Comedy, much like sports, has always been linked to hip-hop music and urban culture. The athletes, comedians and musicians of each era many times came up together; but life and unique experiences pointed them in different directions in terms of their professions.
Throughout its history, comedy has taught us as a people to laugh at our pain and forced us to find a silver lining in even the darkest of situations. As people of color, comedy has remained a consistent outlet to tell stories, embrace the culture, and satirize the political and social climate in the United States. For many, the opportunity to voice their opinion on certain topics became therapeutic; because free-speech is an inalienable right that should never be taken for granted.
In observance of National Humor Month, I compiled a list of the top African-American comedians, beginning with Richard Pryor. Each comedian contributed significantly to the time in which they dominated. From situational, physical, and my personal favorite, satirical comedy; these men left a lasting impression on not just comedy, but popular culture overall.
Richard Pryor (1972 – 1983)
Widely regarded as the greatest comedian of all-time, Richard Pryor’s uncanny ability to examine racial and social issues through the scope of humor has become the blueprint for almost every comic that followed him. His short-lived sketch comedy series The Richard Pryor Show, served as a heavy influence for television programs such as In Living Color, The Chappelle Show, and Key & Peele.
He officially began his career in 1963, but didn’t rise to prominence until the 1970’s. After writing for The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford & Son, he appeared in many of the cult classics during the Blaxploitation period in America.
The adage “fact is stranger than fiction” directly applies to Richard Pryor. The events that took place in his life are legendary. His personal experiences began as harsh lessons, but soon transitioned into some of the greatest comedy bits in history. Hands down, Mr. Pryor is the greatest to ever do it… point, blank, period.
Eddie Murphy (1983 – 1991)
The 1980’s was an amazing time to be black & alive in Hollywood. The entertainment industry was going through a cultural shift, and television became a staple in nearly every American household. In an era full of celebrities at the zenith of their stardom, a young comic from New York emerged as it’s brightest. Eddie Murphy was comedy’s first big superstar. His predecessor, Richard Pryor, was frequently cast in many films, but Eddie Murphy took it to the next level.
Credited with single-handedly salvaging Saturday Night Live during Lorne Michaels’ hiatus, it was apparent to all that Eddie was a special talent. His stand-ups, Delirious and Raw, solidified him as a top-tier comedian, while blockbuster films like 48 Hrs, Beverly Hills Cop and Coming To America set him apart from the rest of his contemporaries.
Martin Lawrence (1992 – 1996)
Martin Lawrence was the first larger-than-life comic that embraced hip-hop culture, and vice versa. His delivery, style and in-your-face attitude exuded the culture, not to mention he was the first host of Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam. His standout performances in the House Party films and Boomerang, whom Eddie was the leading man in, led to the creation of one of the greatest situational comedies of all time, Martin.
In similar fashion, the way Eddie dominated film, Martin put his stamp on television. His self-titled sitcom was one of FOX’s highest-rated shows during its golden age, and the program’s admiration has continued to grow due to its syndication throughout various platforms. Over 20 years after Martin’s final episode, the series is more popular now than it was during its initial run.
The Chris Period (1996 – 2002)
The late 90’s and early 2000’s belonged to two comics – Chris Tucker and Chris Rock. Both Chris’ represented the two facets of comedy; film and stage. While these comedians were hilarious in their own rights, Rock was a master of the stage and Tucker excelled on screen. During this timeframe, Chris Rock release superb specials Bring The Pain and Bigger & Blacker, and also winning an Primetime Emmy for his work as the host of The Chris Rock Show. On the other hand, Chris Tucker appeared in a string of critically-acclaimed, box-office winners; Friday and Dead Presidents, released in 1995, but Tucker didn’t become a household name until 1998, when he starred alongside Jackie Chan in the worldwide hit, Rush Hour.
Chris Rock continued his run as a host and stand-up connoisseur, while Chris Tucker reprised his role as Detective James Carter in Rush Hour 2 and 3, all of which grossed highly in movie theaters.
Dave Chappelle (2003 – 2006)
Out of all the comics on this list, Dave Chappelle is perhaps the most enigmatic. After abruptly leaving The Chappelle Show due to creative differences, he went on an almost 12-year hiatus from television and film, sporadically performing at smaller venues across the nation. The reasoning for him refusing to continue the show he created is still unclear to the public, but when The Chappelle Show ran on Comedy Central from 2003 – 2006, its impact was undeniable.
As far as stand up, many people felt that it wasn’t as strong as his show. However, in recent years Dave Chappelle has become today’s top comedian, and he focuses on a range of topics, such as racism, relationships, societal issues, politics, and pop culture.
Katt Williams (2006 – 2009)
Most geniuses are also troubled. Katt Williams’ reign over the comedy world could have possibly lasted longer, but he ended up getting in his own way. Addiction and criminal behavior were detrimental to his career, but when he was at the top of his game, Katt’s talent was second-to-none. Most comics are either better at stand-up or acting, but Katt was equally as effective in both. Friday After Next, Rebound, Norbit and First Sunday gave viewers a glimpse into his artistic genius; It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’ and The Pimp Chronicles Pt. 1 remain popular choices in everyone’s movie rotation.
After brief stints in and out of prison, Katt Williams released Great America in 2018, exclusively on Netflix. He also made a cameo appearance in the critically-acclaimed Atlanta, which was met with favorable reviews. Due to his re-emergence in the comedy scene, Katt’s future looks bright, once again.
Kevin Hart (2009 – Present)
The lineage of transcendent comedians goes as follows: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Kevin Hart. What separated these three comics from their contemporaries was not the comedic genius that they possessed, but their business sense. Richard made it a thing for comedians to headline movies, Eddie made it more profitable, and Kevin sent it into the stratosphere. He may not be the funniest comic on this list, but one could make the argument that he puts in the most work. Since 2009, Kevin Hart has appeared in 30 films, performed 5 stand-up specials as well as producing countless others. Like Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle and Katt Williams, Kevin maintains a close relationship with hip-hop, through the music and its artists. Kevin Hart is going on a decade of dominance and shows no signs of letting up. It will be interesting to see how he transitions into the next phase of his career, whatever that may be.
In conclusion, I want to acknowledge the legends that preceded these comedians, such as Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx (just to name a few); they were pivotal to laying the foundation for black comedy. The trials and tribulations of life can become an overwhelming burden on even the most positive of individuals; sometimes it’s good to love, live and laugh.
Laughter is the best medicine, and the aforementioned names on this list have provided that gift to millions for almost 40 years. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call black excellence.