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Black comics on Obama's win

Tommy Davidson's centerpiece joke about President-elect Barack Obama at a Los Angeles comedy club over the weekend "killed" -- in more ways than one.

Davidson, who was a regular on Fox's hip sketch comedy show "In Living Color," bounded on stage Friday at the Comedy Union on Pico Boulevard and said he would like to perform a bit from Obama's upcoming inaugural speech. He stood at an imaginary podium -- then, a "shot" rang out and he collapsed in a heap.

The audience was momentarily shocked, then erupted in laughter. But for some, the laughs stuck in their throats.

"People were crying out, 'Oh, no, don't do that,' " said Lanita Jacobs-Huey, a USC professor of anthropology who was in the audience. "Tommy then sprung up and said with this smile, 'OK, I just wanted to try that out.' It was pretty amazing."

Welcome to Def Obama Comedy Jam.

In the first weekend following Obama's election, African American comedians in several comedy venues ranging from the urban-flavored Comedy Union to the more Hollywood-tinged Laugh Factory steered from their usual, often raw routines about life, dating and sex to weigh in with their feelings about the first black president of the United States.

Black comedians have traditionally made fun of a system they feel has shut them out and treated them unfairly, said Darnell Hunt, head of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.

"It's been a way to relieve the pain, the tension," said Hunt. "Now, there's this self-made black man, and they don't want to undermine the possibility of hope. The Obamas represent a transcendence that brings everyone into the tent, and comics are now grappling with that. They want to treat it gingerly."

Many black comics, whose humor has sprung from the pain or anger of dealing with a discriminatory society, are now wrestling with hope, cautious optimism and celebration.

Rodney Perry, who hosted Saturday's lineup at the Comedy Union, wasted no time when he hit the stage: "We need some energy up in here. We have a new president!"

Ian Edwards, a writer on Comedy Central's "Chocolate News," raised his arms in a victory salute during his opening set at the Laugh Factory.

"On Tuesday night, it was like the whole world was celebrating New Year's Eve," he said. "I know there were a lot of Obama babies made that night. Black people needed some self-esteem. It's about time we won. . . . We haven't won much since the first O.J. trial, or since Ruben Studdard beat Clay [Aiken] on 'American Idol.' "

One comic, who goes by one name, Godfrey, teased the predominantly white Laugh Factory audience: "I bet you were afraid we were going to line [you] up against the wall."

And Melanie Camacho said, "This is the first time in history that a black man beat . . . a white man and didn't get locked up for it."

For others, like Davidson, the occasion offered a cathartic opportunity to express the anxieties haunting African Americans since Obama became a serious presidential candidate. Mario Joyner said at the Laugh Factory: "I love it. Here's a black president who hit the ground running. He's appointed a Jewish chief of staff. You just know the Ku Klux Klan is having a big meeting right now."

Those concerns are also fueled by fears that Obama may also be vulnerable to the tragic fate -- an assassin's bullet -- that met several other groundbreaking black and white leaders, including President Kennedy, Sen. Bobby Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

In 2003's "Head of State," Chris Rock plays a Washington, D.C., alderman who gets recruited to run for president. The first thing that he visualizes is being shot, a possibility that is treated comedically a few more times in the film.

Obama's presidency may ultimately be a game changer for the urban comedy arena, which has been largely defined by coarse -- and arguably unsophisticated -- outlets such as "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO. Perry was one comedian who said he and others were reevaluating their approach to topical humor.

In a back-stage interview, Perry said: "We have a new responsibility as comics. You don't want your sound bite to be the one that brings Obama down, or could be used against him. We have to be more responsible, more even-keeled."

Of course, not all the comedians treated the historic news with delicacy. Camacho said that future First Lady Michelle Obama "ain't going to have to worry about some intern moving in on her man. But she might have to worry about Oprah."

Braxton is a Times staff writer.

greg.braxton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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