When Richard Pryor appeared as a black president in a skit on "Saturday Night Live" in 1977, it was his angry black street patter that got the laughs. Now that the one-time fantasy has become reality, African-American keepers of the national funny bone are having to reassess much of their material.
Can they rail against the establishment now that a black man's in charge?
African-American comedian Joe Holt had the audience howling at the Los Angeles Improv Nov. 2, with his portrayal of a fictitious presidential debate moderated by his own father, playing the stereotypical, angry street black: "Obama, where do you get off?"
"Uh, well, I, uh, will tell you exactly where I get off. I am going to help Joe the Plumber, end the recession, and restore sight to the blind."
At the Laugh Factory across town Nov. 24, D'Sean Ross was the first of several African-American comedians in a showcase called "Chocolate Sunday" to laud Obama. ("Give it up for Barack, he's already brought the price of gas down and he isn't even president yet.") Ron G. pointed out the futility of Obama's wife, Michelle, playing the typical complaining wife after her husband has "delivered her to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a helicopter."
If the 2008 election signals a sea change in American racial and class attitudes, the first signs are likely to come from African-American comedians. At comedy venues all over the US, they're trying out new material about Obama his nearly angelic politeness, his youth, vigor, good looks, and model family.
"So now we finally have the nation's first black president and what's he do? He's going to go green," intones D. Lemon, a New York-based comedian at his showcase at Laugh Lounge NYC. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the comedian's name and misidentified the venue for the comedy club.]
"We can't just rely on the woe-is-me clichés anymore," he says in an interview. Dealing with being hopeful is much trickier than relying on the social barriers against blacks, he adds. "The audacity of hope was his mission and he was successful with that, and we are going to have to go as far as we can with that."
Ditto for John Henton, a two-decade veteran of the "The Tonight Show" as well as the "The Arsenio Hall Show." Mr. Henton says he is already working up a bit based on the fact that wife Michelle is taller and huskier than Barack.
"Barack is kind of skinny, and so I'm figuring they don't have arguments, they have fights," says Henton. "One day Barack will appear at a press conference with a Band-Aid, get asked about it, and reply, 'I fell, I'm clumsy. Next question.' "
More change is coming.
"Truth be told, only hack, outdated comedians relying on the word 'black' are going to be affected; everyone else is going to be inspired," says Patryce Harris, an L.A.-based African-American comedienne. "You'll see a lot more intelligent, observational, and middle-class humor like Chris Rock, and a lot less blue-collar humor like Martin Lawrence."
Humor historians agree.
Obama's election is a "momentous occasion, a game-changer for many blacks as they readjust their perspective on what's possible," says Joseph Boskin, professor emeritus of history at Boston University and author of "Humor and Social Change in Twentieth Century America." "Many black comedians who have based their humor in victim mentality are going to have to reassess."
Other observers and comics hasten to add that unless the good fortune and promise for blacks symbolized by the White House victory spreads more widely, the plight of black inequality will continue to be fertile fodder for jokes.
"The unemployment rate didn't change on Nov. 5, nor did the overrepresentation of blacks in prison, the infant-mortality rate – all these things will continue to be the source of comedic rants," says Tony Brown, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "There are enough people out there right now saying that racism is dead, that that alone could generate lots of comedy."
Racism isn't dead, but "this notion that things are so rough for blacks is a dead horse that doesn't play well anymore," says Mr. Holt. His new idea: "There's something that I want to work up into a set, which is that there's a whole world of black men who are angry because they don't have an excuse now."