When Richard Pryor died in 2005, after having revolutionized stand-up comedy with poignant profanity-laced examinations of race, The New York Times turned to a former employee to write his obituary: Mel Watkins ’62.
Pryor had been a catalyst for Watkins’s interest in African American humor and how it reflected and shaped society, a topic that Watkins explored in his seminal book On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying and Signifying — The Underground Tradition of African American Humor That Transformed American Culture.
That book, published in 1994, would solidify a research interest of Watkins’s and transform him into a sought-after commentator on the subject of black humor for media outlets and academic conferences.
The Colgate alumnus, who now teaches at the university, discusses the evolution of African American humor and comedians such as Bert Williams, Stepin Fetchit, Redd Foxx, and Chris Rock in a wide-ranging interview for the Colgate Conversations podcast series (now in video format).
“Some people talked about a new black renaissance in writing at this point. You had a number of new writers coming along — young writers coming along — who were trying new things, who were doing Afro-centric writing, using African American folklore in their writing,” he said in discussing authors such as Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker.
While at the Times, Watkins won an Alicia Patterson Foundation grant to research the history of black humor, which laid the groundwork for On the Real Side.
Watkins uses the book in his course. It provides context about the social influences that forced black performers to put on blackface to perform in a minstrel show, led Lincoln Perry (aka Stepin Fetchit) to cultivate the shiftless character that would make him a movie star and occasional NAACP target, and resulted in the strange situation in which one of the most popular radio shows in U.S. history — Amos ‘n’ Andy — featured two white men portraying African Americans.
“When white America wanted to find something out about black people, they turned to that show,” Watkins said of the long-running radio program.
Watkins continues to study the evolution of African American humor and share that with his students. He enjoys being in front of the classroom where he used to sit as an undergraduate.
“In many cases students don’t know why there is a Dave Chappelle or hip-hop or racial tension because they have grown up in a time when people think — assume — that everything is now on an equal basis. I think the course helps them see it on a broader level.”