John Witherspoon made me laugh for my entire life. Whether it was watching 1986's Ratboy any time HBO would air the odd title or loving the return of adult swim's Black Jesus just a few months ago, Witherspoon has just been naturally hilarious on a consistent basis. Word of his passing this week hits a little different; the world is now that much more unfunny.
Think about it: the Witherspoon role you most fondly remember points to your age and the era to which you correlate. An old head like me might remember him more for harassing every kid that went to Play's, I mean Peter's, house in House Party, or his classic lines in a quick, adlibbed(!) scene in Eddie Murphy's Boomerang, but others might only have just seen him as everyone's ornery black dad in Ice Cube's stoner hit Friday. There may be some who remember Witherspoon for his time spent running black comedies on television, be it as Pops screaming "yitadee!" on The Wayans Bros. to his memorable voice work as Granddad on the animated series The Boondocks, or as Spoon on The Tracy Morgan Show from the early 2000s. Dude's given black folks something to be proud of since '77.
What else did you think Ludacris was referencing with his enunciation of "coordinate" in "Stand Up"? He was paying homage to one of the greats. Witherspoon, with his quick wit and rubber face, was a goddamn national treasure. While he never looked as old as Granddad did in the cartoon, he definitely had a way of working his voice to match the great vengeance and furious anger that caused Granddad to be such a mean old dude that he'd prank call Rosa Parks, and still be hot about what she did to him decades later.
Comedian and The Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. tweeted that Witherspoon's "connection is part of why his comedy remained as fresh & relatable now as it was decades ago." Everyone in my community grew up with someone like a Pops; hell, my grandfather had some Granddad tendencies in him. Whether he was playing the part of a homeless man or your father, you saw both the craziness of them as well as the more human side of them. John Witherspoon was hilarious, but also gave us a look at ourselves in a warmer light. Maybe a little blue, and a little zany, but us all the same.
John Witherspoon will be missed. No matter what the role, if he was in it, I knew that he'd be funny. Witherspoon wasn't trying to be the political comic or get crazy deep with life lessons. He was just always hilarious. That kind of funny that you want to rewind for five minutes. The kind of funny that makes you remember family members and friends from childhood. That kind of funny that we need today.
Rest in peace, John Witherspoon.