Author, comedian speaks in honor of African American History Month
The Fresno County Library hosted author and comedian Darryl "D'Militant" Littleton to speak on his book Black Comedians on Black Comedy at the Woodward Park Branch, in recognition of African American History Month, Feb. 16.
There are many African Americans who have contributed to the history and people of America, but only few, such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., are recognized by the vast majority for their efforts. Some individuals, however, have chosen to dig deep below the surface achievements that make their way into history books and make known the accomplishments of the unsung heroes. One of these such people is author and comedian Darryl "D'Militant" Littleton.
In honor of African American History Month, the Fresno County Library hosted Littleton to speak on his book Black Comedians on Black Comedy at the Woodward Park Branch, Feb. 16. Littleton discussed the history of African American comedy and highlighted comedians of the past and the present.
Littleton has enjoyed comedy ever since he was a little kid, but it was not until he lost his job in the mortgage business that he joined the world of entertainment. Since his first appearance on Robert Townsend's WB sitcom, "The Parent Hood", he has written for multiple comedy programs and networks, including "Comic View", "Make Me Laugh" and Comedy Central. Littleton also took the grand prize on ABC's "America's Funniest People" and won the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition in 2006.
Inspired to write a book on the history of black comedy for the lack of one that he thought was actually funny, Littleton wrote Black Comedians on Black Comedy in 2006. In this writing, he humorously chronicles the work of many pivotal and influential figures who broke the ground and laid the foundation for African American comedy. In addition to this work, Littleton has published Pimp Down: The Rise and Fall of Katt Williams (2008) and co-written Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady (2012), a history of female comedy.
Littleton began his presentation with what he believes is the birth of African American comedy slaves who "found stuff funny that wasn't really funny, just like we do today." As they worked in the fields and saw the haughty way their masters walked, talked and acted, they would wait until their masters were out of sight and out of hearing and then mimic and ridicule their haughty conduct, much to their personal enjoyment.
"You can look at the Library of Congress, on the Internet, or through books until you're blue in the face, but if you don't talk to the actual people, you won't get the real story. I talked to the people and got the real stories. That's what I call living history." --Darryl Littleton, author, comedian
Eventually, comedy progressed to "white guys dressed up as black guys [slaves] making fun of white guys," and even extended into music with pieces such as Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me." Although radio shows also saw this class of entertainment with Millerand Lyles' "Amos 'N' Andy," radio networks and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) canceled these shows and protested against the appearance of blacks on any kind of entertainment.
Despite these challenges, forefathers of African American comedy such as Dick Gregory, Miller and Lyles and others continued to push for acceptance of African Americans in American entertainment. After years of struggling and being rejected, a new class of comedy slowly emerged.
In rediscovering and recording their stories, Littleton hopes that their efforts for equality and justice will not be overlooked. He does believe, however, that the best way to capture the real story, though, is to talk to people firsthand while these historical figures are still accessible.
"You can look at the Library of Congress, on the Internet, or through books until you're blue in the face, but if you don't talk to the actual people, you won't get the real story," Littleton said. "I talked to the people and got the real stories. That's what I call living history."
Event attendee Daniel Burg enjoyed the history Littleton gave as well as the comedic elements of the event. Having heard about this event on the Internet, Burg decided to come because of the topic Littleton would be speaking on and thought it would be interesting to hear about it from a different perspective.
Littleton chooses to shed the light on those whose below surface achievements did not make it to the history books. Littleton acknowledges the unsung heroes of who have contributed to the history and people of America.
"I think I heard about the event on MindHub," Burg said. "I wanted to come out here because the subject matter was Black history and I was very interested in hearing what the guy had to say. The chronology he walked us through was amazing, and it was like the entire history in a very short period of time. The perspective he had was great, especially talking about black face and the whole minstrel idea, not painting it necessarily from our perspective but from a historical one."
In addition to the history he gave of his genre of entertainment, Littleton opened the discussion up to a time of audience questions about African American comedy, comedians and comedy in general. Many questions dealt with the foundation of comedy, and Littleton shared his techniques and goals as a comedian.
"In stand-up comedy, you have to really be you to be funny," Littleton said. "Comedy is about taking the events of your life and putting them out for people to see. Everyone can relate and it can be funny."
Littleton explained that comedy requires surprising the audience. To be a comedian, he has realized that you have to take existing jokes that are well-known to everyone and present them in a new and unexpected way.
"You can't fool people, because if it's not funny, they won't laugh," Littleton said. "A lot of comedy is based on the element of surprise. If the audience can predict what the comedian is going to say, he's a bad comedian. You have to be able to take them down a road and then take a wild turn to the right."
To illustrate this point, Littleton told a joke: "Why did the chicken cross the road? Because a black guy was headed toward him with a greased skillet." When the audience finished laughing, he used that example to prove that comedy requires giving a different answer than what is expected and that there has to be a twist.
Toward the end of the event, Littleton showed a clip from "Why We Laugh", the full-length documentary he co-produced with Robert Townsend in 2010 on the history of African American comedy. The film included interviews with many of the first comedians of this ethnicity as well as some modern African American comedians. He then treated the audience to a few minutes of a stand-up comedy routine to wrap up his presentation.
PODCAST: Black comedian Darryl Littleton shares motivation for performing: Feb. 22, 2013--
Fresno County Library's Programming Librarian Linda Aragon was excited to have people show up for the performance, although she expected to see more African Americans attend. She appreciated Littleton's presentation, from the history at the beginning to his comedy at the end, she hopes that the audience walks away with a better understanding of comedy's history than they had before.
"I liked the way he started at the beginning, segued into his talk and then wrapped up with a comedy routine," Aragon said. "I think mixing humor and education is good because it makes it so much more palatable, and I just hope that people learned things they didn't know before. I was surprised that more African American audience members didn't come, but I'm always happy with whoever comes."
Littleton says that his main goal in coming to Fresno, CA, and sharing with the audience was to not only enlighten and educate them about the history of his profession but also to encourage them to allow themselves to laugh more often, especially in the midst of the stresses and trials of life.
"I wanted to have people leave knowing more than they knew," Littleton said. "I also wanted them to be able to take life a little lighter because it can be tough, because everyone has hard stuff going on. The bottom line is just to take time to laugh it off a little bit."
For more information on Littleton, visit his website or email email@example.com.
For more features, see Feb. 20 article, Blossoms rise with the seasonal weather, sunshine.