By Samantha Hunter
Issa Rae arguably had the most buzzworthy rise to stardom in 2016; thanks to the success of her breakout HBO hit comedy series Insecure. Issa is currently the new comedy “It” girl in the entertainment world and her win is a win for Black comediennes, who are still fighting in the trenches for a platform and position. When folks counted her out, Issa created a window for herself with the creation of her successful web series, Awkward Black Girl, which opened eyes and served as the launching pad for Insecure. Tracing the trajectory of her come-up is a potent and powerful reminder of what Black comediennes can achieve commercially if only given the chance. It was loud confirmation that the world needs to see more Black women showcasing their talent in the genre.
History has shown that the opportunity Issa received has not been granted widely to Black women in the comedy space. One would be challenged to name the Black women who have risen to the highest ranks in the industry to serve as equal counterparts to the Black men we consider legends, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby. With Moms Mabley pioneering the way, Whoopi Goldberg is the only woman irrefutably worthy of placement on the Mount Rushmore of Black comedy. Since the ‘80s Black male comedians have become an insanely lucrative commodity at the box office, pulling in billions of dollars thanks to films starring Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart. Which begs the question, why aren’t there more films with funny Black women as the lead? Why is it so hard for Black women in comedy to get that shot?
Comedian Jack Thriller, known as the King of Pop Comedy and a regular on the MTV comedy series Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ‘N Out, shared his thoughts on why it’s been so difficult for Black comediennes to get put on, stating, “Since the beginning of time, women have always been perceived as more inferior than men, even to the point where they can’t lead men in the free world as president. We’ll go as far as to elect a reality show person than get someone with a two X chromosomes.” In addition to the sexism Thriller also shared that the bandwagon many Black male comedians have hopped on, which is to dress up as women and tell jokes, is not the same as having the real deal and he thinks the trend is damaging. “As a little boy, I didn’t like Sheneneh (Martin Lawrence) or Wanda (Jamie Foxx). I thought it was easy and stupid. And why do they have to be the ugly Black girl? A beautiful Black woman can’t be duplicated or impersonated by a man. I think it sets us back so many more years and that’s what makes it hard to take us seriously.”
Black women have made great strides recently, in great part with the help of social media platforms, embracing and accepting their sisters in all of their diverse regality. The Black experience, particularly as it pertains to women, is not “one size fits all” or a “one-stop shop” and just as our experiences, or how we show up in the world, cannot be carbon-copied, boxed and sold to the masses, neither can our comedy. To assume that Black women share the same opinions, experiences, thoughts and truths solely because they share a race is a major misconception that leaves gaping holes in the way their diversified experience is expressed and reflected in entertainment.
Accomplished comedienne Luenell, one of the stars of the VH1.com documentary All Jokes Aside, is adamant that Black women should not be put in a box and have limits set on how sexy, raunchy, raw or real they want to be. Speaking of the unique perspective that Black comediennes bring to entertainment, Luenell shared, “Black female comics are the most underrated, unappreciated, disrespected entertainers in the whole entire industry… We’re always after-thoughts. You have many tours going on around the country right now, and they’ll have four or five men on the show and not one single female to represent the audience that they are performing in front of.”
The beauty of a film like the highly successful project The Queens of Comedy (2001) was that it showcased four distinctly different Black women telling comedic stories from their unique perspectives, and gave distinct points of connection that represented difference hues of the same collective experience. Not only is a diversified presence of Black women as reflected in the comedy world much needed and wanted, but it is long overdue. “Our voices need to be heard because we are very, very talented and worthy,” argues Lunell. And there is proof in the pudding that putting Black comediennes on is golden – Whoopi Goldberg’s coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), Monique’s 2010 Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress, and most recently Tracee Ellis Ross’ history-making Golden Globe win earlier this year are all powerful examples that Black comediennes have talent that produces success in the comedy world and if given a chance, far far beyond. All they need is the opportunity to tell their unique stories and to shine.
Debra Wilson, formerly of MADtv, addresses the importance of Black female comedians in entertainment.