In honor of Black History Month, we highlight three comedians using stand-up comedy to unpack the Black experience.
By Juno Kelly.
In the midst of Black History Month in the United States, many are making a point of recognizing Black stories and historical figures, as well as the writers, entertainers, and musicians who stage the Black experience through creative means. As the focus remains on activists and mainstream entertainers, one of the most dynamic ways in which race is explored in the public sphere can be pushed aside: comedy. For centuries, stand-up comedy has existed as a medium through which racial tropes are wittily dismantled, archaic racist ideologies mocked, and racism assailed with aplomb. Below are three contemporary comedians who viscerally (and hilariously) explore the Black experience through humor.
Chicago-born comedian Deon Cole rose to prominence as a writer on late night American talk show Conan, and has since found mass recognition as a lead actor on NBC comedy Black-ish, which explores the lives of an upper middle class Black family and their attempt at staying true to their roots. He recently appeared on the YouTube comedy special Netflix is a Joke, where the social platform highlights “exceptional black comedians.”
In his stand-up comedy work, Cole explores a myriad of racial issues. In a 2012 stand-up segment of Conan, Cole unleashes a witty attack on his co-workers and their tendency to ask for his take on any remotely “Black” issue. “We’ll be in the writers’ room and they’ll be like, wow, we heard the rapper 50 Cent got shot nine times, I know that had to hurt!” he jokes. “I’m like, ‘I ain’t never been shot I don’t know, I live in Beverly Hills! I don’t know what they’re doing over there?”
On another occasion the comedian manages to make light of a particularly dark aspect of African American history, the watermelon, which became a symbol of Black liberation following the emancipation of slaves, and was almost immediately turned into a heavily mocked racial trope. Cole sets the scene of himself alone in a bar, internally departing whether or not to order a “delicious” sounding watermelon mojito. “Then I started thinking. Damn, I’m the only Black man down here. I can’t order that shit. I will set Black people back 10 years if I order that. So, I got a white woman to order mine for me.”
South London-born comedian Mo Gilligan’s work centers around Black British culture, class, and a good-natured mocking of the predictability of rap and grime. Like many of his contemporaries, Gilligan’s start as a comic came via social media. In 2017 Canadian rapper Drake (an infamously ardent fan of British culture to the point of appropriation) quoted Gilligan on his Instagram page, propelling Gilligan to national notoriety. The comic has since been made host of Channel 4’s the Lateish show, Black British and Funny–where he speaks to various Black comedians about the struggles they face in the U.K.–and a stint on British TV show Goggle Box.
One of Gilliagan’s most viral clips is from his appearance on The Russell Howard Hour, where he launches into an amusing bit on Rastafarianism and white people’s reaction to it. “Once my dad picked me up from school…One kid seen my dad he’s like, ‘Oh my god, Mo, your dad’s a Rastafarian.’ That’s right Rupert. ‘May I ask,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, go for it, man,’ ‘Does your dad sell weed?’ …Of course! Who do you think pays for the packed lunches?”
Stand-up comic and podcast host Patricia Williams–known unanimously as Ms. Pat–bases her stand-up routines on her upbringing in an underdeveloped part of Atlanta, Georgia, or the “ghetto” as she describes it. Williams addresses trauma, poverty, racial discrimination, parenting, and drugs through a comedic lens, often telling stories of how she delt crack as a teenager in order to support her two children. Her unfiltered description of her life, racism and poverty is riddled with profanities.
Live at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City in 2014, Ms. Pat tells the story of a drug deal gone bad, leaving her with a gunshot wound. At the end of the bit, she quips, “I know this’ll scare the shit out of white people. Don’t feel sorry for me. If you’re feeling sorry for me write me a check.”
It through an appearance on comedian Jo Rogan’s podcast in 2019 that Ms. Pat gained mass recognition. On the show, the comic explained what it’s like to be a “ghetto mom in a white school” and her general no holds barred approach to parenting. After catching her teenage son with weed, she recalls calling the police him. “But we Black so I said, leave the guns in the car,” an eviscerating yet hilarious take on police brutality.