Inside the History of Black Comedy in ‘Why We Laugh’

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

In my experience, a lot of comedy documentaries consciously try to avoid the stereotypes of documentary filmmaking, possibly as a way to emphasize the “outsiderness” of comedy. So Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy stands out as an old-fashioned documentary about African-American comedy and its role in society.

That premise may not exactly sparkle, and the documentary begins with a lot of talk about the value of humor as a coping mechanism within the black community — “laugh to keep from crying,” as one panelist puts it. At this point, the film has the potential to be a dreary ride.

Fortunately, the movie quickly picks up steam, delving into genre’s history by highlighting prominent black comedians of the last 100 years. Beginning with the days of minstrels and blackface, it sweeps through early film roles, sitcoms, and stand-ups through to the present day.

The film uses famous faces to represent different eras of African-American culture. It argues that black comedians like Stepin Fetchit and Amos & Andy, who may have been perpetuating black stereotypes by playing lazy or distrustful characters, were simply working within the parameters of their day, and ultimately opening the door for future black comedians.

From there, the doc looks at a stellar, if predictable, series of comedians — Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg. The film also features monumental institutions like Apollo Theater, In Living Color, and the Original Kings of Comedy.

For anyone who, like me, knows very little about the earlier years of black comedy, this film is incredibly educational. Particularly fascinating is Dick Gregory, a stand-up and civil right activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and was the first black guest to sit on the couch on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show.

Given its reverence to the history of black comedy, the film is decidedly cool on much of the current black comedy scene, calling out mainstream black comedy for its shallowness, unnecessary vulgarity, and lack of social commentary. The movie instead celebrates Dave Chappelle alongside Cosby’s famous Pound Cake speech.

Why We Laugh reminds me most of a PBS documentary, with that comforting talking head style that we all know and love and slept through in school. But despite the academic presentation, it still got me excited about a genre of comedy I didn’t know much about, and desperate to spend an obscene amount of money on old comedy records.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Very. I was furiously scribbling notes like it was a college lecture.

What does it have to say about comedy? Obviously, the film is just looking at one particular genre, and it rarely even mentions any non-black comedians. But the doc’s real point is about the importance of comedy, both within a community and as a representation of that community to broader society.

Is it funny? Not really. There are some classic stand-up clips, but it’s a pretty serious look at an issue, that is, in fairness, pretty serious.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Yup!

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’s really painted herself into a corner trying to think of something clever for these bios each week.

Inside the History of Black Comedy in ‘Why We Laugh’