I just watched the incredible 1973 documentary Wattstax on VH1. (It came on right after a Prince documentary, but I won’t write about my man today.) I can’t remember if I had ever seen Wattstax as a kid, but I watched it for the first time in November as an assignment for my Black Humor class. If you have VH1, check your local listings for a re-broadcast. It is amazing and worth a view and listen. On background, Wattstax was an all-star concert held at the Los Angeles Coliseum featuring the Stax Records roster. The concert marked the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots and served as a kind of black “Woodstock.” For $1 you could have seen the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, the Bar-Kays, Kim Weston singing the “Negro National Anthem,” and Isaac Hayes in a chain vest.
Why did we watch this in black humor class? Well, for one, in watching the film we contrasted and compared it to the recent, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” We looked at the political and underlying social messages that the concerts conveyed as well as the comedy. For the most part, Block Party wasn’t political at all, but it was as musical feast, and Chappelle was hilarious. Wattstax, in contrast, was steeped in political overtones and the comedy was rooted more in pain. The concert footage was broken up with spoken interludes and conversations by various segments of the black community talking about the black experience, including biting commentary from the guy who played “Ned the Wino,” on Good Times, and Ted Lange, who played Isaac on the Love Boat. When his brother, who was light-skinned told a young Ted that he was a nigger because he was so dark, their mother told the brother, “Then I am not your mother, because all of my children are niggers.” In a black context, that is funny, but painful. But the star of Wattstax is a very serious, but funny, Richard Pryor, who serves as a kind of narrator or guide, throughout the film. Pryor is at his best. Sitting in a room with friends, just riffing and telling stories. It was Pryor at his understated best.
In our Humor class, Pryor was a running thread throughout the course. Glenda Carpio, the professor who taught the class, even featured Pryor on the cover of her book, “Laughing Fit to Kill,” although the title comes from one of her favorites, Charles Chestnut. After previewing Carpio’s syllabus, I walked into the class expecting a daily dose of stand-up and comedy outtakes. It was not that at all. Carpio is another one of Harvard’s great young professors. I enjoyed her so much that I took her for two classes last semester, Humor and African-American Lit to 1920. It was hard to tell which class she excelled most in. Out of all of my classes, I think the students, as a whole, in her Af-Am Lit class were the most prepared. The discussions about texts like, “The Conjure Woman Tales,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and “Of One Blood,” were deep and rousing – to the point where mid-semester, I was content to just listen.
In Humor, Carpio took us beyond the surface of the laughter and peeled back the layers to find out what was behind it. How the body was used in minstrelsy. How Pryor used his body. How Rock uses his voice. How Mo’Nique can take control over her sexuality after a life of sexual abuse. How the traditions of toasting, signifying and the dozens developed and emerged. How humor in the writings of George Schuyler, Chester Himes, Suzan-Lori Parks and Paul Beatty can be subtle, but powerfully suggestive, political and yes, funny.
Back to Pryor for a second. When I was a kid, my mother had a copy of his album, “Is it something I said.” I used to listen to it all the time. It wasn’t on the syllabus, but I decided to revisit it on my own as part of the class. I was amazed at what I thought I knew and understood about the album. There is one section where a black man stands before a judge, and the defendant’s lawyer tries to explain why he had so many “kilos,” which is obviously a drug reference. I thought he was saying keyholes, and that the man had perhaps robbed a hardware store. That is a crazy example of not knowing a word, but it is also an appreciation of what I have been able to get out of the class – a better sense of what black humor and comedy really is. In a way, Carpio has forced me to look at Pryor, Rock, Chappelle, even the Boondocks, in an entirely different way. To actually work while I am watching, reading or listening to comedy. And nothing is wrong with that.
One more note on Wattstax. There are several incredible performances – and I am not even including Hayes, who was the headliner. But there were two electrifying performances that any fan of Public Enemy would love. When you watch, pay close attention to the performances of the Bar-Kays and Rufus Thomas (as well as the speeched by a young Jesse Jackson) and listen to the vocal cues that would surface years later on the landmark album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
“Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitudes.” Remember that? That was the Bar-Kays.
Thomas’s “Do the Funky Chicken,” is sampled heavily as well as his voice, like when he yells, “Wait a minute,” which we know from “Night of the Living Baseheads.”
As Jackson would say, “Brothers and Sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to.”