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Comedy goes black to basics

Ask your average Saturday night prime-time BBC1 viewer what black comedy means and he'll blink and mutter something about Lenny Henry, before admitting defeat: "Black-and-white minstrels don't count, do they mate?"

The one consistently notable absence over the PC years of alternative stand-up has been the lack of quality black comedians. Henry, Felix Dexter and um, oh yeah, that Real McCoy lot. It's a fact that alternative comedy's anti-race credo has made little impact on the mainstream club circuit; nevertheless the last few years have seen black comedians springing up in marginal London theatres, playing to and winning over largely black audiences.

Black-to-black comedy is vital for the spiritual well-being of the black community, but as Lenny Henry says in Joking Apart, tonight's exploration of black comedy (7.30pm R4), "there comes a time when the need to communicate to a wider audience is going to be desirable ...people will say cross- over stinks, it smells of selling out. But, like Billy Connolly says, `I want to sell out'."

And as black stand-ups look to the big time, we shouldn't forget how hard it was for a black comedian starting out 20 years ago. You've only got to look at Charlie Williams, who felt the need to employ self-denigration to the extent that the Guardian termed him "a comic who told earthy gags and funny anti-immigration stories".