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

Sean Jacobs is on the international affairs faculty of The New School. He is the founder and chief editor of Africa is a Country.

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