'Acting Black': The Evolution of the Comedy Sketch

NPR's Gene Demby serves up snark in a piece about the evolution of black actors having to "act black" onstage and in Hollywood.

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Upright Citizens Brigade comedy-troupe performance (YouTube screenshot)

Gene Demby serves up snark in NPR in a piece about the evolution of black actors having to "act black" onstage and in Hollywood. He tackles the issue through the prism of a recent comedy-troupe production by the Upright Citizens Brigade.

It's an old, hardy comedy trope: A black person has to turn up the volume on some stereotypical behavior in order to navigate some social situation. The sketch is a self-aware take on a modern reality. Even after the era of minstrel shows ended and black actors stopped living out egregious stereotypes for white audiences, white folks still ran mainstream showbiz. If you were going to be black onstage or on camera, your image was still controlled by a largely white industry.

That's still the case, and there's a whole thread of comedy that goes to that well, poking fun at black actors being instructed "to act blacker" (whatever the hell that even means). Let's call them "Black It Up" routines. The most famous one is probably Robert Townsend's bit from Hollywood Shuffle, in which he imagines an acting school designed to prep aspiring black actors on how to land the roles most available to them.

Earlier this year, the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe revisited this same idea, and they cut out a lot of the fat in the process. A quarter-century passed between the Townsend sketch and the UCB sketch, and their approaches say volumes about the way the media landscape has and hasn't changed.

Read Gene Demby's entire piece at NPR.

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