funny.
Earlier, there were other popular Black comedians like Rochester, Mantan Moreland, Stepin Fetchit, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham and others who contributed to the clean fun we experienced in the past. You must have compared the laughter of Black folk with that of white folk. It appears we know how to let it all hang out. Ours are big hearty laughs. White folk, on the other hand, appear to struggle to laugh Could it be that our hearty laughs are the result of a need to inject some humor into the struggles we experienced so often in the past?
Too many of us remember Redd Foxx as a vulgar old, man. But there was another side of him that was in keeping with humor, as we knew it back in the day. Consider the following Redd Foxx lines from the past: “A drunk gets on the bus and sits beside a young lady. The lady says to him, ‘Mister, you are drunk! You are extremely drunk’. The drunk looks at her and says, ‘Miss, you are ugly! You are very ugly. And tomorrow, I’m going to be sober.’” So, there was this side of Redd Foxx that presented good, clean humor, unfortunately, not a side we saw often. Flip Wilson portraying “Killer” or “Geraldine” was right in line with clean humor of the past. You undoubtedly will never forget his infamous line, “The devil made me do it.”
Most people today think of Dick Gregory as a civil rights activist. But, back in the ’60s, he was seen by most people as a comedian. He was another of those comedians with great wit who was able to deliver his material without the need for filth. He had this clever way of weaving his concern for civil rights and race relations into his material. Those of us who grew up with Gregory’s humor will readily recall his dialogue on our country’s trip to outer space. He asked, “Could you imagine two brothers claiming that they went to the moon and the only thing they had to show for it when they returned were two rocks?”
Believe it or not, Richard Pryor was another back-in-the-day comedian who presented clean material. It was not until much later in his career that he resorted to the vulgarity and sexually explicit material t he is famous for today. He regularly told jokes about growing up in housing projects. If you asked him if he knew President Nixon or other infamous people, he would respond by saying, “Yeah, I know him. We grew up in the projects together.”
No discussion of comedians from the past could be complete without a mention of Bill Cosby. Was his humor clean? Without a doubt! “The Cos” was the consummate teller of clean jokes. In fact, I cannot recall one incident of a joke that remotely touched on anything out of the mainstream. While many “jokesters” wove race into their material, this was another area Cosby made every effort to avoid. “He simply used events and issues of everyday life as the basis for his humor.
So, what happened to bring us to the profanity-laced comedy of today? Of course, life is different; people are different; our values are different; thus, our jokes are different. Back in the day many of us could remember these jokes and would tell them over and over. Try to remember a joke from today’s comedians. Difficult, I suspect. So, what is it that those of us from back in the day can do to return to the humor of the past? We sit around and tell those old clean jokes, like the one about the man who arrived in heaven and St. Peter asked, “Why are you here, as it just isn’t your time?” The man replied, “St. Peter I had ‘seen us’ trouble.” St. Peter corrected him and said, “You must mean sinus trouble.” The man responded, “No I mean I had ‘seen us’ trouble.” You see, I was coming out of a hotel with another man’s wife and he seen us.” Well, you may regard this as rather corny, but this was the warm, clean humor we all could relate to and should take time to reflect on, and insist that we return to, during this Black History Month. It is indicative of the warm, clean humor associated with our hearty laughs back in the day.