Hope, Humor, and the Healing We Need Right Now

Richard Pryor and the Laughter Revolution

Jason Thompson / 6.8.20

Our best hope right now just might be humor. Recent events have reminded us that racism is one of the uglier elephants in the room: a festering disease we have swept under the rug for years and dealt with superficially at best; an unresolved issue exacerbated by our unwillingness to come to the table and dialog with or, more importantly, to listen to one another. Instead of difficult conversations, it’s easier to hide behind memes and social media profiles, stereotype the “other side,” or exchange epithets. If I can make you ‘other’ by labeling you, I don’t have to get my hands dirty and actually do the hard work of getting to know you, the individual.

Regardless of race, we all love us/them dichotomies and groups often discriminates within themselves. One of Spike Lee’s earliest films, School Daze, examined this tendency in the Black Community. A fictitious HBCU campus displays a cross section of the tension that has historically persisted between the light and the dark skinned, the socially conscious and the frat types, the upwardly mobile and those from lower income backgrounds, etc. As Dr. Seuss succinctly diagnosed in his veiled civil rights parable, The Sneetches, human beings are notorious for making inconsequential distinctions.

The root problem with ‘race’ is a heart thing (cf. Jer 17:9). But humor has a way of bypassing the defenses and penetrating the heart in a way few other methods can. Through humor, we can talk about things we might otherwise not. Which brings me to one of my modern day heroes: St. Richard. In the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s, Richard Pryor used comedy to get people to talk about what no one wanted to talk about. Richard was incidentally the first Black comedian to do a caricature of white people in his routine — which is remarkable considering the long history of blackface, minstrel depictions that dominated vaudeville, radio, and Hollywood (all of which still persist in subtle forms today).

Through his unprecedented approach, he inadvertently integrated his audiences and was instrumental in bringing about the revolution we desperately needed then and still do right now. He was getting people to talk about our cultural differences and, more importantly, to laugh about them. What George Jefferson had intimated, Richard developed, embellished, and perfected via a cross-platform enterprise that included stand-up records, TV, numerous film credits, and the implementation of multiple characters and alter egos. Others of course followed suit and built on his legacy including: Dave Chappelle, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Key & Peele, Chris Rock, and Martin Lawrence, but no one has come close to his innovation, unique style, and inimitable ability to lace comedy with indicting social commentary that got all of us to laugh at our foibles, insecurities, and inconsistencies. I don’t know about you, but right about now, my heart could use a refill of his classic monologues, his sobering commentary on race relations, those perennial skits from SNL, and the short lived CBS program, The Richard Pryor Show.

I remember years ago, a guy I knew in high school quipped that hell is a movie theater where you’re forced to watch a film of your worst moments. For years, I thought this was apt, insightful, and witty. But the more I understand grace and the gospel, the more that sounds like heaven, a space where I’m finally free from the unconscionable burden of having to take myself seriously. In these unprecedented and perilous times, we could all use some of that self-deprecating humor to ease the tension and facilitate much needed conversation and engagement. Who knows? We might all learn to get along.

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