• U.S.

Comedians: They Have Overcome

4 minute read

When Godfrey Cambridge comes on stage, he sprints. As one of the country’s four most celebrated Negro comedians, he has a reason for charging into his act. “I hope you noticed how I rushed up here,” he tells his audiences. “We do have to do that to change our image. No more shuffle after the revolution. We gotta be agile.”

The implication is that after the revolution is really now. The Negro cause has made such headway that Negro comedians are telling a new kind of joke. People used to think of Negroes as going around with fried chicken in a paper bag, Cambridge says. But things have changed. “Now,” he says, “we carry an attache case—with fried chicken in it. We ain’t going to give up everything just to get along with you people.”

Rental Service. Cambridge gets as much as $4,000 a week. Like his fellow comedians Bill Cosby, Nipsey Russell and Dick Gregory, he is in all respects a headliner, working the best places, such as San Francisco’s hungry i and Hollywood’s Crescendo. Cosby, a tall and soft-spoken former Temple University halfback, refuses to make racial jokes, on the moot ground that they demean the race. He talks about kindergarten and old radio shows instead, and sets up an imaginary football game between college boys and mature gorillas. Nipsey Russell claims that he similarly tries to avoid racial humor, but his act often makes use of it nonetheless.

Gregory, the fourth great Negro comedian, agrees with Godfrey Cambridge. Moreover, Gregory points out that the humor possibilities for a Negro comedian who jokes about Negroes have expanded enormously. “Little things I knew as a Negro couldn’t be used until the public discovered them,” he says. “They know about most of them now.”

Gregory thinks that Negroes in general have become so popular “that there aren’t enough of us to go around.” Some day soon, he says in his routine, “I expect to see a Hertz Rent-a-Negro.” White employers, if they would hire Negroes at all, used to go for light-complexioned ones, he observes. “Now they want the blackest faces they can find, and they put them all up in the front of the office.” Only the weather bureau, in his view, is behind the times. Gregory threatens to picket the place unless the next hurricane is named some thing like Beulah.

General Creed. Politesse has grown so elaborate between whites and Negroes, jokes Godfrey Cambridge, that there has come to be what he calls “the manual of arms.” He tells about a time when he and a white man were waiting for an elevator. “He was dressed just like I was, with an attache case too. You know, they copy everything we do. After the doors of the elevator opened, we accidentally bumped into each other. He leaped aside and said, ‘After you. As a responsible member of the white community, I wouldn’t want to set a spark to that smoldering resentment that’s been harbored in the Negro community for over a hundred years.’ I leaped aside and said, ‘No, no, after you, because as a responsible member of the Negro community, I recognize the danger of offending old friends in the white community and at the same time driving others into the waiting arms of extremists on both sides.’ “

Gregory, in his act, goes on with the theme. “Right now, it’s not a question of getting served at the counter,” he says. “It’s a matter of eating too much. I never got served before, but now I have to eat at all these restaurants. The food is so good and I’m eating so well that I can’t sing We Shall Overcome. I have to burp it.”

Cambridge, offstage, expresses the creed behind this new outlook when he says, “I am only concerned with letting people see the truth of our lives, like, for example, the way Negroes are afraid of each other too. We have got to show the common bonds. I have an act about people staring at a Negro in the Safeway. I want people to realize that they really do stare. We must bring things out into the open. There are some people you can’t reach. You neutralize this kind. If two men are laughing at each other, nobody gets stabbed.” He sums it all up in his act when he says: “You people aren’t going back to Europe, and we aren’t going back to Africa. We got too much going here.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com