Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The casts of In Living Color (Photo: Fox) and Astronomy Club (Photo: Andrew Toth/Getty Images)
Graphic: Libby McGuire

In an early episode of the Netflix sketch show Astronomy Club, School Boy Reggie, Darius the blue-chip athlete, Yolanda the high priestess of heroin, and Tenisha “Butt The Thickest” set out on a journey from Compton to the Crenshaw Bodega to purchase ingredients for Big Mama’s “hood-famous cheese grits.” The crew of “Comptonians” speak in Shakespearean prose sprinkled with slang. As they embark on their search for their final member, “Dis Nigga Terrance,” they must outwit several adversaries: the corner boys are thwarted by a twerking Tenisha Butt The Thickest, and a gaggle of thots are deterred when Dis Nigga Terrance finally arrives. “They see this nigga hath no money.” A lot could go wrong in taking characters who embody racial stereotypes and placing them in a Dungeons & Dragons-style quest game, and “Bodegas & Dragons” reeks of what feels like a white-created Black story or white content with Black faces. But is that what’s really going on here?

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Typically, stereotypes reimagined on a D&D landscape with Elizabethan (read: “whitest of white”) prose would be the hook, line, and sinker of the joke. But “Bodegas & Dragons” pulls back the curtain and laughs at the white wizardry so often afoot in such narratives, as it’s eventually revealed that the characters are indeed part of a game created by an entirely white team against the protests of their lone Black colleague. It’s indicative of the greater ingenuity to be found in Astronomy Club, which was created by and stars members of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s first all-Black comedy troupe and has roots in predecessors like In Living Color and Chappelle’s Show.

Thirty years ago, In Living Color premiered on a fledgling Fox Network that courted creator Keenen Ivory Wayans with an idea described as a “black Laugh-In” where he would be free to “do whatever he wanted.” Wayans, still riding the success of his comedy I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, tested Fox’s offer with a pilot that made the network uneasy. One of the episode’s sketches, “The Homeboy Shopping Network,” featured two young Black men selling stolen goods on television. Fox worried about the optics, and rightly so. For decades, the industry predominantly presented Black men as criminals, either absconding into the night with stolen watermelon in early 20th-century film or carting away looted television sets in news coverage.

In the pre-Oprah Winfrey Network era of the ’90s, the few Black creators in Hollywood writing Black content relied on white networks to deliver it to Black audiences. After hesitating for six months, Fox premiered In Living Color on April 15, 1990, to wide acclaim. The show continued to push the boundaries of Black comedy in white landscapes and inadvertently demonstrated a formula for using Black art and entertainment to generate revenue that allowed the network to rebrand for mainstream audiences.

Chappelle’s Show—which premiered in 2003, nearly a decade after In Living Color’s final episodesharpened some of In Living Color’s tropes: The dozens-style teasing of celebrities shifted from In Living Color poking fun at Arsenio Hall’s butt size to Chappelle’s loving mockumentary of Prince via Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories. Tracing a contemporary lineage of recurring Black male sketch characters reveals the Black working/lower class everyman. From Eddie Murphy’s Mister Robinson to Damon Wayans’ Homie da Clown to Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums, these characters embody an astute grasp of society’s institutionalized racial dynamics from their admittedly lowly stations in life as squatter, clown, and crack addict, respectively.

In Living Color’s cultural critic duo Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather (Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, respectively) similarly commented on popular culture, film, and television while delivering Black gay “shade” before the release of Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary that introduced the term and other facets of ball culture like voguing to those outside of the Black LGBTQ community. Wayans’ and Grier’s sassy femme gay characters may have been grounded in ’90s-era stereotypes, yet the “shade” they delivered on “critically acclaimed” films positioned them more as African American trickster characters queering film descriptions and interpretations.

Astronomy Club’s poignant and hilarious “A Good Old Fashioned Shade Off” recognizes Black queer folk as innovators in popular culture, as in the earliest documented ball, which can be traced back to former slave William Dorsey Swann. The sketch opens on a Victorian parlor where Black nobility engage in an escalating array of backhanded compliments and crafty insults. “Shade Off” combines the character craft of “Men On Film” and the same kind of historical reimagining found on Chappelle’s Show, wherein Black characters were placed in spaces usually reserved for whiteness (the sketch “Black Bush,” for example, in which President Bush is reimagined as a Black man). The characters of “Shade Off” may drape themselves in Victorian dress and accented speech, but their tone, shade, and affect are steeped in Black queer ball culture.

One of the areas where Astronomy Club shines among its Black sketch comedy peers is in the increased screen time of Black female comics. When In Living Color premiered, there were three women cast members (not including the Fly Girls dancers), one of whom was white. Chappelle’s Show demonstrated a sporadic (at best) roster of women cast members during its three-year run. Although the Astronomy Club’s male members outnumber the women eight to three, their women-centered sketches like “Witch Hunt In Black Salem” spotlight gender inequality and toxic masculinity.

Collectively, In Living Color, Chappelle’s Show, Astronomy Club, and other series like A Black Lady Sketch Show, which takes on the dearth of female comedians in ensemble sketch shows, provide an invaluable service for Black comedians ignored by industry giants like Saturday Night Live. They are a voice using humor against the ironies of racism, frequently critiquing whiteness by deploying the very stereotypes used against blackness. These shows add to a rich lineage of Black comedy as cultural critique for the things that we can change, such as who is delivering those critiques, and societal salve for the things that we cannot.

M Shelly Conner is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Debut novel everyman (Blackstone Publishing) releases Spring 2021. Repped by Ladderbird Agency.

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