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)
THE POPCORN REEL 2009
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL FOCUS
Robert Townsend, Laughing Up A Serious
Omar P.L. Moore/The
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
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
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
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
Monday, January 19 @ 11:30 PM
Prospector Square Theatre
January 20 @ 10:30 PM
January 22 @ 11:30 AM
For more information visit
The Popcorn Reel Sundance 2009 Coverage
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