Found Objects, No.10: "Africa" jokes

There’s something about American comedians and Africa. You’re not sure whether they’re laughing at us or with us.  Not even some African-Americans comedians can steer clear of the stereotypes. There’s a research project in there somewhere for an intrepid graduate student of the humanities. BTW, I swear I once saw a notice for a talk at Columbia’s Institute for African-American Studies or NYU’s Africana Studies, on this very subject of African-American comedians and Africa. I missed the talk, so I wrote to the departments in question asking about a tape, transcript or the paper. With no luck. Maybe someone can help find it. Anyway, I can think of a few examples of this trope.

Not all of it is that terrible. For starters, take this legendary mid-1970s stand-up bit (above) by Richard Pryor on “The African Jungle.”

Incidentally, Pryor visited Kenya in 1979, after which he swore–in an interview with Ebony Magazine–to never use the N-word again.

Now compare Pryor’s subtle humor to the more recent, weak, attempt at laughs by Jamie Foxx, who visited Mozambique and South Africa (both countries standing in for 1974-era Zaire) while filming “Ali” with Will Smith.

Or the predictable punchline from Chris Rock, who filmed his most recent special partly in Johannesburg:

Finally, there’s the more edgy comedy of Wyatt Cenac. [Cenac, btw, is also a very good actor (ref: “Medicine for Melancholy”) and makes his living working for Jon Stewart]:

And as an extra I could not leave out this clip of white American comedian, Robin Williams, channeling the atrocious “The Gods Must be Crazy” on Jay Leno (though there’s some strange genius in how Williams simultaneously undermines average Americans comprehension of “Africa”).



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. very interesting.
    this makes me think of a comedian that used to be on Comic View that came on late nights on BET with one African comedian that has some ridiculously generic gimmicky name like “African Man”. his jokes were usually making fun of his upbringing, his parents, or something similar. and this also brings to mind the reason Dave Chappelle says he left his show-because he was making a joke about slavery, and he saw one of his white cameramen or colleagues laughing a tad bit too hard at the joke, and it make him uncomfortable.
    i think it is an interesting relationship. i think Black Americans are still trying to reconcile our “African” side. we’ve been trying to be white for entirely too long, and the people that think they’re okay with being black, have never fathomed being okay, let alone being associated with being “African”. the term, the continent, and the people are quite foreign and dissociated from the typical African American (particularly Blacks from the US). while many Blacks in America are attempting to bridge gaps and bring light to connections that have not been lost or forgotten throughout the years, there are many (the majority) of blacks trying to severe any ties whatsoever. take the recent film shoot with Beyonce in which she posed in Blackface to “get back to her African roots”….as though it took something unnatural; something inorganic for her to do so….as if getting back to one’s African roots isn’t a mindset or contentness one has with their personal identity….it takes make-up, fruits, berries, loin-cloths and some….Eurocentric eroticized view of the African body. and unfortunately this forced gap that lies between African Americans associating with Africa is also saturated in an inferiority complex- the less African we are, the more European we are. many of us still have very archaic ideas about Africans and how their daily lives differ from ours (Black Americans). the words “savage”, “uncivilized” and “barbaric” are still in the minds of most people on the planet, however it manifests itself very differently in the minds of Black Americans. unfortunately, i think it’ll be eons before this issue is resolved.
    very very interesting. thank you for this post. and also, i love this blog.

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