On the stage, a black comic is simulating receiving oral sex. As the black studio audience hoots, his body becomes a fast-pumping piston, his eyelids the fluttery blur of someone having a seizure, his voice a guttural expression of orgasmic grunts.
Memo to critics of “South Central,” the rewarding new Fox series about a heroic black single parent and her three kids battling for survival in a relatively volatile section of Los Angeles:
Tune in “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam” on HBO.
Public protests against “South Central” have come mostly from blacks who accuse the half-hour comedy/drama hybrid of advancing a stereotype of them as a savage, dysfunctional underclass and the area of the city the series depicts as little more than a crime-ridden war zone. To put it in terms that Hollywood understands, “South Central” is lousy P.R.
Unsaid but surely implied by much of the criticism is that “South Central,” in a broad sense, presents blacks driven entirely by animal urges alien to civilized (translation: white) society. The series doesn’t do that, of course, preferring instead to humanize its black protagonists in ways that make outsiders understand their problems, admire their close bond and care for them deeply. But the eye of the beholder is the reality that counts most.
How curious that “Def Comedy Jam"--which airs at midnight on Fridays--seems to have escaped the harsh laser light of “South Central” detractors. It certainly has eluded their stinging criticism. How is it that a well-intentioned series like “South Central” gets verbally dynamited in some circles while the race-mocking, female-debasing “Def Comedy Jam"--a weekly half-hour that ghettoizes black stand-up comics in a “Soul Train” of semen jokes and rapspeak that makes the Kingfish of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” sound like James Earl Jones--gets off bruise-free?
A New York-based showcase for black stand-ups, “Def Comedy Jam” begins its fourth season in July with Joe Torry replacing muck-mouthed Martin Lawrence (the star of Fox’s “Martin”) as host. Until then HBO will continue airing reruns, and most recently has been showing episodes from the 1992 season.
From the opening “Whaz happenin’?” to the final credits, “Def Comedy Jam” is verbal mud wallowing that proudly wears its in-your-face machismo smut like a chest full of medals. It’s television’s equivalent of a public toilet where crude words and expressions are gratuitously spoken instead of being scrawled on walls. Not only does the “S” word for defecation hit the fan, but so do a host of other tailored-for-cable expletives. During a recent three-episode span, Lawrence and his co-comics spewed the “F” synonym for sexual intercourse a combined 37 times and the “MF” word 40 times. These words roll off their tongues like spittle. Not far behind are coarse synonyms for male and female body parts.
Most of the monologues, and nearly all of Lawrence’s comments, project raunchy sex and communicate through lewd body language that reminds you of a couple of doggies doing it. Probably 90% of the comics are male, and led by Lawrence himself, their sex-slinging routines refer mostly to faceless women (not infrequently referred to as “bitches”) servicing men in ways that reduce females to notches on a gun handle.
“A horny woman is the scariest thing on the planet,” a stand-up named Mike Bonner said on a recent show in which he described arriving home and finding his “woman” standing before him “butt-ass-naked” and desperate for oral sex. On another recent show, comic Kenny Howell warmed up by smacking his lips over “pretty ladies” with “big old” breasts before undertaking the primary theme of his monologue--a detailed description of a male bringing a female to orgasm.
In the same episode, comics Bill Bellamy and George Willborn took on the topic of jailed former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, both charging that he was set up by Desiree Washington, the 18-year-old beauty contestant he was convicted of raping in the wee hours of the morning. In a routine reminiscent of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s televised women-mean-yes-when-they-say-say-no sermon at a “Free Mike” rally included in Barbara Kopple’s award-winning NBC documentary about Tyson, Willborn began:
“Mike in jail. And why? Why, ladies? Three o’clock in the morning. Come to my house at three o’clock in the morning. Come to my house at noon.” The studio audience howled. “It don’t make no damn sense!” Willborn added before doing his impression of Washington having sex with Tyson, and loving it.
Occasionally, someone will depart from the penis jokes and other carnal material to deliver a monologue with social bite. For example, Bonner’s routine included a section about feds staked out at an airport mistaking him for a drug dealer merely because he was black. On tonight’s rerun, moreover, Lester Barrie briefly refers to a roach-infested ghetto and the “slavery flashbacks” he has around his white friends, and blacks on welfare are part of J.B. Smoove’s monologue.
Yet any social awareness is short-lived and myopic, for “faggot” jokes fly here with such abandon (echoing the earlier gay-insulting monologues of Eddie Murphy) that you need a chain saw to cut through the homophobia.
“That homosexual thing,” as a comic named Royale labels it tonight, is generally exemplified on “Def Comedy Jam” by male stand-ups walking with mincing steps and affecting an exaggerated effeminate manner, to say nothing of simulating homosexual sex.
Some critics of “South Central” faulted the premiere’s opening joke about the black neighborhood’s “smell of gunpowder in the morning,” saying the humor was misplaced and created the wrong impression. Yet after joking tonight about having an altercation with a member of the audience during his last club gig, Royale displays a revolver shoved into the waistband of his trousers, adding, “We’re not going to have any of that tonight, are we?” Although done with the same humorous intent as the “South Central” joke, the message to all races in the national audience--about blacks resolving conflicts through violence--is strong and unmistakable.
As it was on an earlier show when stand-up Michael Colyar described the 1992 Los Angeles riots as an “uprising” that was long overdue. However, he urged blacks in Los Angeles to not destroy their own community but instead to aim their wrath at Simi Valley and "---- them up!”
It was a convoluted message that he delivered, though, in following his plea for black empowerment with a crude joke about a female body part.
Because it seems to reach out and touch the present, a book from the past applies here. Published in 1952, “Invisible Man” is Ralph Ellison’s wise and perceptive account of a racist society whose controlling whites see blacks not as individuals but as a monolith whose components are a blur. Four decades later, ironically, “Def Comedy Jam” is using its contemporary black voice mostly to expand that obscurity by making sure that individuals are eclipsed by their sexual equipment. These aren’t people, it seems to be telling America, these are lust machines. Compared with that, “South Central” offers little to complain about.