Wicked Wanda:In the Tradition!

Wand Rocks The white House

 Wanda Rocks The white House
 Wanda’s Wicked Wit Shines at Correspondent’s Dinner

The White House Correspondent’s Dinner has often been the scene of off beat comedy, but Wanda Sykes broke the mould; she really unloaded on the right-wing Republican naysayers and offended some powerful people. Yet as Sigmund Freud once observed: throughout history when powerless men spoke truth to power they chose the clown’s disguise to do it.  And Wanda did it with high style, firmly in the Afro-American tradition of Joking, jiving and signifying, as Dr. Geneva Smitherman put it in her treatise on Black English.

However in the history of Afro-American comedy this kind of candor was not always possible when addressing white audiences.  As Professor Botkin notes in his seminal study Sambo: The Rise and Fall of an American Jester, due to thefact thatwhite supremacist had defined the black character as bestial and stupid, Sambo, the first American comic figure, was denied the wisdom of the European court jester because he was black, and therefore he was just a fool.

However the Sambo image that black Minstrels showed to white audiences was a vicious racist parody of black character created and defined by white performers in black face – mostly Irishmen – and blacks simply slipped into the role when they entered the Minstrel shows playing to whites, which was the most popular form of mass entertainment of the 19th century. Even so talented an artist and dignified a gentleman as Bert Williams, whose career took off in the 1890’s and extended into the early twentieth century, was forced into the blackface Sambo stereotype in order to play before white audiences where the money was.

The Great Bert Williams

Forced to wear black face, parodying a parody
  Forced to wear black face, parodying a parody

On the other hand the Afro-American cultural critic and reigning authority of black American humor, Mel Watkins, points out in his seminal study of Afro-American comedy, On the Real Side, that the real black comedic tradition was the tales, toasts and jokes black people told to black audiences when white folks weren’t around.  In this tradition – which Watkins calls “the underground tradition of Afro-American comedy” – comedian Dick Gregory observes: “The white man is the butt of the Joke.”


 Dick Gregory, still droppin science in the autumn of life

A pioneer black political humorist 

For instance, a joke that was popular when I was a boy in apartheid Florida, where we lived in a state of low intensity warfare with the dominant white community, concerned a belligerent white man who caught a black man poaching a rabbit on his property.  The white man says “nigger whatever you was gonna do to that rabbit that’s exactly what I’m gonna do to you.”  To wit the black man said: Well Captin…I was jest about to kiss his ass and let him go!”

 This is the type of humor to which Mel Watkins is referencing when he talks about the real black comedic tradition.  And that is the tradition in which Wanda Sykes was working during her performance at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner on Saturday Night.  One could also hear echoes of the political erudition of Mort Sahl as well as the daring and irreverence of Lenny Bruce.  But in her folksy demeanor, female wisdom and jazzy street wise riffs Wanda reminds me most of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a great comedian whom Bill Cosby claims as a major influence.

 Moms at work!

 A pioneering black woman comic 

 Wanda’s Soul Sister

While the President’s speech was clever satire, which he delivered with panache, Wanda took it outside. She was all the way live!   In the beginning she offered affectionate comments on the absurdities of life at the pinnacle of power, they were witty and slightly irreverent in a good natured sort of way.  But when she turned her attention to the President’s critics Wanda got raunchy; real down and dirty.  But the power in her comedy resided in the fact that the things she said about the President’s right-wing critics were true; and chastisement of verbose scoundrels and flagrant phonies like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity echoed what many in the audience were thinking but dare not say. 

When she held Rush’s rhetoric up to ridicule it was roundly applauded.  And her elaboration on his stated desire to see President Obama fail, calling it synonymous with Osama bin Laden’s plan for America and branding it “treason,” she got tumultuous applause.  Although the white folks didn’t really dig where she was coming from, since few know anything about the Afro-American folk tradition called “playing the dirty dozens,” but sister/girlfriend took Sean and Rush deep into the dozens.  Home girl was ragging Rush’s rotund butt so hard I though she was gonna scandalize his momma and grandma too.  Instead she stuck to his follies, which proved more than sufficient as a mine of comedic material.

A Muddle-headed Red Neck Heroin Freak!

 The Devil! 

 Fatty Limbaugh: A natural target for black comics!

 Limbaugh likes to call himself “an entertainer” at the same time that he is asking people to take him seriously as a critic of the Republican and Democratic parties.  The Democrats pay him no mind, but the Republicans treat him like a philosopher King, dutifully assuming the lips to posterior he demands from party bigwigs in turn for his support – for they can’t win the morons who comprise the Republican base without anointment from the clown prince of the party.  Sista Sykes however, treated him with the respect his position deserves.  Since Rush is a clown, Wanda made fun of him!

Alas her comedy was razor sharp and she sliced and diced Old Rushbo like the obnoxious Porky Pig that he is.  She even accused him of being the mysterious “twentieth Hijacker” in the team that wreaked havoc in America on 911,”But he was so strung out on Oxycontin he missed the plane!”  Wanda went on to ridicule the fat foul mouth buffoon, examining his wish that President Obama fail.  Does he want people to lose their homes and life savings…and what about the soldiers in Iraq? She asked.  Then she said he hopes the President fails; I hope his kidneys fail!” While many Republican commentators – an even some benevolent but misguided democrats – says she “crossed the line” I say “me too Sista girlfriend.”

Actually, this kind of comedic comment is very much in the tradition of the powerless black poacher who employed his wit to tell the white land owner to kiss his ass, or the character Red Foxx created who would tell white audiences: If you laugh at my jokes I wish you a good evening; if you don’t I hope your dog dies!”  On other occasions he would tell them things like “I know you white folks believe that all Negroes carry razors; but that’s a damn lie because I’ve been carrying an ice pick for years!”

Redd Foxx!

Red Fox A Chi-Town Original

The monologue from Richard Pryor’s Bicentennial Nigger album is another case in point.  Richard Pryor, as Mel Watkins points out, was perhaps the first black comedian to give white folks an unabridged view of the way the average black person envisions them in the idiomatic language of the streets.

The Genius!

Richard Pryor

Reckless Richard doing his very blue humor

Once Wanda whipped Rush like a runaway slave, she turned her acid tongue and devastating wit on Sean Hannity. A blabbermouth pussy masquerading as a tough guy, Hannity offered to be water boarded in order to prove that it’s not torture.  High on hubris he even offered to donate money generated from this performance to a charity for our combat veterans. After pointing out that thus far Sean has been all blow and no go, he talks the talk but won’t walk the walk!   She called his bluff: “Sean Hannity said he was going to get water boarded for charity, for our armed forces….He hasn’t done it yet.  Talking about he can take a water boarding.  Yeah you might be able to take it from somebody you know and trust.” She said.  But that doesn’t count.  So she suggested some candidates to water board the cowardly blow hard.

“Let somebody from Pakistan do it; let Keith Olberman do it!” The suggestion of Olberman brought the house down; Olberman was sitting in the audience and he nearly hit the floor laughing.  The joke provoked such hysterical laughter because Keith Olberman is a ruthless critic of the wags on the rabid right, and he is keeping a tally on each day that Sean refuses to “man up” and submit him self for water boarding.  Olberman has even offered to pay a thousand dollars for every second that Sean lasts under a water boarding regime.   But Wanda is not surprised that Sean didn’t show, pointing out to the audience “I could break Sean just by sitting him in the  middle seat on an airliner!  She cracked the audience up again.

It was a great night for the Democrats and an even greater night for Afro-Americans.  In a way it was a triumph for black people everywhere, because many them still take their cues as to what is possible from the triumphs of black Americans.  And it President Obama and Wanda Sykes, they got a generous eyeful of Afro-American eloquence, erudition, wit, and wisdom.  And in the person of the First Lady we beheld a paragon of grace and elegance in style and manners.  Plus she has become an icon of style and beauty admired and emulated by the women of all nations.   And she just got in the White House.  I think that she and Wanda are both wonderful role models for young women who are trying to define themselves, as both are smart career women who chose the life the live.

Finally let me conclude with a word to magic Wanda. Although Keith Olberman wimped out and said you “went over the line“ in your snaps on Fatty Limbaugh and your mention of 9/11, I think you were right on!   I get that the comedic devises you used are based in exaggeration and hyperbole, and it was intended to hold the ridiculous, and racist, statements spewed by Limbaugh and Hannity on a daily basis up to ridicule.  So we are of the same heart regarding these two verbal arsonists and bunko artists; in fact, every time I hear their names I spontaneous began to sing the hook from that great American standard: “I’ll be glad when you’re dead you rascal you!”  We’ve come a long way baby, now we can speak our minds in this country without fear of disaster.  I am one of those who fought for that right, and you are making the most of it.   Bravo Wanda!  You are the new Queen of Snap.

Double click to View Wanda’s Performance
Pt- I



Playthell Benjamin
Commentaries on the Times
Harlem, New York 
May 11, 2009

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