By Marcus Reeves
Black women have been lighting up comedy stages across America for the over 80 years. From the hey days of vaudeville or the blossoming of the Black women stand-up comedians into America’s mainstream in the 1960s and ‘70s, Black women made sure the funny side of their existence had room in a male dominated world. Even if, like their Black male counterparts, for great many years that platform was limited to what has been known as the “chiltin’ ciruit,” a network of theaters and performance spaces that allowed Black entertainers to perform before Black audiences. Up until the ‘60s the segregated network was defined by law, but after the civil rights struggle the term chitlin’ circuit evolved to simply to mean clubs and theaters that Black people frequent. But, even still, this unspoken system has been a valuable platform for nurturing Black female comedians and their voices. And for Women’s History Month we take a look at those funny women of color who both pioneered the circuit as well as went beyond it to find mainstream success.
In her famous knitted hat and grandma housedress comedian Loretta Mary Aiken, better known as Moms Mabley, was a pioneer of the chitlin’ circuit. She was the first female stand-up comic as well as the first Black female comedian to crossover. Mabley gained fame in the 1920s and ’30s when she began doing her risqué stand-up before audiences at such star citlin’ circuit venues as Harlem’s Apollo Theatre where, in the early days, she would make up to 10,000 a week. Mabley wouldn’t see mainstream stardom until 1967 after she appeared on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She appeared in such films as Killer Diller (1948) and Amazing Grace (1974). Moms died in 1975.
Best know for role as Shirley the waitress from the groundbreaking ’70 sitcom What’s Happening!! Shirley Hemphill began her career as a stand-up comedian hailing from North Carolina, where she honed her comedic skills at local night clubs. She would go on to be featured in TV shows like The Love Boat and The Wayans Bros. Hemphill died from kidney failure in 1999.
Comedian LaWanda Page will forever be known as Aunt Ester on the hit comedy series Sanford and Son. But before her famed holy rants on TV, Page was a well-know stand-up throughout Black comedy spots in her home state of St. Louis and Los Angeles. As part of the comedy team Skillet, Leroy & Co., Page’s X-rated routines were such a hit on the chitlin’ circuit, she recorded her routines for Laff Records. Her comedy LP’s included Watch it Sucka (1972) and Pipe Layin Dan (1973). In 2002, Page died from complications due to diabetes.
This comedic Chicago-native honed her humor skills on the Black comedy circuit until her big break when she landed on the impactful but short-lived TV sketch series the Richard Pryor Show in 1977. Later she would become nationally know for her role as the humorously serious bailiff Roz on Night Court.
She may be one of the star hosts of the hit round-table talk show The Talk, but comedian Sheryl Underwood was also apart of the push to take the Black comedian chitlin’ circuit to the mainstream. After honing her comedic chops in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Underwood caught her national break on the Russell Simmons-produced Def Comedy Jam, a groundbreaking show aimed at giving Black comedians a nation-wide platform.
Currently one of the unsung stars of Black stand-up comedy, Sommore began her career in the early ‘90s as mainstream TV shows like Def Comedy Jam and The Uptown Comedy Club was showing America what the comedic chitlin’ circuit had to offer. Along with appearing in such films as Friday After Next and Something New she also co-headlined the famed Queens of Comedy tour and film.
Before Sherri Shephard served a successful stint as co-host of hit talk show The View or her appearances in films as Beauty Shop and Precious, she was a note-worthy stand-up comedienne working the Black comedy circuit across the country.
Comedian Leslie Jones killed on the Black comedy circuit for over a decade before Chris Rock helped her become the latest addition to Saturday Night Live, where she’s become a comedic superstar, starring in the hit reboot of Ghostbusters and the animated hit Sing. [/item] Mo’Nique
Another unsung female vet of the Black comedy circuit is Melanie Camacho, who won national exposure with her 1993 appearance on Showtime at the Apollo. Along with her stand-up, Camacho has gone on to appear on TV shows like Everybody Hates Chris and The Sarah Silverman Program.
Before garnering her reoccurring role on the TV sitcom The Hughleys or Tracey Takes On or film roles in The Player’s Club and Beauty Shop…Adele Givens had been rising star of Black comedy’s chitlin’ circuit. Her journey was set in 1989 when she won a comedy contest at Chicago’s Regal Theater.
This one-named wonder transitioned from the stand-up stage to the big screen in 1993’s So I Married an Ax Murderer and 1996’s The Rock. But she would break into the national spotlight via her prank performance in the hit 2006 comedy film Borat.
After opening up for Chris Rock, comedian Wanda Sykes first gained national exposure as a cast member/writer on The Chris Rock Show. But she would see mainstream stardom after her reoccurring role as herself on the hit cable series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Along with scoring her own, short-lived TV sitcom Wanda in Charge, Sykes has been presence on the small and big screens. She currently stars on the hit TV series Blackish.
Fans of comedy best know Debra Wilson from her hilarious run on the TV sketch comedy show MADtv. Her career began with an appearance on The Apollo Comedy Hour and The Uptown Comedy Club. In her mainstream success, Wilson has become sought after for her voice work (an extension of her hilarious impressions), lending her chops to such hit projects as the films Avatar and the smash cartoon Family Guy.
Celebrate the accomplishments of Black women in comedy by watching the exclusive VH1.com documentary All Jokes Aside.