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There’s Nothing Funny About Turning Women Into a Punchline

Earlier this month, yet another story surfaced of a famous man abusing his power. In the Hollywood Reporter, actress Kathryn Rossetter described serial sexual harassment behind the scenes of a 1983 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, at the hands of her co-star, Dustin Hoffman. At parties after the performances, she writes, when posing for pictures with Rossetter, Hoffman would grab her breast just before the picture was taken and drop it right away, so the image wouldn’t show up on film: “Everyone around always laughed when he did this.”

At one point during the play, Rossetter had to stand backstage and laugh on cue into a microphone. Her costume was a slip with a garter belt and no bra, and she writes that, for six to eight performances a week, Hoffman would sit behind her and slip a hand under her skirt, groping the inside of her thigh. One night, she noticed there were more crew members backstage than usual. Hoffman reached for her leg, again, and Rossetter began her ritual of batting him away while looking out for her cue. “Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face,” she writes. “I missed one of my laugh cues. Dustin had spread the word to the crew to come backstage at that time for a surprise. What a jokester. Mr. Fun. It was sickening.”

Sickening, and revealing. This year, as men and women have confronted long-suppressed evidence of sexual abuse so pervasive it’s simply the air we breathe, we’ve also begun to reckon with a kind of toxic humor that so often excuses such behavior — the ways in which humor is used as both sword and shield, and women as cannon fodder. As Rebecca Traister recently wrote in New York magazine, this moment is not just about sex, but about work. In the context of the comedy industry, it’s about how women have been and continue to be shut out of professional opportunities and the chance to shape cultural narratives because of the adolescent prurience of the men who run the show.

Women in comedy have long reckoned with an industry that by and large considers them props first, performers second, and writers a distant third — passive recipients of humor, rather than active creators of it. Ten years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote an infamous Vanity Fair article titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” that conflates humor with sexual appeal. His underlying assumption — that men are funnier than women — is offered as an empirical claim, from which it follows that men have developed this superior sense of humor in order to appeal to women. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex,” Hitchens writes. “If you can stimulate her to laughter…well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.”

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The argument is absurd for reasons beyond the gross generalization of half of our species (those who aren’t interested in women, apparently, have no need to be funny; we all know how stodgy and humorless the gays are). Tying the impetus to be funny to the impetus to get laid isn’t just a lazy generalization; it also pushes women out of a market they helped create in the first place, and implies female spectators of comedy are participating not in culture but in a mating ritual in which they may or may not want any part.

Reading Hitchens’s piece is particularly infuriating, and instructive, at a moment when one of our most celebrated comic minds, Louis C.K., has been exposed as a sexual harasser, and when the entertainment world is beginning to reckon with its pervasive sexism. As Yael Kohen documents in her 2012 oral history, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, women have not just performed alongside men for decades, but have been instrumental in shaping the comedy industry as we know it. As performers, writers, and bookers, women played key roles in the stand-up boom of the 1950s and ’60s, which was largely concentrated in New York City but also owed a debt to Chicago’s improvisational theater scene; Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a fictionalized account of this time, centering on a housewife-turned-aspiring-stand-up who works out her confessional material in Greenwich Village clubs.

As the #MeToo movement has shown, 42 years after feminist scholar Lin Farley coined the term sexual harassment, women still struggle, constantly, to earn professional respect in a society that sees us primarily as a collection of body parts. It strikes me as especially difficult for the comedy industry to reckon with its gendered power dynamics because this is a business that attracts the kinds of men (and women) who never considered themselves as particularly powerful to begin with. Like the Silicon Valley billionaire who looks in the mirror and sees a pimply-faced underdog nerd, even the most successful comedian may not think of himself as a titan of industry — especially if, like C.K., he’s built his career around a comic persona that squeezes laughs out of his self-perceived weaknesses, like his shameful eating habits. But, like those tech industry overlords, when these guys “make it” in comedy, they only become a new iteration of the oppressive jocks they grew up resenting.

From Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to Judd Apatow’s early-Aughts man-boys, the pathetic, put-upon dude is a stock character of modern comedy. The funniest, and weirdest, iteration of this type in recent years is Nathan Fielder, who plays a version of himself on the Comedy Central reality-parody show Nathan for You. The show premiered in 2013 as a business-makeover spoof in which Fielder, who really does have a business degree, proposes wildly idiosyncratic improvement ideas to the owners of independent shops. As the series went on, however, it became less about the business owners and more about Nathan himself, or at least the persona presented on the show — a friendless loner so socially inept he makes Napoleon Dynamite look smooth.

Critics and fans fawned over Nathan for You’s season four finale, a two-hour special called “Finding Frances” that aired in November and that centers on Fielder helping a weird old man named Bill track down a former girlfriend that he wishes he’d married. But, as a I wrote back then, the episode left me feeling queasy, and called to mind other moments throughout the show’s four-year run that wring laughs out of the spectacle of a woman in an uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, situation.

My reaction to the episode wasn’t the first time this year I’ve found myself the lonely skeptic in a crowd of chortling men; in March, I sat in a small theater with a room of men watching a press screening of Dave Chappelle’s first new stand-up specials, for Netflix, in over a decade. I was the only one who didn’t laugh through Chappelle’s bit comparing Bill Cosby to a hypothetical superhero who “rapes, but he saves,” a routine that requires the viewer to weigh Cosby’s accomplishments and advocacy for the African American community against the nearly sixty women who’ve accused him of drugging and raping them. I suspect it’s a calculation that’s a lot easier for a man to compute, even in the context of a joke.

I’m also continuously struck by how much easier it seems to be for men to dismiss claims of impropriety or discomfort when defending jokes that come at the expense of a woman’s dignity. On the New Yorker’s website, filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a fawning appraisal of “Finding Frances,” which he calls “my new favorite love story.” True to form, Morris’s piece is mostly a series of apparently unanswerable questions, a celebration of the unknowable: “Can one fall in love with nothing? With the desire to be in love?”; “Who am I really? To what extent are we all play-acting through our lives?” The very real women at the center of the episode — Frances and Maci, an escort Fielder hires and “falls in love with,” although, as ever, it’s unclear where the real Fielder begins and his character ends — are barely considered.

Morris’s effusive abstraction reminded me of the Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, released in the fall. The doc features archival footage from the set of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, for which star Jim Carrey immersed himself so fully in the role of the cult comic he was apparently forever changed. Carrey, in the present day, reflects on Kaufman’s old routine of wrestling women, and publicly taunting and disparaging them, at the height of the women’s movement in the late 1970s — all part of an act that was intentionally difficult to separate from the “real” Andy Kaufman. “It was like when Jesus said, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood,’” Carrey remarks. “It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal — they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it — he’s not interested in them.”

Carrey assumes that those who look for the “absurd truth” behind a man who gets onstage and claims that women are only slightly above dogs in the hierarchy of living things are allies — art freaks and comedy nerds who are undoubtedly progressive in their politics and surely don’t really believe that women are inferior to men. But in the past year, we’ve seen a presidential candidate wage a successful campaign in part by casting his patently misogynist comments about women as a joke, all in good fun — while winking to his chortling MAGA minions who view their leader’s sexism as proof of his manhood. We’ve also seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right, a political movement that can, at least in part, trace its roots back to a nebulous group of trolls who viciously target women and minorities in the name of preserving the so-called purity of geek culture. This year, we learned a lot of those guys weren’t joking at all.  

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“Finding Frances” reaches its climax when Fielder drives Bill to Frances’s house and, having dissuaded him from approaching her door trailed by cameras, watches as he phones her and confesses his regrets — knowing all the while she’s married with children and grandchildren. That didn’t feel abstract to me. My pulse quickened, my body tensed, and I couldn’t wait for the scene to end, for these men to drive away and leave this old lady alone. Morris’s and Carrey’s stance, the equivalent of a shruggie emoji, sidesteps the very real feelings of the very real people who participated in Fielder’s show and Kaufman’s antics — including the women who are often visibly uncomfortable with the scenarios they’re put in. I guess it’s all worth it if it makes Errol Morris scratch his head and think deep thoughts.

The truth is, comedy as we have always known it relies, to some extent, on the exploitation of women. Humiliating women is a safety net for male comedians; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a male stand-up who’s ever so slightly flailing pick on a woman or two in the audience, often with sexual overtones, because he knows it’s a surefire way to get a laugh. There’s scarcely a more predictable argument in this industry than the knee-jerk defense of a comic’s right to call a bitch a bitch.

We allow male comics a kind of breathing space between art and output, while constantly demanding that women answer for their work. Remember the instant, unrelenting outrage over Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” bit? Or the frequent condemnations of Amy Schumer’s tone-deafness around race? Or the never-ending barrage of criticism any time Lena Dunham opens her mouth? And how many female comics, over how many years, were asked about the rumors surrounding Louis C.K. before the truth finally came out — as if their silence, and not C.K.’s, was the problem?

I don’t know what kind of impact the #MeToo movement will have in the years going forward, but one thing it’s certainly done already is shine a blinding, fluorescent light on the baseline situation for women going through their daily lives. As correspondent Michelle Wolf put it on an October episode of The Daily Show, “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!” My hope is that this moment will also make us stop and think about the baseline of what we consider funny, and why. Loud farts? Sure. A woman being groped in public with no recourse? Not even as a joke.

There’s a moment from a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, with The Office star Jenna Fischer, that I can’t stop thinking about. Fischer is talking about her post-Office career, when she fielded offers for much racier roles than Dunder Mifflin receptionist Pam Beesly. “They thought I wanted to blow up the image of Pam,” Fischer says, so she’d get scripts where “she gets bent over a car and fucked in the ass, and her tits are flying but no one will expect it! And I’m like, what the fuck script is this? Why are you raping Pam on a car?” We’re talking about an Emmy-nominated comic actor fresh off a nine-season run of a wildly successful sitcom. And yet the producers who sent Fischer those scripts saw in her the potential not to make people laugh, but to re-enact a fantasy straight out of a porno — the good girl gone bad.

I hope #MeToo can take on another meaning besides the claim, “I, too, have been a victim of assault.” I’ve come to think of the term in a broader sense, as the collective cry of generations of stepped-on women to the men who call the shots: We, too, are people. We are not your mothers or your wives. We are human beings with a full range of emotions, experiences, and ways to appreciate and express humor — whether it’s Tiffany Haddish building her exuberant debut stand-up special around her foster care upbringing, or Tracey Ullman doing a goofy song-and-dance number as Angela Merkel, or the wonderfully weird Cocoon Central Dance Team’s “dance comedy space odyssey” Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. We are so much more than a place to put your dicks.

In 2009, two years after Christopher Hitchens’s joke of an essay was published, Vanity Fair ran a piece about the dearth of women writers in late-night TV by Nell Scovell, one of the few women who was on the writing staff of Late Night With David Letterman. Scovell wrote that part of her motivation for the article was to “pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room.” It apparently took a sex scandal to prompt the magazine to publish such a piece in the first place; it was written in the wake of Letterman’s on-camera confession that he had slept with women who worked on his show. And it looks like it’s going to take a torrent of lurid stories about potted plants and shuttered window blinds and hotel bathrobes to really complete that pivot. The irony’s not lost on me. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back on all this and laugh.

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Richard Pryor Crucifies Himself, Again and Again

“Least you got to see a motherfucker crucify himself,” Richard Pryor spits in the most surprising footage director Marina Zenovich has unearthed for her new documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. The scene is of Pryor’s last great cock-up just before his last, great comeback. Pacing restlessly before a Hollywood Paladium audience packed with celebrities, the scarlet and black of his suit suggesting the fire he’d nearly killed himself in 18 months before, the best stand-up comic of his age found he had jack-shit to say. He tries doing his act, which never was memorized, but it comes out backward. He fumbles with a cigarette. He swears, more to himself than the crowd, and the words don’t trigger the pleasures we expect from Richard Pryor swearing—they’re the notes of a musician tuning up, not a musician in impassioned solo.

Finally, he does what he always did, the thing that made him different. He tells the truth: “Least you got to see a motherfucker crucify himself.” Saying it he seems freer, looser, the performer rather than the man. It’s as if the more his words sting, the more they sing. That dug out of him, he apologizes to the crowd—“this shit didn’t work”—and flees. The next night, he would try again, and that performance, in that same suit, would be the performance, Live on the Sunset Strip, the comedy film you’d send into space if you wanted to show the universe just how much human joy can be scraped out of human hurt, the one where he talks you right through everything he felt after that night when, bottomed-out, freebasing, he opted for self-immolation.

Again, the motherfucker crucifies himself, but this time he’s in charge.

Compelling but abbreviated, this new doc can’t match the power of Live on the Sunset Strip. Those revealing scenes of Pryor bombing on the cusp of his comeback whip past too quickly, as do the excerpts from his more familiar triumphs. Today, documentaries about the great performers face a challenge unprecedented in media history: offering a fuller portrait of their subject than audiences could assemble on their own through shrewd YouTubing.

Chunks of the swift-moving film—Pryor’s appearances on Ed Sullivan or The Tonight Show—do feel like suggestions for further, fuller research. But Zenovich’s narrative takes on tragic power as it surges through Pryor’s ascent to stardom, his seven marriages, his debilitating addictions, his whorehouse upbringing, and the sometimes cheery, sometimes ferocious ways he smashed his kind of blackness into the American mainstream. We see his battles with cowardly NBC censors on the short-lived The Richard Pryor Show, a series on which America’s most controversial entertainer presented himself as an emasculated prisoner of the network. We see Johnny Carson asking Pryor about the title of his 1974 LP That Nigger’s Crazy: Should white people be “comfortable” saying it? “Most white people,” Pryor says, “they can’t say the word ‘crazy.’”

Zenovich has assembled better-than-usual talking heads, all sympathetic even when dishing the worst bad behavior. There are tears; there are tales of a “mound” of cocaine; there’s Jennifer Lee Pryor, introduced in subtitle as “Wife No. 4 and 7,” speaking frankly about the day that Pryor took up freebasing and lost interest in everything else. Mel Brooks re-tells the sad, dumb story of Warner Brothers being too chickenshit to cast Pryor in Blazing Saddles, which he helped write—Brooks, the mensch, credits Pryor with the line “Mongo only pawn É in game of life.” Of the latter-day appreciators, only Dave Chappelle makes much impact, mostly because he attempts to out-Pryor Pryor: If comedy were a woman, Chappelle argues, “then he fucked the shit out of her. He fucked her in every orifice.”

Like many in the film, Chappelle seems to see a link between Pryor’s turbulent offstage life and his digging-deep onstage genius. The argument goes that Pryor getting arrested, or bitching out gay Hollywood at a fundraiser, or having “snorted up Peru” all gave him the chance to come clean onstage, to find through his art urgent human truths. Nobody here speculates that it might have been the other way around: that the years of laying himself bare for millions might have whetted a desire for greater darknesses to cop to.

Zenovich has crafted a sturdy precis to Pryor’s brilliant disaster of a life, but the man and his place in the culture prove much more complex than the doc’s presentation of it. There’s little insight about Pryor’s fallow mid-1980s (Superman III and The Toy), or about the failure of his 1986 autobiographical writer/director project Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, possibly his last attempt at greatness. That film, itself a not-quite-brilliant disaster, offers Zenovich a gift few other documentarians have ever lucked into: footage of her subject’s lowest moments, actually created by that subject. She works it for all it’s worth. As Jo Jo Dancer lights the match that will leave him burn-covered and almost dead, we hear employees’ and friends’ horrific detailing of the true scene—and we hear Pryor, onstage, telling the story himself. Only one other man ever got so much mileage out of a crucifixion.

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Baby In Diaper Found Wandering Streets Of Brooklyn at 2 A.M. No, She Wasn’t Selling Weed

Ya know that routine by comedian Dave Chappelle about finding a weed-selling baby wandering the streets in the ghetto in the middle of the night (if not, click “play” on the video embedded above)? Well, life has again imitated art — that really happened early this morning in Brooklyn…sans the part about the baby slangin’ dope, of course.

The 2-year-old girl was found about 2 a.m. near Euclid and Ridgewood avenues in Brooklyn wearing nothing but a diaper. The wandering baby was brought to the attention of police when a passing cab driver saw the toddler and called 9-1-1.

Babies tend to have parents, so authorities went door-to-door in the neighborhood asking if anyone was missing a 2-year-old — which is when they found the girl’s mother, 30-year-old Lady Rosales.

]
Rosales,
according to an article posted on the WABC website, had left the
girl in the care of a neighbor (what she was doing at 2 a.m. that
prevented her from caring for her 2-year-old child is unclear),
27-year-old Hugo Luna, when the girl apparently wandered away from
Luna’s apartment.

After being found on the sidewalk, police took
the girl to Brookdale University Hospital, where it was determined that
she was OK.

Rosales and Luna, however, are in a bit of trouble — each were arrested on one count each of endangering the welfare of a minor

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BANJO MAN

It’s not unusual for an established comedian to deeply love a niche strain of music: Woody Allen’s traditional NOLA jazz clarinet, Steve Allen’s classical scores, Jack Benny’s dry violin, Dave Chappelle’s not-so-acerbic piano. And they tend to preserve these esoteric musical preferences by rigidly separating their musical lives from their stage presences; you’d far exceed your drink minimum before any of the above cracked a joke with their instrument in tow. Which makes Steve Martin the outsider in this multifaceted group: The brilliant actor, comedian, author, and all-around walking New Yorker billboard performs bluegrass banjo with genuine skill, and also pauses between songs to crack one-liners and share droll “That’s showbiz” vignettes. Such is the agreeable, seamless world he shares; his set at the Bonnaroo Festival with North Carolina’s acoustic Steep Canyon Rangers (his collaborators on March’s Rare Bird Alert) was truly delightful and an educational intro to the world of their finger-picked fare. And, yes, he plays “King Tut.”

Mon., March 14, 8 p.m., 2011

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‘Re-Open-Ed’

Just Blaze made it big back in 2000 when he contributed a few of the smoother tracks to Jay Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. He’s since worked as a producer for just about everyone. His Santos party gives full range to his loves both obvious (contemporary hip hop and horn-heavy old soul) and unexpected (house and disco). DJ Soul got his start slinging mixtapes; now he’s best known for his homage to J Dilla, and for serving as Chappelle’s Show‘s DJ. With Caribbean sounds from the Federation Sound’s DJ Gravy, Max Glazer, and Micro Don.

Fridays, 10 p.m., 2010

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No Hoodrat Friend

If any of the topical essayists currently appearing in New York dailies were graced with the wit, sensitivity, and insight of William Jelani Cobb, I’d rush to the newsstands every morning. Never annoyingly glib, cranky, or prolix, this former Queens resident brings persuasive humor and scope to a range of topics that beggars the often sloppily framed polemics of Gotham’s op-ed-page pundits.

With two very different essay collections hitting the racks this year (including a stylistic analysis of hip-hop music titled To the Break of Dawn), this Spelman College history professor strives to bring a balanced intellectual perspective to cultural and current events. His newest collection, The Devil & Dave Chappelle, compiles more than 50 short articles from the past 10 years. Some originated in his roving “Past Imperfect” online column, on sites like Africana.com and AOL Black Voices, while others first saw publication in magazines like Essence-—all venues where black editors and readers are usually guaranteed. Free to speak his mind without necessarily writing for a white audience, Cobb discusses everything from the titular seduction of cable-TV comedian Chappelle to the war in Iraq.

Cobb attacks commercialized misogyny (“The Hoodrat Theory”), police brutality (“41 Shots”), and federal disaster relief (“The More Things Change”), demanding improved activism and statesmanship. But it’s the quality of Cobb’s more personal journalism that gives real weight and authority to his political opinions. Few professional critics-—white or non-white—dare to scrutinize their own lives in print. But Cobb’s heartbreaking tale of losing his beloved stepdaughter in an unwanted divorce and the unexpected vulnerability revealed in memories of black men hungrily bonding with strangers at Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March break this unspoken taboo, which makes The Devil & Dave Chappelle a work of heart and mind rather than merely sound and fury.

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An Act of Momentary Utopia

Pondering a Dave Chappelle film directed by Michel Gondry conjures up some bizarre cinematic prospects—dancing mandalas of belligerent black George Bushes, perhaps, or Rick James (bitch!) swirling through space-time wormholes—but Half Baked fans be forewarned: The resolutely grounded Dave Chappelle’s Block Party offers no such otherworldly fantasies. A street-level document of a free all-star music concert thrown by the comedian in Bed-Stuy in September 2004, Block Party is all about the pleasures to be found in the very real world, albeit one enhanced by celebrity largesse. The show provides a locals-heavy lineup handpicked by Chappelle (many alums of his TV show), among them Mos Def, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, and a reunited Fugees. While the mostly black and Latino Brooklyn audience may be demographically pre-planned, it is also an act of momentary utopia; as Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots remarks to Chappelle backstage, both performers share the frequent experience of playing to audiences that don’t look like them. Unfiltered observations like these give a critical edge to what otherwise would simply be a well-crafted concert doc shot during one gently sundowning autumn day.

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‘The Fallen’

Set in northern Italy at the end of World War II, The Fallen is a war saga in three languages that follows German, Italian, and American troops as they skirt the fine line between patriotism and brotherly loyalty. Admirably equal-opportunity with its screen time, the film is nonetheless as reliant on racial stereotypes as a Dave Chappelle sketch: The Italians are vivacious and invariably dishonest, the Germans mirthless and orderly, and the Americans—well, they’re just a bunch of regular guys who miss home. This last group comprises the usual tough-talkin’, hard-drinkin’ Sergeant Rock types, as well as the requisite Italian kid from Brooklyn who is able to communicate with the wide-eyed, wily (but rather hospitable) villagers. Thankfully, The Fallen is neither dour nor sentimental, but while the scope is ambitious and the tone refreshingly light on moralism, few of the innumerable characters and subplots elicit much sympathy. Saving most of its war-is-hell gravitas until the bloody, slo-mo climax (which plays like a Peckinpah parody), the movie bounces along briskly enough with a soundtrack of martial drums and occasional eruptions of oompah music, distractingly reminiscent of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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Chappelle’s Show

Pondering a Dave Chappelle film directed by Michel Gondry conjures up some bizarre cinematic prospects—dancing mandalas of belligerent black George Bushes, perhaps, or Rick James (bitch!) swirling through space-time wormholes—but Half Baked fans be forewarned: The resolutely grounded Dave Chappelle’s Block Party offers no such otherworldly fantasies. A street-level document of a free all-star music concert thrown by the comedian in Bed-Stuy in September 2004, Block Party is all about the pleasures to be found in the very real world, albeit one enhanced by celebrity largesse. Which is to say, this picture remains faithful to the underlying affability of both Chappelle and Gondry, orchestrating a feel-good homestyle vibe that, while peppered with moments of sly political commentary, never harshes its own, slightly bittersweet mellow.

In time-honored concert-film structure, the backstage serves not just as backstory, but a purported inside track to the performers’ just-like-us humanity—a convention cemented as early as D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. This careful conveyance of realness continues in Block Party, now informed by the gimmicky logic of talk shows and reality TV. The film opens in Dayton, three days before the concert, where erstwhile resident Chappelle distributes golden block-party tickets to surprised Ohioans: the clerk at his grocery store, a local barber, and various folks on the city’s downtown sidewalks. The mostly black Central State University Marching Band erupts in cheers when granted their invite to New York; a middle-aged white lady wonders if she should buy a thong for the event. The stunt is as old as Ed McMahon, but Chappelle’s conversational ease makes his stint as “wee Willy Wonka” pleasantly unhokey. It also showcases his talents as unifier: After all, he’s just about the only comedian who could yell “pussy hole” in public—as he does just to show one Daytonite that it’s OK to swear in a movie—and still garner Midwestern grandmas as fans. The rural locale isn’t let off the hook as mere idyllic counterpoint to gritty New York. Two clean-cut lads tell how one got tossed the N-word on the golf course from an angry white male; astonished, they do nothing, not wanting anything to interfere with their getting on the bus to Bed-Stuy for Dave’s party.

The event itself—evidently planned from concept to execution as much for Ellen Kuras’s artful camerawork as the neighborhood folks—takes place on an unassuming stretch of Brooklyn street that includes a day care center once attended by Biggie Smalls. The show provides a locals-heavy lineup handpicked by Chappelle (many alums of his TV show), among them Mos Def, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, and a reunited Fugees. Erykah Badu appears in a vast Afro cloud that would put Angela Davis to shame. Surprises include not just Big Daddy Kane but Black Panther legacy Fred Hampton Jr., who entreats the crowd to raise their hands in the air for more than just the music. So while the mostly black and Latino Brooklyn audience may be demographically pre-planned, it is also an act of momentary utopia; as Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots remarks to Chappelle backstage, both performers share the frequent experience of playing to audiences that don’t look like them. Unfiltered observations like these give a critical edge to what otherwise would simply be a well-crafted concert doc shot during one gently sundowning autumn day.

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Richard Pryor, 1940–2005

Unlike Biggie, Richard Pryor really was ready to die. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he told me what bothered him the most about his MS was not being able to jump around like he used to, reminding us that this most verbal of men was also as physically comedic as Chaplin. For those reasons Pryor’s demise was a sweet release, a right fitting and proper breaking on through to that other side. Yet it remains a mournful event for the rest of us because, like Baldwin, Pryor—or “Richard,” as we knew him in the ’70s, because he was the only Richard you could possibly be talking about—always seemed less a negro celebrity than a beloved family member, one whose death automatically becomes a nostalgic reminder that better, funkier days are behind us. Like the equally monumental departures of Rosa Parks and Luther Vandross, his exit throws into relief the incredible triteness of Black American being in this historical moment.

I have no doubt Dave Chappelle remembered that the 40 million bucks Pryor got from Columbia Pictures was the beginning of the end of his ability to control the forces around him and within him. But I also know that Pryor, like every Black badass muhfuh of his generation, made his public self-destruction into a work of art and an object lesson in how Soul is a terrible thing to waste. We’re smarter about money, careers, and lawyers now thanks to Pryor and Ali, who not only raised the price tag on performative Black culture but rendered unto it the currency it has today. What’s been lost in the Faustian nigga bargain is that fearless, breakneck do- or-die-for-the-art-and-The-People ethic Pryor and Miles and Nina and Jimi and Marvin brought to the Culture—that quality of tortured, intrepid, and successful Black genius looking into an abyss that winked back before they laughed, then leaped into that mother, spearfishing for pearls. Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, and Dave Chappelle are as gifted, charismatic, and sharp as any who’ve come before, but you get the sense they’d all rather just be crazy than be the kind of crazy about your art that has you drop a That Nigger’s Crazy, Bicentennial Nigger, Is It Something I Said?, or a What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On, and Here My Dear in rapid succession.

Point being that Pryor recognized how that kind of work demanded a protection of one’s nuts, one’s nerve, and one’s nakedness at the same time. In that regard he may have been born with a leg up on the rest of us, for Pryor was raised in a brothel where his grandmother was the madam and his mother was one of her sex workers. So though he tried hard to be one of Cosby’s kids early on, he could never be comfortable in that role. When he decided it was time to get real, he took his inspiration from two other mavericks of the depths, Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X. Two of his best friends, Jim Brown and Miles Davis, were also his two of his major icons, but superfreakish Black machismo was not his mask or mission. What Pryor poked and prodded us with instead was raging Black male vulnerability served on a stick, his own mostly, hung way out there to dry and never snatched back. As in the bit where he tells his lover hows he’s going to get some new pussy and his lover cuts back with how he’d find some new pussy right at home if he had an inch more dick.

His was the kind of comedy that often took a bullet for the home team and wrapped the humanity of the ‘hood in a bow. Pryor practically invented the golden-egg ghettocentricity we lust for today, but never just for a punch line’s sake—as raw as he could get you knew he was only doing it because the Black and human truths he was relating demanded every nigger shit fuck that came out his monologist mouth. Never more refined as a story-telling tool than on That Nigger’s Crazy, the greatest Black pop album of 1974 and we now know the most prophetic. That was the year you couldn’t go to any Black home in Chocolate City, from Anacostia to the Gold Coast, and not find it on infinite repeat and folk laid out convulsed with hysteria. You have to go to Chekhov or Edward P. Jones to find small lives rendered with as much epic detail and epiphanal force as Pryor unveils on that albums “Wino & Junkie,” a hellacious and ruthlessly hilarious vision of life beneath the underdog that erects a totem to Black male oblivion out of the parsed lines his Boswell wino relates about his junkie Johnson. “Nigger used to be a genius, I ain’t lying, booked the numbers didn’t need paper or pencil. Now the nigger don’t know who he is.”

The apotheosis of Pryor’s commitment to truth in stand-up came in his film masterpieces Live in Concert, Live on Sunset Strip, Here and Now, and Live and Smoking, where he rose from freebase ashes and essayed on addiction, self-immolation, and killing the car his wife was trying to leave him in, and indelibly portrayed himself having a heart attack like his aorta was using him for a conga drum. Any list of Pryor’s greatest hits would also include all his Carson appearances and his sweet duets with Lily Tomlin. With the films there’s good, there’s great, and there’s atrocious, but, Denzel notwithstanding, more solid stuff to choose from than any Black actor besides Poitier when you think about it. He’s a scene-stealing riot in my favorite blaxpolitation flick The Mack; a heartbreaking wonder of empathy as Piano Man in Lady Sings The Blues; a slapstick marvel in Which Way Is Up?; a working-class hedonist in Blue Collar; and a fake Spanish jokebutt in Bingo Long. Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, his buddy movies with Gene Wilder, are as good as crossover vehicles can get. There some in there you wish he’d never made too, like Superman III and most egregiously The Toy, with Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights not far behind. But though the qualitative gap between his stand-up and his films was wide enough to drive a fleet of Humvees through, Pryor’s career in total was a masterpiece of how to keep it moving. While being Black ain’t easy and the pretend Blackness of most comedians might be the epitome of laziness, Pryor took on the same challenge as Miles, Sun Ra, and George Clinton. With the fluidity of bebop and the cutthroat poetics of the blues, he made Blackness articulate and conceptual in ways that respected nuance and transcended mimicry and minstrelsy. So that Pryor’s greatest gift to his comedic sons and daughters—Chris Rock, the Saturday Night Live Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, The Boondocks‘s Aaron McGruder, Sarah Silverman, and Wanda Sykes—lies in demonstrating that while any fool can be Black and funny, coaxing bellylaughs out of Black and confrontational requires the gift of tongues and a funnybone made of pure balls. Peace go with you Rich.