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Thu Oct 10, 2013, 01:44 PM

A Comedy Favorite: How The 'Act Blacker' Sketch Has Evolved

It's an old, hardy comedy trope: A black person has to turn up the volume on some stereotypical behavior in order to navigate some social situation. The sketch is a self-aware take on a modern reality. Even after the era of minstrel shows ended and black actors stopped living out egregious stereotypes for white audiences, white folks still ran mainstream showbiz. If you were going to be black onstage or on camera, your image was still controlled by a largely white industry.

That's still the case, and there's a whole thread of comedy that goes to that well, poking fun at black actors being instructed "to act blacker" (whatever the hell that even means). Let's call them "Black It Up" routines. The most famous one is probably Robert Townsend's bit from Hollywood Shuffle, in which he imagines an acting school designed to prep aspiring black actors on how to land the roles most available to them.

What makes this routine so biting is the acknowledgment that the economic calculus dictates that this must be so. Yes, this role is demeaning and the insult is exacerbated by white folks telling me I'm not doing it right but I also gotta eat.

Townsend's entire movie is about the indignities visited upon black actors trying to earn a living. It may seem a little too on the nose today the number for the black acting school is "1-800-555-COON" but the sketch was influential. And it's still pretty funny. (The tall white guy teaching those dudes how to walk at 4:21 is gold. Why is he doing that thing with his neck? Why are his arms swinging so much?)

This Shuffle bit is the obvious spiritual ancestor to this Sprite commercial that people of my generation will remember in which a bunch of tough-talking street ball players begin speaking in exaggerated British accents as soon as the director yells cut. Don't talk to me like a child! I played Hamlet at Cambridge!

Earlier this year, the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe revisited this same idea, and they cut out a lot of the fat in the process. A quarter-century passed between the Townsend sketch and the UCB sketch, and their approaches say volumes about the way the media landscape has and hasn't changed.


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