Monday, October 29, 2007

Comedy Hero: Robert Townsend

To be honest, I don't know much about Robert Townsend. I vaguely remember him when I was kid growing up. But I was reminded of his great influence by a dear old comedy buddy of mine, Jason Miles, who reveres his work. One day Jason asked me, "Do you know Robert Townsend?" I squinted my eyes shut and grimaced a little as I tried to recall the name.

"Yyyyeaah, kinda."

"Kinda?" Jason scoffed and rolled his eyes. "You better recognize!"

My ego immediately dwarfed ten sizes.

It was THAT conversation which inspired this very post.

Let's begin, shall we?

Robert Townsend was another stand-up comedian to make his mark in the 80s. He was so successful in stand-up that he later was offered a contract with Saturday Night Live, only to have his position replaced by Eddie Murphy.
Townsend was the first when it came to bringing the uncomfortable race-based issues (more specifically black issues) to the mainstream. And he did it cleverly, not "in-your-face" like other black comedians were doing at the time.

One of the most important tasks of a manager is to eliminate his people's excuses for failure. --Robert Townsend

He brought to the forefront the subtleties of racism in the entertainment industry--what the average person (the viewer) didn't see going on behind the scenes. And Townsend chose to tell the untold story in a comedic manner. It's hard enough to "make it" as an actor. Townsend decided it was time (even so late in the 80s) to show how much harder it is to make it as a black actor, by profiling the casting process, writing lines, and the general buffoonery backstage.
We (the audience) were barely seeing black people in Hollywood but definitely never hearing about the "behind-the-scenes". He gave a black voice and put his comedic spin on situation after situation, most of it stemming from his real life experiences.

He probably was the most influential with regards to black sketch comedy and black commentary on politics issues. Before there was The Boondocks, Chappelle's Show, before there was In Living Color, there was Hollywood Shuffle.

Here's a must see clip from Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle, entitled Black Acting 101.

[Robert Townsend Official Site | Robert Townsend Int'l Movie Database | Robert Townsend Wikipedia ]

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Josh Homer said...

don't forget Robert Townsend and His Partners In Crime! It was a series of stand up specials that highlighted black comics of that time as well as black sketch comedy, many of the people from In Living Color were on it, as well as people who went on to do I'm Gonna Get You Sucka. Classics!

raffi said...

i remember "his partners in crime", but don't forget "hollywood shuffle" and "meteor man". of course, i think the wayans bros took over with "in living color" and "i'm gonna get you sucka". in the end, they were all great.

Lucy said...

Josh Homer - Duly noted! Thanks for the input, Josh!

Raffi - Clearly you and Josh are on the same page. Hollywood shuffle wasn't forgotten. That's where the clip came from. But I'll be sure to check out what both you and Josh have suggested.