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funny people
the plight of black sketch comedy television, pre & post-chappelle's show
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)
pop culture

Nothing has filled the void of "Chappelle’s Show", Dave Chappelle’s brilliant, edgy Comedy Central sketch show that deftly navigated American racial, political, pop cultural and sexual mores over two glorious seasons (2004-06). There has been nothing even close, and I wish studio execs would come up with a back up plan before robbing us of such a broad, accessible moment of genius. Or simply treat their talent better.

Prior to Chappelle, there was nothing to fill the void of "In Living Color". That statement is so true that Fox, desperate as usual, recently (re)hired that show’s original creator, Keenen Ivory Wayans, to reboot the show with a whole new crop of diverse, hip sketch comedians. This decision was made, of course, almost 20 years to the day that Fox made working conditions so unbearable that Wayans walked away from the show that he created from scratch. And even before that, "The Arsenio Hall Show" – another show built around a black, young, irreverent comedian – ended in a power struggle. This last example was not a sketch show of course, but one that smartly catered to a hip-hop era crowd too fly for Carson or Letterman, and, yes, again, today still stands unparalleled in its ability to communicate across and through its demographic. I’m not here to beat up on the suits. However, their tendency to pressure cook shows helmed by innovative black minds after they become wild successes is indefensible and a horrible enough business model that one can’t help but to root for the internet to end all this foolishness called network programming.

Ever since NBC made the still bizarre (Did they really think they could control him?) decision to give a controversial, profane, drug-addled griot named Richard Pryor his own prime time TV show in 1977, the relationship between networks in need of younger audiences and edgy (syn), insolent black comics has been fraught with tension. (The show lasted all of four episodes. When you watch the first episode – they are available on DVD – you will wonder how it even made it that far. The show was too pro-black, progressive and audacious for even for the pro-black, progressive and audacious 1970s.)

As though trying to atone for their sins, it is Fox and Comedy Central who have invested the most effort into recapturing the magic of the shows they sacrificed, with mixed results. First, Comedy Central brought the sadly underutilized "In Living Color" alum David Alan Grier back to daylight with his own mock black news show, 2008’s "Chocolate News." The show was, to this writer, very funny, but in these far more politically correct times, the show’s jokes about black quirks may have hit too close to home in some quarters. And the show’s pronounced (though tongue-in-cheek) black nationalist stance came off dated. The show started strong, but never found its audience; it disappeared after 12 episodes. Ironically, the black criticism leveled at "Chocolate News" seemed to miss Fox’s unfunny, reprehensible summer 2011 hail Mary, "In the Flow with Affion Crockett." An impressive celebrity impersonator, Crockett faltered under the pressure of having to create funny sketches around his impersonations. In other words, doing a spot on Tiger Woods or Jay-Z is not the joke in sketch comedy. The joke is what happens while you’re doing a spot on Tiger Woods or Jay-Z. In that, Crockett failed in just about every sketch for the handful of episodes that were aired. Pryor, Chappelle and Wayans each managed to blend sophomoric humor with biting social commentary, Crockett’s show had zero social relevance and, in one sketch, portrayed President Obama with such malevolent clumsiness that I began to wonder if his studio mate Sean Hannity was ghostwriting.

In that Crockett sketch, Obama is, behind closed doors, a drug addicted, ghetto nymphomaniac. And Crockett is not the first person, whether friend or foe of the 44th president, to pontificate that there is another man behind the articulate, silky smooth Commander-in-Chief we see on television. New ideas are rare, which makes the executed presentation of overdone ideas priceless. Conversely, Comedy Central’s newest atonement for the Chappelle fiasco, "Key & Peele," takes that idea to plateaus that are both hilarious and respectful. In their world, President Obama is as he is, but he has an “anger interpreter” named Luther, who translates his calm affirmations with the profane fire that many have felt the President was probably thinking.

"Key & Peele" is a collaboration between journeymen biracial comics Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, still in the Chappelle format – improvised banter in front of a studio audience, supplemented by filmed skits. Unlike "Chappelle’s Show", the studio audience section doesn’t come off particularly well, and the absence of forward facing crowd shots make me wonder if they know that too. But the skits? Funny and topical, which is hard to do. I’ve been a fan from day one, but these guys are able to make me laugh when the original premise wasn’t even that funny. Dave Chappelle couldn’t even always do that.

Will the show be the pop culture smash of its predecessor? It is doubtful, but perhaps too early to say. "In Living Color" and "Chappelle’s Show" were distinctly products of their time (as evidenced by their musical guests) and each episode felt like an event. Key & Peele’s target audience seems harder to pin down and, so far, their cultural impact seems minimal.

Either way, I believe this divisive, oversensitive, overly politically correct era needs a brown-skinned sketch comedy maestro to translate fact from fiction. The consistently misrepresented need to find a perspective maybe native to their own. It is a difficult job to for anyone to make us laugh at our foibles or make provocative, truthful statements about our times without inviting a fatal firestorm of criticism. I also wonder what a funny black woman would do with these opportunities. And I wonder if I’ll always wonder about that.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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