On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying-- : the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor

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Simon & Schuster, 1994 - Humor - 652 pages
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At a time when Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy are major stars and In Living Color is a hit show, it is easy to forget that it was only thirty years ago that Bill Cosby became the first black star of a network series. Now Mel Watkins has written the first comprehensive history of black American humor - from the public face of minstrelsy and vaudeville to the "real side" of the slave enclaves and urban street corners, from folklore to prime time. On the Real Side is a thoroughly documented account of a rich comic tradition that grew out of slavery and remained underground for a century, before entering the mainstream in the 1970s. On the Real Side documents the stereotype of Negro humor established by nineteenth-century white minstrel performers who invariably portrayed blacks as irresponsible clowns or fools. Watkins traces the evolution of that distorted image in motion pictures and on stage, radio, and television - in the nation-wide craze created by the Amos 'n' Andy radio show, in Hollywood's representation of domestic servants (as portrayed by comic actors such as Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best, and Stepin Fetchit), and in the controversy surrounding the 1950s television version of Amos 'n' Andy. At the same time, Watkins chronicles the authentic underground humor that had originated in African-American communities and, although virtually unnoticed by mainstream society, was nurtured by word of mouth, passed on through folktales (from animal stories to trickster tales and urban tales such as "Stackolee"), and captured on race records and in all-black cabarets, films, and theaters. After generations of stereotypes and neglect, this hidden tradition finally emerged before generalaudiences with Richard Pryor in the 1970s. On the Real Side tells how pioneering humorists and comedians gradually altered the distorted stereotypes and revealed the impious undercurrents of black American humor and its critical appraisal of mainstream values. Watkins offers surprising reassessments of well-known figures such as Stepin Fetchit and Amos and Andy, new appreciations of familiar comedians such as Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx, and intriguing rediscoveries of neglected performers such as Bert Williams - all of whom paved the way for the new generation that included Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor. On the Real Side also examines the social role of African-American humor in sustaining blacks during their struggle for equality, from slavery to the civil rights movement. A detailed record of the comic spirit's crucial role in black history, On the Real Side is also a wide-ranging examination of a tradition that has had a powerful influence on the whole of American culture.

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On the real side: laughing, lying, and signifying--: the underground tradition of African-American humor that transformed American culture, from slavery to Richard Pryor

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This book is a detailed look at the history of black humor from slavery days to current times. The author has been an editor of literary magazines, lectured at several universities, and written ... Read full review


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About the author (1994)

MEL WATKINS is a professor of economics and political science at University College, University of Toronto. He is an editor of "This Magazine" where he writes the Innis Memorial Column.

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