Legendary comedian Richard Pryor is widely regarded as one of the best comedians to ever tell a joke. Coming up in the comedy circuit during the 1960s allowed for Pryor to make audiences double over from laughter by making sharp criticisms of the arduous times America was going through during the Civil Rights Movement. He later went on to become a big box office draw with writing credits and roles in films like “Blazing Saddles,” “Silver Streak,” and “Stir Crazy.”
Pryor was groundbreaking because he opened the door for comedians to use their personal tragedies as material for their acts. One of Pryor’s main influences, Bill Cosby, said of him, “Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as he could possibly paint.”
Redd Foxx is the beloved comic who came to fame by playing Fred G. Sanford on the hilarious sitcom “Sanford & Son.” However, Foxx had cut his chops performing in night clubs around the country. Foxx was blasted by his peers during the 1950s because his act was considered too raunchy. However raunchy his act was, he was the first black comic to play to white audiences.
In 1977, “Sanford & Son” was cancelled solely because Foxx wanted to move on to other ventures. However, during his tenure on network television, Foxx was responsible for bringing comics like LaWanda Page, Don Wexley, and Slappy White to national attention.
Beginning his career in 1953, Dick Gregory used his comedy to convey his political ideals to white and black audiences alike. Gregory is credited with helping change the way European-Americans viewed African-Americans. He proved we weren’t less intelligent than any white person.
Although hailed as one of the best comedians of all time, Gregory is also known for his political activism. He spoke for two uninterrupted hours at “Freedom Day” in 1963, which was a rally to drive black voter registration. He also unsuccessfully ran for President of the United States in 1968 as a write-in candidate.
Famous for being one of the first female comedians to find success on the Chitlin’ Circuit, Moms Mabley broke ground in more arena’s than comedy. Mabley was the first comedian to come out as a lesbian at the age of 27 in 1921. Her style and material were considered too edgy for audiences at the time because she used humor to make comments about racism and homosexuality.
At the height of her career she was pulling in about $10,000 a week when she performed at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. Towards the end of her life, she began to receive a lot of love from white audiences due to several appearances on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” While white adults still held contempt for her because of her sharp wit, she found a new audience with their children. She continued to act and perform until her death in 1975.
Known for being your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian, Paul Mooney never knew how to hold back. He wrote many of the pointed sketches seen on “The Richard Pryor Show” which only lasted one season in the 1970s. Mooney is also responsible for giving the first break to comedians who went on to become comedic superstars in their own right. John Witherspoon, Tim Reid, and Robin Williams all owe their careers to him.
Paul Mooney is also known for delivering stand-up comedy that will most likely offend everyone in the room. Famous for using the N-word freely throughout his lengthy career, Mooney vowed to stop using the racial epithet once Seinfeld star Michael Richards went on a tirade at a performance at The Laugh Factory, using the word because two black men were heckling him.
Keenen Ivory Wayans
Regarded as one of the godfathers of modern comedy, Keenen Ivory Wayans is responsible for bringing Jim Carrey and his four siblings to national attention on the groundbreaking sketch comedy show “In Living Color,” that premiered in 1990. The show won an Emmy for Best Variety Show for what many call its “no discrimination comedy.”
Once Wayans left “In Living Color,” he began to stake claim on the big screen. He helped Robert Townsend pen the classic film about a fictional R&B group called “The Five Heartbeats.” In the late 90s, Wayans stepped behind the lens and directed the blockbuster spoof “Scary Movie.” Never one to be selfish with the spotlight, Keenen Ivory Wayans helped his brother’s and sister Damon, Shawn, Marlon, and Kim develop their own comedic writing so they were able to chart their own success by creating their own television shows and films.