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Over the years, Robert Townsend has brought the world his vision of comedy, from his TV show on HBO (’Robert and His Partners in Crime’) to ‘Hollywood Shuffle.’ Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival is his latest film that will hopefully inspire others to learn about the history of black comedy.
Narrated by Academy Award-nominated actress Angela Bassett and directed by Townsend, ‘Why We Laugh’ features profiles, insights and interviews from some of the most beloved and controversial comedians of our time, including Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, The Wayans Brothers, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Harvey and many more.
Townsend spoke to Black Voices about directing this project.
What was the attraction of doing this project?
Robert Townsend: A friend of mine wrote this book called ‘Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy,’ and he’s been a friend of mine for over 10 years. He went and interviewed everyone from Eddie Murphy to the Wayans Brothers to Chris Rock and many more. When he finished the book, he said he wanted to make a film about it and gave it to a company called Codeblack Entertainment, and the next thing you know, I was like, ‘I would love to do a documentary on it.’
How much research did you do for the film?
RT: I had four researchers who were finding material, but I am a student of comedy, and so I knew a lot about the historical figures, from the stars of the 1920s to now. I knew my history, because I love comedy, and the researchers went a step deeper. For example, I didn’t know that Stepin Fetchit was a writer for the Chicago Defender. One minute he is doing slapstick stuff and the next minute he is writing some serious pieces for one of the most prominent newspapers at the time.
Doing documentaries takes its toll at some point. What sort of challenges did you face on this one?
RT: I didn’t want to make it a downer. We could always find what’s wrong with entertainment. It’s more of a love letter than a documentary. It celebrates Richard Pryor. It celebrates Dick Gregory. It celebrates Amos ‘n’ Andy. It celebrates the new comedians. It takes a different look. We asked questions about the future and about quality control and how do we improve and get better.
Did you get everyone you wanted on camera?
RT: No. We wanted Eddie Murphy, but he was in the middle of shooting a movie, and Whoopi (Goldberg) was just beginning ‘The View.’ Those are the biggest two that we really went after.
Why does black comedy resonate so much with people?
RT: I think that’s the case because it’s so honest and raw. Richard Pryor was the civil rights movement in one man. In the documentary, we talk about how he taught white people about black people and vice versa. He was the first one to talk about white people on stage and live. We know about his troubles, but we give you a little more about the man.
How was working with co-director/producer Quincy Newell?
RT: It was really great. The thing for me is that they are building a new company over at Codeblack, and they have a vision. For them to produce this project is a positive thing to the community. I thank Quincy for doing this.
What do you want folks to get from watching this film?
RT: I want a whole new generation to know their history. A lot of times, we, as African Americans, don’t know our history. We don’t know who came before us or about our struggles. I want young adults to know their history on comedy and where it came from, and I want the new generation of comedians to know what it means to be on stage and the repecussions of saying certain words and being cavalier about it. When they grab that mic, there is a responsibility that comes with it.
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