Simultaneous with the 1930s and 1940s stand up comedy evolution in the “Borscht Belt”, African American comedians emerged on the “Chitlin Circuit.” This was a string of clubs and venues in the east, south, and midwest that began with some of the great founders of comedy such as Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. Below is a short snapshot about what each one contributed to stand up comedy, although no amount of words can completely detail how much they gave to paving the way for all.
Moms Mabley, a trailblazing African American comedienne known for her warm yet raunchy stand-up routines. Born in North Carolina in the 1890’s she became a star of many films and was the first female headliner at the Apollo Theater in the 1930’s. She also recorded several hit comedy albums beginning her recording career with her debut album The Funniest Woman Alive. More than 20 years after Moms passing, fellow comedian Whoopi Goldberg honored Mabley with her directorial debut documentary Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You. She was known offstage as a chic and glamorous (and lesbian) woman, while her stand up routines were “riotous affairs augmented by the aesthetic she presented as being an older, housedress-clad figure who provided sly commentary on racial bigotry to African-American audiences” says Biography.com.
Redd Foxx teamed up with a friend in 1941 to tour the vaudeville or chitlin circuit with their comedy routine, this led to Pryor’s future success as a stand-up comedian. Becoming known for his “willingness to tackle controversial topics such as race and sex” claims Biography.com. By the end of his career he sold over 20 million copies of his comedy albums, was a star on the NBC sitcom Sanford and Son, and then began ABC’s Redd Foxx Comedy Hour. Foxx helped pave the way for future comedians looking to produce boundary pushing stand up comedy.
Dick Gregory, a stand up comic and political activist. Gregory “used his comedy to convey his political ideals to white and black audiences alike. Gregory is credited with helping change the way European-Americans viewed African-Americans. He proved we weren’t less intelligent than any white person,” says BlackEnterprise.com. He even made history by, after making it clear he wanted to be invited onto the show, being the first African American guest to appear on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show and sit on the couch to chat with the host, also becoming a recurring guest on the show over time. When he passed away this previous year, fans, celebrities, and comedians all took to social media to remember his great achievements for comedy and justice. See our post from last September in honor of his life and commitments.
Richard Pryor crossed over from the previous age of the chitlin circuit to start the new age of modern comedy. Pryor began working as a stand up comic in the Midwest portion of the old belt in the early 1960’s before moving to New York City in 1963 to make his television debut on the show On Broadway Tonight. As Vulture.com puts it, the young Richard Pryor “shamelessly adopted the style and rhythms (and, at times, material) of his new comedy idol, Bill Cosby.” Eventually achieving his early dream of landing a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show. By the late 1960’s he released his own self-titled comedy album, then made his way to the screen as a comedy writer in the early 1970s eventually earning his first Emmy Award for the comedy special Lily. He also wrote for shows such as the Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son, which starred Redd Foxx. He is credited by many comedians as having created the beginning of modern comedy with his motion picture release of Richard Pryor: Live In Concert. As Chris Rock told EW: “Every comedian will tell you that it is, by far, the greatest piece of stand-up ever done.”
We thank and appreciate all the African American comedians that have gone unmentioned over the years but who nonetheless greatly contributed to creating the future of stand up comedy and opening it to all. From these greats to today’s: Kevin Hart, Mo’Nique, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Wanda Sykes, Godfrey, Kenan Thompson, Martin Lawrence, Yamaneika… continue this list at home, it will and should go on forever!
Come see the next line-up of sensational, boundary breaking, and future seeking comedians every night of the week here at Stand Up NY. You really never know who is going to pop in for a special appearance! For future shows please purchase tickets here or make a reservation today. If you want your own opportunity to make your way into the stand up comedy world, join us for our Open Mics every weekday, Monday – Friday at 5PM. Think you’ve already got a great set going? Then check out our Bring It show every Saturday at 5PM with more info on how to sign up here.