HOLLYWOOD -- Nipsey Russell, the poet laureate of television, is one of several African-American comedians featured in the new documentary "Mo' Funny: Black Comedy in America," premiering Tuesday on HBO.
Narrated by Charles Dutton of Fox's "Roc," the 90-minute special chronicles the history of black comedy in America, from the black-faced minstrel teams of the turn of the century, to comic servant movie actors of the '30s, to the civil rights comics of the '60s, to the current crop of comedians such as Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor.
The Atlanta-born Mr. Russell began his career as a youngster in Ragmuffins of Rhythm, a tap-dance team. He turned to comedy in the 1950s, and, along with Timmie Rogers and Redd Foxx, was one of the first black comics to refuse to talk in "Negro" dialects, to wear outlandish outfits or to appear in blackface.
Besides being a regular on numerous game shows, Mr. Russell, known for his comic rhymes, has appeared in such films as "The Wiz" and "Wildcats."
In a recent interview, Mr. Russell talked about his career and black comedy in America.
Q: What do you think audiences will learn from "Mo' Funny"?
A: It seemed to have a threefold purpose: One, of course, is obvious -- to amuse. The second is to give a sort of, I guess you call it historical account of what comedy was; and three, to sort of superimpose it as a social commentary on the development of the black experience through the years.
I tried to point out [in the documentary] that the comedians who came along in my era came as ourselves, not as comedy characters, which had been true of Lincoln Perry as Stepin Fetchit and Eddie Anderson as Rochester [on "The Jack Benny Show"].
Q: Who inspired you to become a comedian?
jTC A: Well, I was not inspired by comedians. I was a tap-dancer. I was part of a dance team called Ragmuffins of Rhythm and I am going back to [when I was] 3, 4 and 5 years old.
There was a dancer by the name of Jack Wiggins. The first time I saw Jack Wiggins, I must have been 9 or 10. He came out immaculately attired in a well-dressed street suit, and he tap-danced. As he danced, he told little jokes in between.
Q: You mention in the documentary that one agent wanted you to get a partner because he found it too aggressive if you talked directly to a white audience. Can you talk about that incident?
A: It was one particular guy who had in his office as clients Buck and Bubbles and Chuck and Chuckles -- all of those comedy dance acts. That was the way he thought black people should perform. When Mr. Frank Schiffman, [the owner] of the Apollo Theatre, asked him to come and see me, he saw me and said, "He is just great. We got to get him a partner, maybe a girl partner." I said, "Why do I need a partner?" He said, "You can't talk directly to a white audience. That is too aggressive. You can't look [a white audience] in the eye and make eye contact. You talk to your partner, and they will hear your jokes as you tell them to your partner. They will be spectators and you will be performers." That was his thinking. I don't even know if he was malicious in his thinking.