Comedy has always been a problem. Perhaps we just didn’t know about it until recently. Also, those who were aware might have simply not cared.

“Audiences,” those seemingly random masses of people brought together to witness events, have collective desires born out of dark impulses that are never addressed in their “normal” lives, so they often seek some purging or catharsis or vicarious thrill through popular entertainment. Among those forms of entertainment are the ideas and concepts disguised as jokes, sometimes forbidden, of comedians. At first, starting in the depression and then through the Second World War, sanitized mainstream comedy, which used the mediums of radio, movies, and the legitimate stage, tamped down those impulses in order to reach a vast audience by not offending the majority of it. For a long time, this formula worked. There was no offense in any above-ground entertainment. It was safe. It perpetuated the status quo—and lulled the audience into a state of pliant consumerism, as well. And yet it would never be enough to feed the voracious need for distractions to blunt the harshness of reality. That hunger, that insatiable desire—for success, for material, for substance, and the simply capitalistic desire to exploit a product for revenue—expanded the language of mainstream comedy until these more provocative concepts became not only acceptable but expected.

Comedy has always been “ghettoized.” Is that even the right word anymore? There was a time not long ago when there was a Borscht Belt and a Chitlin Circuit. The Borscht Belt, essentially a group of large hotels and bungalow colonies dropped into in the Catskill Mountains of Sullivan County, two hours north of New York City, where Jewish families “from the city” of all economic strata could go for the summer. A place to let the newly urbanized Jews retreat to the rural and rustic and pastoral nature of their collective pasts. But these properties always had a community room, makeshift theater, or nightclub on the premises. This is often where Jewish-American comedians would speak to Jewish-American audiences about life as a Jew in America, in routines replete with Yiddishisms and throwaway insults of other ethnic groups and, because it was such an overwhelmingly male bastion, a steady stream of insults directed at women, too—girlfriends, mothers, daughters, and wives, who served as common reference point punchlines and convenient punching bags that everyone could laugh at knowing that only they would get it and no one else would hear it. These casual insults were good-natured and never delivered with malice or venom or anger but nevertheless casually inculcated the audience into acceptance of these socially acceptable racist and sexist ideas. And, ironically, this seemingly unique brand of comedy became so pervasive it transcended the Jewish experience and became quintessentially American. It became synonymous with modern comedy. So from the end of WWII until the ’60s, when you watched a stand up comedian, whether they were Jewish or not, they were likely employing the style, the form, the structure of routines, the wording of jokes, the stagecraft, the “act,” as it had been pioneered by the Jews. But this was only one great seismic force that created modern comedy, and frankly, if not obviously, in retrospect, it spoke mainly, if not exclusively, to white America.

But perhaps the other greatest force in comedy during this time was African-American comedy. However, like professional sports of the time, African-American comedy could not cross the color line. African-Americans were segregated in all walks of society, and comedy was no different. That’s how the Chitlin Circuit emerged. These were nightclubs across the country that catered to Black audiences that were also hungry to be entertained, have a good time, and laugh but were forbidden from entering all-white venues. Since African-American comics weren’t about to enjoy any mainstream success, on radio, in movies, or on TV, once that medium became established, their routines were relegated to live performances in nightclubs and often recorded for posterity on what were called “party records.”

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