There’s something about American comedians and Africa; and that include black comedians. You’re not sure whether they’re laughing at us or with us. (A sort of double consciousness.) It’s complicated and probably also more a reflection of wider debates and currents in the US about Africans and about white America and African-Americans. There’s a research project in there somewhere for an intrepid graduate student of the humanities.
By the way, I swear I once saw a notice for a talk at Columbia’s Institute for African-American Studies or was it 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. No luck. Maybe someone can help find it. Anyway, to my point: 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. Here’s the New York Times summary of that revelation:
‘… After touring Kenya’s national museum, Pryor sat in a hotel lobby full of what he described as “gorgeous black people, like everyplace else we’d been. The only people you saw were black. At the hotel, on television, in stores, on the street, in the newspapers, at restaurants, running the government, on advertisements. Everywhere.” That caused Pryor to say: “Jennifer. You know what? There are no niggers here. … The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.” In “Pryor Convictions,” Pryor said that he left Africa “regretting ever having uttered the word ‘nigger’ on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren’t funny, even when people laughed. “To this day I wish I’d never said the word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. Neither did I. … So I vowed never to say it 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 part of his most recent comedy special in Johannesburg:
There’s also the more edgy comedy of the younger Wyatt Cenac, who 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. I am ambivalent about the clip as there’s some strange genius in how Williams–who worked with Pryor on Saturday Night Live–in the same breath undermines average Americans comprehension of “Africa”.