Blallywood Film Review: Why We Laugh

by on October 17, 2012

Laughter is a divine mystery. One of the few universal human responses on earth, it seems to rumble from a place deep inside our souls where ecstasy, wrath, and turmoil exist in equal fractions.  Laughter in its most authentic form can leave you both exhausted and rejuvenated. It is therapeutic and moreover, it is revelatory.  What a person finds funny is telling of their system of values and their level of maturity.  Sense of humor is one of the fundamental components of strong platonic and romantic relationships.

Why We Laugh (2009) is an enlightening documentary chronicling the past ten decades of black comedy in America.  Narrated by Angela Bassett, perhaps one of the most gifted black actresses in Hollywood, this film features cameos by some of the biggest names in comedy and masterfully guides us on an epic journey from Stepin Fetchit, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle.  Highlights include a segment on Dick Gregory, one of the most iconic, social conscious, and politically minded black comedians alive, and a provocative display of the varied opinions on Dave Chappelle’s controversial decision to turn down a $50 Million contract for The Chappelle Show in exchange for executive control.  Comedy game-changing women like Beulah, Moms Mabley, and Whoopi Goldberg are also profiled.  There is wonderfully balanced commentary on the pervasive question of black stereotypes in comedy and film, with heavyweights like Robert Townsend, Shawn and Marlon Wayans, and Dr. Cornel West weighing in on everything from Amos ‘n Andy, Good Times, and The Cosby Show, arguably one of the most important black sitcoms in our history.  The film then takes a reflective and despairing tone as contemporary comedians express frustration with the current state of black comedy, new talent seemingly chasing the limelight and the “gold rush,” according to Kat Williams, losing any sense of conscious material and black intellect.

So, why do we laugh?

This documentary offers a range of answers as it eloquently negotiates the intersection at which historical, social and cultural contexts for humor exist; it also provides details for what exactly laughter means to the black community specifically. Laughter, for the black community especially, is the communal expression of shared pain, dreams, and hopes.

It’s imperative to consider the oppressive history of black culture when discussing black comedy. The foundation of black comedy is minstrelsy, which was a direct response to slave culture and racial inequality.  This form of entertainment originated on large slave plantations in which slaves gathered on Sunday evenings (usually their only day off) to sing songs, play homespun instruments, and celebrate their free time.  Songs were both spiritual and secular, and the most theatrical of the bunch would put on skits mocking the plantation owner and other important members of the community.  This entertainment eventually garnered the interests of white people and became a prolific form of early American entertainment eventually evolving into vaudeville, the cornerstone of American theatre.

Black comedy, having grown from this oppressive and painful place of commonality is extremely nuanced and beautifully explored in this film.  Angela Bassett sums it best when she says, “The story of black comedy is both the history of black America and the triumph of humanity.”  I love a good documentary and this one is worth watching; moreover it will pique your interest in researching the topic on your own. A.


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