Early Black Comedians
Lawanda Page as Aunt Esther. Courtesy of Photofest.
While never transcending race-based typecasts, Lawanda Page demonstrated that the inanities of
everyday life were hardly exclusive to race. Her most famous role came as Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son, the popular
mid-1970s black sitcom starring Redd Foxx, where she played a religious, ever-contentious killjoy who was
constantly feuding with her brother-in-law (Foxx). Sanford, which aired on NBC, was a sanitization of
sorts—like Chitlin' Circuit coperformers Foxx, "Moms" Mabley, and Skillet & Leroy, Page
had made her name in "blue" comedy, the term for bawdy, hypersexual routines—but its success
proved that white Americans would respond to a show with an "undercurrent of the political and social condition
of African Americans frequently mixed in" (Burroughs). Page was a gifted stand-up, as well as a
sought-after insult comic, participating in the roasts of Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, and Dean Martin.
Burroughs, Todd Steven. "Comedians." In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the
Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Paul Finkelman, New York:
Oxford University Press, 2008.