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The Secret History

June 2024
1min read

On the Real Side
Laughing, Lying, and Signifying— the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor

by Mel Watkins, Simon & Schuster, 652 pages.

Although studies continue to appear on the African-American origins of the blues and jazz, there has been little comparable—or memorable—work on the history of the black American comic tradition. In the 1970s MeI Watkins, a writer and former editor at The New York Times Book Review , had an ambitious, even risky, idea for a comprehensive study of African-American humor, “from slave shanties and street corners to cabarets,” through minstrel shows, early movies, radio, television, and all the way to Richard Pryor. At that time, before his near-fatal fiery accident with a cocaine pipe, Pryor was the apotheosis of the black American comic tradition—a street observer and gifted mimic and “a master of lyrical obscenity,” in the words of the critic Pauline Kael. Watkins takes Pryor’s jittery ascendance as his point of departure and examines the three hundred years of black history that made that comedian possible.

The danger with this kind of book is in the broad brush, and Watkins smartly compiles his evidence and lets the story unfold itself. In the end his book is a hopeful one, and not only because the art’s practitioners are funnier now. Thirty years after Steve Allen wrote in Ebony magazine that “our society would not permit the emergence of black comedians who were the equivalent of Bob Hope,” Bill Cosby had become the biggest draw in television. At the end of three hundred years, On the Real Side is a celebration as much as a groundbreaking history in a novel field.

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