Richard Pryor in a famous photograph from the 1970's, in Robert Townsend's new documentary film "Why We Laugh".  (Photo via Sundance Film Festival)

Robert Townsend, Laughing Up A Serious History
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
January 19, 2009

It had been 18 years since the interviewer last talked to filmmaker Robert Townsend, which was via telephone on the New York City late night radio program "Night Talk With Bob Law", where Mr. Townsend was promoting his then-new film "The Five Heartbeats", a drama about a quintet of soul-singing musicians who go through many trials, laughs and tribulations.  Since that time, Mr. Townsend has only intermittently been on the scene on the big screen and recently the interviewer caught up with him after an almost two-decade-long absence between conversations.

"There's a lot of reasons why we laugh," said Mr. Townsend late last week from Park City, Utah where the weather was apparently not as cold as it promised to be.  "A lot of it comes out of pain, a lot it comes out of frustration, and then some of it comes out of pure joy.  Some of it comes out of vision and comes out of hustle, you know, a need to survive." 

Mr. Townsend was speaking via telephone for a few minutes about his new film "Why We Laugh", a documentary being shown out of competition at the current Sundance Film Festival.  "Why We Laugh" examines the historical importance of comedy, specifically black comedy and traces the legacy of early black comedians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries right through the generations with Richard Pryor, up to the present day's comedians such as Chris Rock, Steve Harvey and many others.  Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory, Paul Mooney, Keenan Ivory Wayans, D.L. Hughley, Mr. Rock, Mr. Harvey and numerous other comedic talents and legends are interviewed by the "Hollywood Shuffle" director as he and they examine the changing face of black comedy in America. 

Robert Townsend knows a little something about comedy, having directed such films as "Eddie Murphy Raw", a concert film from 1987 featuring Mr. Murphy's 90-minute stand-up act.  He also directed the action comedy film "The Meteor Man", as well as several films for television.  When Mr. Townsend spoke for this story, "Why We Laugh" was to have its world premiere at Sundance the following Saturday night, brings food for thought to audiences.  Revealed Mr. Townsend: "We talk about the comedians that had to wear blackface makeup.  And if they didn't wear the makeup they couldn't go on stage.  And they couldn't make a living.  And so that was a time where they had to do it to survive.  We talk about comedians right now, that some of the comedians have an opportunity to do different things and when they're still doing what we call a coon show -- so a lot of people talk about how sad it is because a lot of the comedians are looking for the gold rush to make a fast buck.  And there's not that many comedians that look at stand-up comedy as a craft," said the director, who noted Dave Chappelle among the very few today who have, he said, looked at comedy as a craft and an art form.

Black comedians at the turn of the 20th century like Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit were very intelligent people whom because of the extreme and blatant racism in American society at the time had no choice but to perform the degrading rituals and routines they endured for largely white audiences or go hungry, but the "Why We Laugh" director disclosed some little-known facts about Mr. Fetchit.  "Stepin Fetchit had another job being an editor for The Chicago Defender, which was one of the top newspapers in Chicago.  He was a brilliant man.  What people don't know is that he had two phones in his house.  One was connected to the studio, and one for his friends.  When the studio phone rang he'd go, "yessah, yah I will suh," and when the other phone rang he'd go, "hey, how's it going?"  "He had 15 servants, five limousines. . . a lot of people don't know that side.  They just see a guy shuffling on screen."

As for the state of comedy today, Mr. Townsend has a view that might suggest that there's been a regression in the way comedy is exhibited to audiences, not unlike the way Sundays in American churches are populated.

"I think right now it's very segregated, which is sad because now you know it's like watching with the WB and CW (television networks) where all black shows are on this night and . . . where there's all black comedy clubs and there's all white comedy clubs.  I think that real comedians know how to make people laugh.  I think that [certain comedians] are missing out on things when they say they only want this audience.  I think there's something to be learned about really doing your homework and really opening your soul on a broader level," said Mr. Townsend, who cited Bill Cosby's international comedy stardom and the endless risks Richard Pryor took in front of audiences no matter the color. 

To an extent, Paul Mooney, who wrote all of Mr. Pryor's material, is one of the few comedians who openly takes chances in front of audiences both white and black.  Mr. Mooney, who also had a role in Spike Lee's 2000 film "Bamboozled", which took a sharp satirical look at blackface routines on television and in the movies, positing that the era is very much alive and well for some comedians, actors and filmmakers alike.

About the dreaded "n-word", used by many black comedians today including Mr. Rock and Mr. Chappelle, Mr. Townsend points to something that one of the "Why We Laugh" participants says.  "Steve Harvey says something really powerful.  'Don't throw it out there and get mad if somebody comes back at you.'  Because a lot of these comedians get mad when they hear somebody white say n----r or something like that.  But if they've said it on stage a hundred times and they get offstage and somebody goes, 'oh man, that n----r joke you did!' and then they get upset."  Mr. Townsend hastens to add that the whole debate about the racial epithet that has been used for decades against black people is not as much about freedom of speech as it is the consequences of the word's repeated use.  "The real deal," observed Mr. Townsend, "is that you have to -- and it's not about censorship, but you really do have to watch, you know, knowing that it's going to affect millions of people.  And there's certain people that don't have a voice out there that will watch a certain show on a cable network and hear cursing and the "n-word" and then they'll feel comfortable and use that at their job, you know.  And that black employee might not have the courage to stand up to their boss, but now [the boss feels] comfortable because they see black people [saying the "n"-word] on a consistent level."

A lot of the black comedians today, according to Mr. Townsend, are putting on heirs and not being real so as to create a certain persona.  "Richard Pryor was just true to himself.  He wasn't trying to put on any heirs . . .  Redd Foxx was true to Redd Foxx.  Chris Rock is true to Chris Rock.  Dick Gregory was true to Dick Gregory.  I just think that, you know, to survive in the comedy game you must have a unique voice.  And a lot of the comedians haven't taken the time to hone their voices."

As for Mr. Townsend -- who unlike many filmmakers tips his hat toward one film of his that may be a personal favorite -- what's next on the horizon? 

"People ask me all the time, am I going to do a sequel to The Five Heartbeats?  I don't know how to create a sequel but we've been having discussions about doing a Broadway show.  And so that's one thing that I would say -- it's not a sequel but it's another version of The Five Heartbeats.  'Cause people love the heart and music of that film and that's one of my babies."

One wonders though: would the musical be called The Five Pacemakers?

"No", Mr. Townsend says between bouts of laughter. 

"No.  But The Five Heartbeats is my, is one of my babies.  I mean, you know it's so funny because it always airs on BET and there's a whole new generation of kids that come up to me and go, you know, 'Duck!'  And I'm like, oh my God!  (They say) 'I love that movie!'  And I'm like, 'how old are you?'  (They say) 'I'm ten . . . and I saw it on BET or whatever . . . so you know, you get a lot of love and people just love that film."

When reminded about the phone conversation about the film on "Night Talk" radio show back in 1991, Mr. Townsend exclaimed, "Oh my God!  Well -- okay, well good reconnecting with you!  Oh man.  That's a long time ago!", he laughed.

The running time for "Why We Laugh" is one hour and 35 minutes.  The film is written by Quincy Newell and John Long and based on Darryl Littleton's book Black Comedians On Black Comedy.

Remaining screenings locations and times for "Why We Laugh" at the Sundance Film Festival -- all are being held in Park City, Utah.  All times are Mountain U.S.

Monday, January 19 @ 11:30 PM
Prospector Square Theatre

Tuesday, January 20 @ 10:30 PM
Holiday Village I

Thursday, January 22 @ 11:30 AM
Holiday Village III

For more information visit

The Popcorn Reel Sundance 2009 Coverage

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2009.  All Rights Reserved.


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