Book Review
Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America, by Bambi Haggins. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007; 320 pages with 32 b&w illustrations; Cloth, $68.00; Paper, $23.95.

With Laughing Mad, Bambi Haggins won the Katherine Singer Kovács award for outstanding scholarship in Film and Media Studies. Her work enriches the fields of African American, American, and Performance Studies. Throughout the book Haggins engages the performance personae of black stand-up comedians, the way that they have evolved over the course of their individual careers, and the way the genre has evolved over time. This broad lens allows her to trace the influences the artists have had on each other, their field, and larger socio-cultural discourses of blackness. She also locates this study within shifting political climates and argues that the study of comedy can both illuminate and challenge dominant ideologies of the culture from which it emerges. Locating her study in the “post-soul era” allows her to position comedians within the period following the civil rights and black power movements, and the influence that changing cultural, political, and social practices have on artists’ construction of performance personae.

Haggins begins her analysis of comedy with the four artists who signaled the shift to a post-soul comedic sensibility: Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, and Richard Pryor. She posits each as exemplifying a point on the spectrum of representations of blackness and black political thought during the civil rights era. On opposite ends of the spectrum are Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory. Bill Cosby’s standup and television performances have always espoused an assimilationist ideological agenda. The childhood antics of his standup routines and Fat Albert series, and the family values of his Cosby series each portray a universal familial life that just so happens to be black. While Cosby’s politics for racial uplift were based on middle-class assimilationist values, he was influenced by Dick Gregory’s commitment to activism in the black power movement. Gregory ushered in the politicization of humor to mainstream audiences by critiquing social relations in a friendly manner and using his celebrity status to bring attention to his political work. In the middle of the spectrum are Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor, each of whom presented culturally specific black characters. While Wilson’s were specific but decontextualized, Pryor’s characters were humorously critiqued as products of a racist society. These artists represent the different articulations of blackness as it was becoming more central to American popular culture. They had a profound effect not only on black comedians to follow, but also on constructions of blackness and popular culture in general. Her inclusion of these four comedians with their disparate comedic styles illuminates the conflicted views of blackness and the roles of blacks in society during particular time periods.

Haggins spends the majority of the book examining the career trajectories of contemporary comedians Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Whoppi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle. While previous comedians have had to deal with the difficulty of “crossing over” to acceptance by white audiences, Haggins articulates contemporary artists’ struggles in terms of crossing from the medium of the standup performance to film and television. Examining the differences between the standup and televisual or filmic personae of comedians enables Haggins to articulate the relationship between the artist’s and mainstream racial ideologies, as well as the differences between media. She begins by looking at Eddie Murphy’s easy progression from standup to film. While his standup in the 1980s was often considered cutting-edge, this was more due to his vulgarity than any political engagement. While some of his Saturday Night Live skits and standup routines have explicitly engaged race, he did so without questioning the status quo. A distinctive, yet apolitical style allowed him to cross into film, sustain a career and transition into starring in family-friendly features (unfortunately, since Haggin’s study was published before the release of Norbit, one wonders how she would have read Murphy’s most recent turn as writer/actor). On the opposite end of the spectrum is Whoopi Goldberg, whose comedy is always tied to her personal politics and political engagement. Her engagement of social politics in her movie roles, such as interracial dating, have not been her most successful films. The success of her other films have been based on ignoring her race, and sometimes her gender. While Goldberg’s politics have some times affected her success, Chris Rock has managed to tone down the politics of his stand up to make movies that engage race and power relations in inoffensive ways.

Haggins completes her study with an in-depth analysis of Dave Chapelle’s career and The Chapelle Show. While I greatly appreciated the entire book, this was the chapter I was looking most forward to. With his show, Dave Chapelle encountered on a large scale the conundrum of all artists of color who want (or have no choice) to confront stereotypes in their work. Chapelle’s style of providing social and political commentary without directly accusing anyone allowed him great audience intimacy with a large fan base and a meteoric rise to fame. However, the lack of direct comment on the forces that create the social issues he raised in his comedy allowed for a superficial reading and enjoyment of the stereotypes he was attempting to challenge. Haggins illuminates Chapelle’s shift to a politicized comedic style when he opens a standup routine by directly criticizing his San Francisco audience for the segregation of their city. In Chapelle’s case as well as others, Haggins ultimately concludes that while black comedians have been able to bring their politically conscious comedy to the small and big screens with various levels of success, the direct communication with the audience that standup provides allows the comedian the opportunity to gauge reactions to their work and control their message accordingly.

Part of the difficulty that these contemporary comedians face is that they now speak to multiple audiences. No longer just using laughter to keep from crying within the black community, comedians in the post-soul era have increasingly become responsible for balancing humor about the truth of race relations in this country, with the responsibility of representing constructions of blackness to a wide audience. This becomes even more difficult in the media of film and television. Comedians whose politics align with network status quo ideology may find more success in television, while film may allow more for the artist’s individual style to be utilized. Haggins does not get bogged down in the personal lives or ideologies of the comedians in her study, but considers them as mediated constructions created to move through different performance medias in specific ways. This makes her work more than just an exploration of black standup comedy, but a starting point for performance and media studies scholars interested in social constructions across media.

Ashley Black, Northwestern University

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