AN APPRECIATION : Foxx: Liberator of Nightclub Comics
The line between bawdiness and filth is generally so fine that no one can tell when it’s been crossed until it’s too late.
Until Redd Foxx hit the big time on national TV as Fred Sanford, for years he had been known as a “dirty” comedian, and even by today’s standards, to put on one of the scores of his old party albums is to experience real shock for a couple of minutes until you begin to pick up on his bluesy shout rhythms and hear out his great improvisational riffs.
Foxx, who was approaching his 69th birthday when he died Friday of complications from a heart attack, was a comedian’s comedian, infinitely closer to the spirit of Rabelais and Henry Miller than the ostensibly liberated gross-out comics who parade through the clubs today. A lot of his old stand-up stuff is unquestionably dated, an expression of hang-ups different from our own. But what redeems it is his sense of sex as a tease, an embarrassment, something ineluctable and incomparable fun.
Foxx is popularly remembered playing his take-it-or-leave-it patriarchal grumpiness on prime-time TV. But he was never more brilliantly himself than when he shook the id into laughing, wherever the performance.
Most of Foxx’s obituaries have made note of him as an actor, and in fact his last big payday before he started CBS’ “The Royal Family” this season came from the 1989 movie “Harlem Nights.”
But Foxx was never really much of an actor in any serious application of the word--he’d never make any director’s short list for “Othello.” He was simply a great club comedian who was a wizard at catching the crosscurrents of instinct, which in his case swirled in the theater of sex.
A lot of meaning was packed into Redd Foxx’s line when he once told an interviewer: “School meant nothing to me. Knowing that George Washington crossed the Delaware--how was that going to help me in a brick fight in St. Louis?”
He’d been on his own since the age of 13, when he ran away from home in St. Louis to join a washboard street band, and four years later worked in an amateur musical group called the Bon Bons up in Chicago.
Later he went out on his own as a stand-up comedian, and in 1941 teamed with Slappy White to play the chitlin circuit. Those were the years when the worlds of sports and entertainment ran on separate tracks alongside a “color line,” despite the crossover successes of heavyweight champion Joe Louis and the radio depictions of “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” as well as a number of great black musicians, Louis Armstrong chief among them.
He did a lot of scuffling, and his hard years formed him (in his autobiography, Malcolm X recalls Foxx, when he still had his own name of John Sanford, working as a short-order cook in Harlem). Like many self-made men, Foxx’s curiosity about the world stopped a little short of his rise in it, because what he knew he knew well and that was enough. He was a born club comedian, and he loved the life so much that he was never completely happy with his TV successes (he didn’t make his first network TV appearance until he was 42, when he went on the “Today” show).
For a while, the money was a sore spot with him, particularly with the first 1972-77 run of NBC’s “Sanford and Son,” when he demanded top dollar--literally: Carroll O’Connor was reportedly making $25,000 a week for “All In the Family,” and Foxx asked for that sum, plus $1.
It may be that the voluminous ease with which money poured through television production and into the pockets of so many of its young arrivistes was a rebuke to the long hungry years Foxx spent working his way along, and that may account too for some of his temperamental demands, such as a dressing-room window (when he moved over to ABC in 1977, the network reportedly went out of its way to give him all the window space he might want by putting his dressing room in a greenhouse).
But it’s probably closer to the truth to say that, for Foxx, there was simply nothing like the clubs, with their smoky intrigue, their easy liquored laughter, their jazz, their nocturnal heat and their atmosphere of sex.