In his book Black Is the New White, comedy legend Paul Mooney writes the following about breaking into stand-up in 1970, at Ye Little Club, "Joan Rivers's joint in Beverly Hills." Caution -- unrestrained language ahead:
Joan opens the place so she and her comedian friends have a place to try out material. It's small, casual, intimate, a jazz club for jazz people. . . .
My comedy is a nuclear bomb inside my mind. It's a weapon that's never been tested. It just blows up and flattens everybody. I start out talking about the funniest shit I know, which is race.
Thank God, Paul Revere was white, because if he was black, they'd have shot his ass. "He done stole that horse, let's kill him! Kill him!" And who do they say sewed the flag, what's her name? Betsy Ross? Now, come on -- they had slaves back then. Betsy Ross was asleep at six. You know some big black mama was up at night sewing that flag! "Honey, oh, Lawd, have mercy, I'm just up so late sewing this flag, I'm seeing stars!" And she's thinking about the stripes on her back, from the whip. So there we get it, the stars and stripes. But as soon as the white men got there, the white lady Betsy Ross jumped up, "See what I did?"
Right away, I notice something. The black people in the audience react to me way differently than the white people. Like in this routine. White people like the killing of the black horse-thief. They like the coon talk of the slave woman.
But the white folks get tight-faced and nervous when I start making fun of the white lady Betsy Ross. I know they like history. White people like going back in time, which is always a problem for me. I can only go back so far. Any farther and my black ass is in chains.
At Ye Little Club, I always drop some history into my act. It's knowledge. There's always a message in my comedy. But it's like a time bomb. The audiences might not get it right away. But they get it later that night, the next day, a week later. Then they understand.
I start to study white audiences. I see their reactions. I get my first walkouts. A lot of white people remind me of scared rabbits. When the wolf comes out, they run. They twitch their little pink noses and haul ass out of there.
When I imitate middle-class white speech, I see a flicker of unease cross the faces of the white people in the audience. Then, when I go into ghetto riff, the smiles return. They're fine as long as I am making fun of the same kind of people they make fun of, chinks and spics and niggers. But as soon as I start talking about them, I can clear a room.
My favorite is Lassie. Is that dog smart. Goddamn that dog is smart. They talk to Lassie like Lassie is a person. "Lassie, hey, Lassie, how's your mom? I love you! Call me in an hour!" I saw one episode, Grandpa has a heart attack? Lassie drove him to the hospital. And made a left turn. I said, Goddamn, Lassie, this is a smart dog. . . .
When I'm up onstage, I'm watching the audience like a hawk. I'm analyzing little tics, tells, and reactions they don't even know they are having. I study them. I have jungle eyes, I don't miss a thing.
I start to get so I can orchestrate my act. Some nights I feel like I'm Quincy Jones, like I'm playing the white audience like an instrument. That line'll make 'em nervous, but this line'll bring 'em back. I tease it to the edge.
It's funny, isn't it? Most of the white folks at Ye Little Club laugh about everyone else, but when I talk about them, they suddenly lose their sense of humor. They freeze up like an engine out of oil. If I do it enough, if I push it too far for them, they get up and leave.
So I think, Fuck them. I do it more than enough and I push it too far. Some nights I'm not happy until I provoke a walkout.
That's when I find my true audience. Black people, who are always with me, and brave white people. The non-rabbits of the bunch. The ones who can laugh at themselves.
Paul Mooney is the creator and star of Know Your History -- Jesus Was Black ... So Was Cleopatra and Analyzing White America. Mooney has also worked widely as an actor (Hollywood Shuffle, The Buddy Holly Story, Bamboozled), as a screenwriter (Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling), and as a television writer (Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Richard Pryor Show, In Living Color, Chappelle's Show). Mooney's memoir Black Is the New White, which focuses largely on his relationship with his life-long friend Richard Pryor, is a great read -- insightful, hilarious, revealing, and everything else that Dave Chappelle says about it in the book's Foreword.