As a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, my parents had a random but effective rubric for what I was and wasn’t allowed to watch with them. Ultra-violent and ultra-adult movies about the mafia and other crime sagas were cool. Movies with explicit sexual content or language that would frequently refer to explicit sexual acts was not. To wit, I was eight or nine when they allowed me to watch The Godfather with them; 10 when they bought me the book (which is even more violent and explicit), and 11 when they took me to see The Godfather III a day after Christmas. We’d also regularly cite lines and scenes and themes from Miller’s Crossing and Goodfellas; we’d debate whether Keyser Soze was more ruthless than Michael Corleone (he was, no contest); and we’d laugh at the dark comedy in Tarantino's nihilistic pulp.
(Of course, there was also explicit sexual content and/or language in each of the Godfathers, every Scorcese movie, and every Tarantino movie, but who was I to question my parents’ arbitrarily inconsistent rule?)
Anyway, they didn’t forbid me from watching movies and shows that fell under the “Yeah…we can’t watch this shit with you in room” umbrella. I’d just have to watch them on my own. Which is how I discovered, became engaged with, and eventually obsessed with HBO’s Def Comedy Jam.
Some of the best skits are still etched into my memory. I don’t need Google’s assistance to write about Eddie Griffin’s hilarious and demonstrative bit that brought down the house with an impression of Michael Jackson. I remember an even then loudly-attired Steve Harvey riffing on Mitch “Blood” Green, the man who stupidly decided to get into a street fight with Mike Tyson and left with an eye so swollen that it basically became a whole entire second head. And of course I’ll never forget Bernie Mac’s iconic “I aint scared of you motherfuckas” set; each joke punctuated with a beat drop and Mac exclaiming “Kick Ass!”
But even more than the specific bits — genuinely explosive, frequently obscene, occasionally star-making, and consistently running the gamut from legitimately hilarious to “yeah…this dude should go to night school or something cause this comedy thing ain’t working for him” — Def Comedy Jam’s most resonate legacy to me was how it provided an unfettered look at a particular type of authentically Black dialogue and humor I’d never seen on TV before. Of course, I’d seen hour-long specials from Eddie and Pryor and Cosby and Redd and others before, but each of those comedians were already mainstream stars by the time I found them. Shit, Richard Pryor was in freakin Superman. I wouldn’t dare say that any of these icons pandered to — or, at the very least, actively solicited — the White gaze. But while watching them I never lost cognizance of the fact that White people were watching too.
Yet, although Def Comedy Jam undoubtedly had White fans (and even a White comedian or two), it didn’t seem very interested in or concerned with them. There was no explaining or needless exposition, no self-conscious code switching, and a complete and utter lack of fucks given about any notion of respectability. This wasn’t even barbershop or beauty salon or BBQ Blackness. Because sometimes at barbershops and beauty salons and BBQs, there are people there you’re cool with but not cool cool with and you give your jokes a bit more filter and a bit less punch. And sometimes you just gotta be professional and shit because there are customers or kids or someone’s grandmom around. This, however, was back porch Blackness. Basement house party Blackness. “Wait…how the hell did HBO even allow this on TV?” Blackness. And for a little and bit-too-curious and precocious Black kid still too young to understand all of the jokes but definitely old enough to sense the love for Black people coursing through them, it was aspirational. Not the comedy, per se, but the freedom. To be as Black as I gotdamn well wanted to be.
Def Comedy Jam returns this Saturday, in the form of the All Def Comedy special, hosted by Tony Rock and featuring Chris Powell, Zainab Johnson, Kevin Tate, Robert Powell, and Tony Roberts. Perhaps one of these comedians will be the next Ced the Entertainer or the next Sommore or the next Chappelle. We’ll see. And perhaps some little Black kid out there will sneak and watch the special while his parents aren’t around. And maybe he’ll laugh at the jokes he gets and the ones he doesn’t quite get yet. And maybe he’ll aspire to be that confident, to have that same command of language, to have that same ability to control a room, and to be that free to be as Black as he gotdamn wants to be.
I guess we’ll see.