For decades, African American performers have often taken incisive looks at major sociopolitical concerns, relationships and life in general. Their platform for such observations and commentary? Stand-up routines. Here’s a look at some of the all-time comedic greats, their professional histories and the world contributions they’ve laced with humor.
A featured player for three seasons on Saturday Night Live who started doing stand-up as a teen, Chris Rock also handled dramatic fare as seen with his role as Pookie in New Jack City. Nonetheless, an array of comedic work on the big and small screen alike would ensue. Having an intellectually charged and provocative style, Rock partnered with HBO to create the Emmy Award-winning special Bring the Pain, with many more specials to follow over the years. The comedian then helmed his own program The Chris Rock Show, another award-winning venture that ran for four seasons. His big-screen work has also thrived in a range of productions, including Dogma, Lethal Weapon 4 and Grown Ups. Then, after having served as producer for The Hughleys, he executive produced a more personal project, Everybody Hates Chris, which was inspired by his experiences growing up in the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn. The show ran for four seasons and, in a continuing trend for Rock, earned awards. Rock returned to the big screen in 2014 with Top Five, a layered look at image and authenticity in contemporary New York which he starred in, wrote and directed.
A track star and MC who grew up in poverty, Dick Gregory became a force doing stand-up while in the Army. He was known in the 1950s and ’60s for trail-blazing comedy that focused on his satirical, nuanced interpretations of contemporary headlines, often dealing with race. A perfect example of his wit: “Down South they don’t care how close I am as long as I don’t get too big, and up North, they don’t care how big I am as long as I don’t get too close.” Gregory got his big break at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in 1961 and later was a recurring guest on The Tonight Show, becoming an in-demand headliner for nationwide venues. Gregory was also a leader in the civil rights movement, going on to run for political office and pen several books. He focused on health and fitness in his later years. Gregory died in 2017.
A singer, actor and performer well known among African American venues, Redd Foxx cut a series of “party” records in the 1950s that had an explicit, rather raunchy feel that would have a major influence on such brands of comedy for decades to come. Having appeared on the Today Show in 1965, he later starred in Cotton Comes to Harlem, an adaptation of the Chester Himes novel directed by Ossie Davis. Foxx then became a regular figure for television viewers around the country with the hit TV series Sanford and Son, in which he played a cantankerous junkyard dealer. Foxx won a 1973 Golden Globe for his part, garnering several Emmy nominations as well. Later appearing in the TV series Sanford and The Red Foxx Show as well as the film Harlem Nights, Foxx died from a heart attack in 1991 on the set of his final show, The Royal Family.
Richard Pryor became a household name with a style of comedy that laid bare the harsher realities of life for African American communities. While initially reaching the limelight via live and TV appearances showcasing tamer material, he eventually went into a more unflinching, provocative direction that peers and later comedians alike would come to revere. Having been a contributing writer to the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles, Pryor became a marquee name appearing in popular funny films of the 1970s and ’80s that included Uptown Saturday Night, Car Wash, Bustin’ Loose, Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. Pryor also lent a heartbreaking sense of gravitas to his piano musician role in Lady Sings the Blues opposite Diana Ross and was able to explore the troubling aspects of his personal history in Jo Jo, Dancer Your Life Is Calling. A two-time host of the Oscars, Pryor was ultimately harmed by years of drug use, severely burning his body in 1980 while doing cocaine. He died in 2005 from a heart attack after suffering from multiple sclerosis.
This 1980s comedic icon become a standout star on Saturday Night Live with skits like the “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party” and “White Like Me,” where his character donned makeup to see how he would be treated in the world as a white man. A masterful mimic, Eddie Murphy, who had learned to play with voices and characters from watching cartoons, parlayed his success on TV to become a blockbuster contender. His comedies 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop 1 and 2 were box office gold. These were followed by the likes of Coming to America and Boomerang, portraying an African prince from a mythical kingdom and a womanizing advertising executive, respectively. Commercial success continued with more family-oriented fare like The Nutty Professor and its sequel, a remake of Doctor Dolittle and sequel, Daddy Daycare, and the Shrek franchise. A more serious Murphy was seen in his portrayal of singer James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls, for which he earned a Golden Globe. Murphy has also been known to advocate for greater recognition of Black achievement in screen work while inciting outrage over homophobic remarks and routines.
This New York City native made her way to the West Coast to develop her career, eventually returning to her hometown to star in The Spook Show, a lauded Off-Broadway production that would find Broadway life as well. Whoopi Goldberg would go on to become one of the most popular film actresses of the 1980s and ’90s with a long roster of features. She worked with director Penny Marshall in Jumpin’ Jack Flash and starred as a medium in 1990’s Ghost, earning an Academy Award for the performance. (She would later host the Oscar ceremony itself several times.) Other fun films in the Goldberg canon have included Sister Act and its sequel and the adaptation of Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The actress has also been known for her riveting dramatic work, as seen with her Oscar-nominated lead role in The Color Purple along with other projects like Clara’s Heart, The Long Walk Home, Sarafina!, Boys on the Side, and For Colored Girls. And sci-fi fans know her as the mysterious, perennially wise being Guinan from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Goldberg later became one of the hosts for The View. Known for statements that have sometimes invited criticism, she has nonetheless become one of a handful of entertainers who’s part of the EGOT group, having won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
The Wayans Siblings
This family of comedians has become a force on the big and small screens for decades. The variety show In Living Color debuted in 1990 on FOX and was helmed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, known for his blaxploitation spoof movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Fans appreciated the show for its ethnically diverse cast, serving to further launch the careers of the likes of Jim Carrey, Kim Coles and Jamie Foxx via material geared towards African American audiences. Keenan kept the production all in the family with siblings Damon and Kim as part of the comedic cast involved in a range of skits, while brother Shawn served as in-house DJ. Keenan would later go on to star in and direct the film Low Down Dirty Shame. Daman has done more TV work as seen with My Wife and Kids, The Underground and Lethal Weapon along with films like Mo’ Money and Bamboozled. Kim has been seen in a mix of TV and film projects, while yet another brother, Marlon, co-starred with Shawn in the over-the-top movies White Chicks and the Scary Movie films, both directed by Keenen, and their own sitcom The Wayans Bros. Continuing the funny-actor traditions, Damon Wayans Jr. has starred in Happy Endings and New Girl, among other projects. A true family affair.
This Washington, D.C., native did stand-up while in high school and made a number of appearances onscreen before entering the limelight with his Comedy Central work The Chappelle Show. An Emmy-nominated series that routinely handled stereotypical and racially sensitive material, Dave Chappelle was offered a $50 million contract that he walked away from in 2005. He later revealed in a discussion with Oprah Winfrey that he felt the show had become “socially irresponsible.” Chappelle left the spotlight for some time, gradually returning to live appearances. He made news with a 2016 appearance on Saturday Night Live, addressing the political troubles of a nation post-Trump election win. (Chappelle has worn his activist heart on his sleeve as seen with his 2005 documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.) Having appeared in Netflix specials as well, Chappelle has garnered more criticism for homophobic comments made about the gay and trans communities during his stand-up routines.
This breakout star of the 2017 hit comedy film Girls Trip might have seemed to many to pop out of nowhere, stealing the show not only in the film but in live appearances for awards programs and other TV broadcasts. Yet despite her seemingly quick success, Tiffany Haddish worked hard for years in the world of stand-up. Born in Los Angeles California, Haddish's father left when she was very small, and when she was 13, her mother was in a car accident and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Haddish and her siblings were sent to foster care and eventually were raised by their grandmother. Haddish turned to comedy to help deal with her pain. Post-Girls Trip, the actress has continued with a prolific work streak, co-starring with Tracy Morgan in The Last O.G., a series lamenting a changing Brooklyn, and opposite Kevin Hart in Night School. A host of productions are on the horizon for Haddish, including animated fare.
Issa Rae represents the generation of comedians who were able to parlay their online independent success into major deals with studios. Known for the web-based series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Rae eventually signed a deal to produce and star in her own romantic comedy show Insecure, following her myriad trials and tribulations in a Cali setting. The show, which debuted in 2016, has received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations while winning a 2018 NAACP Image Award. Rae has become a go-to icon for Black women who embrace their roots and the exquisiteness of the larger world while making folks laugh.