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PHOTO ESSAY

Early Black Comedians

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Godfrey Cambridge

Godfrey Cambridge in 1970 Melvin Van Peebles film, Watermelon Man. Courtesy of Photofest.

The Canadian-raised son of West Indian professionals, Godfrey Cambridge was an erudite, worldly wit, and represented a departure from the aw-shucks stereotypes that pervaded black casting decisions. While Cambridge never shied away from racial tropes—"Nothing worries [a white] more than the sight of a Negro walking down his street carrying the real estate section of the New York Times" remains one of his most enduring jokes—he spent the latter part of his career battling attempts to pigeonhole him as a "black comedian" or "black actor." Cambridge's biggest break came in 1964, when he made multiple appearances on The Jack Paar Program, a precursor to The Tonight Show, and became an audience favorite. Almost unthinkable even a decade earlier, by the early 1960s the entertainment industry had (slowly) begun offering African Americans more universal roles, allowing Cambridge the liberty to "do the little things that bug me" (Nachman). He had ample opportunity before his untimely death in 1974, having made several best-selling recordings and acted in plays, television, and movies, often portraying a variety of ethnicities and sexes. Godfrey remains best known for his race-based material, though much of it couched in generic American class-consciousness, such as his famous explanation that "[now] we carry an attaché case—with fried chicken in it. We ain't going to give up everything just to get along with you people."

Nachman, Gerald. Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. New York: Back Stage Books, 2003.

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