Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

Early Black Comedians

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Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory performs on the Ed Sullivan Show. Courtesy of Photofest.

The rise of Dick Gregory in the late 1950s marked a significant development in American comedy. Prior to Gregory, a stinging, political raconteur, it was rare for any American comedian to examine racism in his routine (explicitly racist caricatures portrayed by Bert Williams and other minstrel stars notwithstanding). Godfrey Cambridge, a contemporary of Gregory, often made lighthearted—though brilliant—asides on racial differences, but from the start of his career Gregory was unapologetic about his views on American race relations. In a representative jest, in 1965 he remarked about football that "[it's] a fair sport for my people. Only sport in the world a Negro can chase a white man and 40,000 people stand up and cheer him." Interestingly, at the same time Gregory was shocking American audiences, another famous Philadelphia comedian, Bill Cosby, was doing precisely the opposite. Cosby, who by the 1980s would eclipse Gregory in popularity, shied away from racial topics almost entirely. Though close friends, the two came to represent the opposite poles of the comedy spectrum: pure entertainment versus social critique.

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