A&E's "Right to Offend" Upends What I Thought I Knew About Black Comedy

By #AndradeSays Archives
Cover image for  article: A&E's "Right to Offend" Upends What I Thought I Knew About Black Comedy

There is something powerful about being able to reach people through one's art. The ability to convey concepts and ideas in a way that allows those far removed from one's experience to relate to it in a very personal way is nothing short of magical. It's the very reason representation -- and as a related subset, education -- is so important to every single media-based industry. People want to feel heard, because being heard is a form of empowerment. People want to be educated, because a lack of education has notoriously been a tool for oppression since… well, since oppression started. This type of influence is the reason why entertainers have in some way been closely involved in every major socio-political movement in American history. Musicians and actors have seen fit to use their platforms to give voices to people who would've otherwise been ignored, but, as I've recently learned, standup comedians, specifically Black standups, have been more influential on American culture, and Black American culture, than I ever realized.

Come to find out, stand up comedy was a Black invention to begin with! A&E's two-part documentary special Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution -- executive produced by Kevin Hart (pictured at top), and starring damn near everybody -- reached me through the art of documentary last night (June 29) with its first part, and intends to deliver a clear and complete picture of the pivotal impact that standup comedy has played in the evolution of Black representation in American media by the end of its second part, which will be telecast tonight (June 30).

This documentary is thorough as all hell, and, for something with a runtime that clocks in at about three hours, it still somehow manages to not feel long enough. The first part, which made the biggest impression on me, chronicled the journey of standup from its inception, which apparently began with Charlie Case -- a Black entertainer who wrote and sang vaudevillian parodies in blackface, but eventually washed it off, stopped wearing the costumes and just told jokes. He'd deliver a joke with sort of a punching motion of the hands, which is actually where the term "punchline" came from. This Black man literally invented standup comedy.

A huge focus of part one is Dick Gregory who, in his prime, was the highest paid comedian, Black or white, in the entire country. Then, because it was the Sixties, he found himself unable to ignore the injustices affecting people of color and ended up going full-on activist. He marched with Dr. King, and got his ass beat by the police, but more importantly, he used his celebrity to affect change in the real world, right on the ground floor. The doors he opened are the same doors that people like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor would eventually walk through. These dots connect all the way from Pryor and other legends like Paul Mooney to contemporaries like Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg and eventually Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.

As a whole, Right to Offend feels less to me about the right to offend people with one's words, and more about the right to offend their preconceived sensibilities about you. The true through line of this two-part documentary is the pattern of Black relatability opening doors of exposure to more and more of mainstream America, and then, at some point, the purveyors of said relatability feeling the nudge of responsibility, or duty, on their part, to use their platform to correct the narrative.

Oftentimes this was at the cost of both popularity and financial gain, but over time this behavior was what we came to expect from those we saw as our thought leaders, in a way. When George Floyd was murdered by now-ex police officer Derrick Chauvin by way of an almost nine-minute knee to the throat, suffocating him, it wasn't that we, Black people, as a culture needed someone to inform the world about what was happening. What we needed was for someone to whom everyone listened to vocalize our feelings. We were shocked, and angry, and hurt, and frustrated, and all of that was conveyed in Chappelle's 8:46, arguably in a way that no one other than Chappelle could have articulated.

That's the power of our voice as a culture. The sound of our voice makes money, and that money opens doors for us, and walking through those doors give us more power than we sometimes even realize. Listen, I could go on for days, because in all truth Right to Offend does a remarkable job of condensing and delivering almost two hundred years of comedy history to us in the span of two 90-minute installments from such comedy all-stars as Kevin Hart himself, Tiffany Haddish, Aisha Tyler, David Alan Grier, Amanda Seales, Michael Che, Amber Ruffin, W. Kamau Bell, Chris Rock and many, many others.

This thing not only goes much deeper into what I covered above, but also explores connections and ramifications across the television and movie industries, both of which lean heavily on the comedy world. At this point, I have yet to find a program that has both educated me to this extent and made me proud to be connected to these industries in any way. This one is a must-see.

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