Black and blue: Across the Atlantic, black comedy is big business. One New York comedian tells James Rampton that it's time Britain listened up
Wednesday 23 March 1994
He and his fellow stand-ups Talent and Wil may well experience similar culture shocks when they start their New York Talk tour this week. Their earthier jokes might raise more eyebrows than laughs; 'Ladies, pull your titties out,' may not be as well received in Handsworth as it seems to be in Harlem.
John Simmit, a black British stand-up who is organising and compering the tour, is aware of the transatlantic gulf in sensibilities. 'They'll be briefed on that,' he says. 'They'll be given pointers - what is likely to go down the toilet and what is likely to go down well. They're coming here to succeed rather than alienate audiences. If you're a stand-up, it's up to you to make alterations, to take your audience into account. The reference- points are different. Nothing is taboo, but how you handle it is.'
Black comedians are big business in the States. Once, they were patronised with the odd token appearance on white comedy shows. But now, the ravenous maw of American television can't get enough of them; as well as network hits like In Living Color and Hangin' with Mr Cooper and Home Box Office's top-rated (and uncensored) Def Jam Comedy, there is Black Entertainment Television, a cable channel with 60 million subscribers.
The change of attitude was, of course, dictated by commerce, not compassion. When beady-eyed TV executives saw the audiences pulled by Richard Pryor in the early 1970s, the dollar signs lit up. 'If they think they can make some money, they become colour-blind,' Edwards laughs down a crackly line from New York. 'Green is the only colour they see.'
Pryor was an influence on black comics on both sides of the Atlantic. 'The honesty of Richard Pryor opened a lot of comedians' eyes,' Simmit avers. 'Some of the younger generation are taking his clothes, but they don't fit. Long before Def Jam, he was exploding taboos - but he was funny with it.'
Edwards takes up the theme. 'He paints pictures with words. You just try to capture a bit of what he's doing. Watching a Richard Pryor tape is like watching an exercise tape; it won't give you the same body, but it'll make your body better.'
The workouts have worked for Edwards and his two colleagues. They are accomplished stand-ups - a fact Simmit feels has been underappreciated by the more mainstream British venues which turned down offers to stage New York Talk. 'They treated us as upstarts trying to push our way through, but black comedy is the biggest thing to hit the circuit since alternative comedy. Remember, comedy's largely about selling beer.'
British TV also has a lot to learn from its American counterpart. Simmit thinks BBC2's black sketch- show, The Real McCoy, is a step in the right direction, 'but it's still part of the old syndrome of quotas - we only need one Lenny Henry, one Frank Bruno, one Real McCoy.'
Plans are afoot for a return visit to the US by some British comics in September (possible title: Brummie Banter?). Simmit, however, is under no illusions: 'The American comedy stage is littered with the corpses of British comedians.' In the meantime, Simmit is aiming to foster some mutual understanding; he hopes New York Talk will 'shatter the illusion that we live in Birmingham and they live on Mars.'
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