BY Candice Frederick in Opinion | 04 OCT 19

It’s Time to Respect Black Women in Comedy

A new wave of stand-up specials, sketch shows and comedy-dramas are dismantling Hollywood’s white monolith, one gag at a time

BY Candice Frederick in Opinion | 04 OCT 19

As pithily stated on a recent episode of the sacrilegious, comic book-based series Preacher (2015–19), female comedians are a sign of the apocalypse. If that’s true, then today’s black women comedians must be a special Armageddon sent to annihilate the white monolith of brilliant farce. Just a few years ago, it was almost exclusively white women comedians, such as Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, who were gracing the covers of magazines such as Vanity Fair and Elle and given international platforms to confront the ridiculous question: can women be funny? Now, however, black stars like Michaela Coel, Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae and Robin Thede are not only making their own marks in Hollywood but are paving the way for other women of colour to thrive alongside them.  

Looking at Haddish’s story, what makes it so noteworthy is that she went from being a virtually unknown actor to stealing the show in the hilarious all-black female comedy Girls Trip (2017), before going on to share the big screen with Hollywood heavyweights such as Melissa McCarthy in The Kitchen (2019), Kevin Hart in Night School (2018) and Whoopi Goldberg in Nobody’s Fool (2018)Having launched into Hollywood superstardom, Haddish has now created a path for other marginalized women to succeed as an executive producer of Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready (2019–ongoing), an all-female stand-up series on Netflix featuring Tracy Ashley, Flame Monroe and Chaunté Wayans. 

A Black Lady Sketch Show, 2019–ongoing, video still. Courtesy: HBO

Coincidentally, Oscar winner Mo’Nique called out Netflix in 2018 for offering to pay her considerably less for a stand-up special than male counterparts Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. In a video posted to her Instagram account in January 2018, she asked: ‘Why shouldn’t I get what the legends are getting?’ Publicly bringing attention to the issue of gender and racial pay parity in the entertainment industry, Mo’Nique faced backlash from fellow comedian Steve Harvey, who said to her, during an interview on his television talk show Steve, earlier this year: ‘I cannot, for the sake of my integrity, stand up here and let everybody that’s counting on me crumble so that I can make a statement. There are ways to win the war in a different way.’ Yet, the discourse that Mo’Nique started perhaps enabled Haddish to confidently advocate for herself as well as other women who, despite their long-standing careers, haven’t been granted the opportunities they deserve.

In the spirit of paying it forward, Thede’s much-discussed, late-night comedy series, aptly titled A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019–ongoing), boasts a bevy of legendary guest stars – including Loretta Devine, Jackée Harry and Sheryl Lee Ralph – that made it possible for her and other black women to succeed. Together with co-stars Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis and Ashley Nicole Black, Thede has helped to solidify a sisterhood of Black comedians in a programme that allows them to showcase their comedy chops while confronting serious topics. For example, in one sketch, Dennis brings attention to the urgent necessity of an employee full benefits package in today’s struggling economy through her quick-witted depiction of a hot-headed gang leader orienting new recruits.  

Insecure, 2017–ongoing, video still. Courtesy: HBO

In that coveted inner circle is also Rae, who appears on four episodes of A Black Lady Sketch Show and is co-executive producer. After achieving massive success for her HBO series, Insecure (2016–ongoing) – which introduced us to the hysterical Yvonne Orji and Natasha Rothwell and explores what it’s like to occupy romantic and professional spaces as a black millennial woman in Los Angeles – Rae partnered with Thede to help support her new show. Film and television writer Tracy Oliver – who penned an episode of Rae’s groundbreaking YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (2011–13), and earned critical acclaim for her work on Girls Trip – is also continuing this trend of celebrating underrepresented and wildly entertaining black women. Featuring Ryan-Michelle Bathe, Michelle Buteau and Jill Scott, Oliver’s new series, The First Wives Club (2019–ongoing), re-imagines the beloved 1996 film of the same name, but with black female leads. 

Chewing Gum, 2015–17, video still. Courtesy: Netflix

Much like Rae, British star Coel has also helped to normalize the previously underrepresented image of an awkward black girl. She introduced herself to audiences around the globe with her hit series Chewing Gum (2015–17), which she starred in, co-wrote and co-produced. Her portrayal of the character Tracey Gordon is proof that narratives featuring black women are wholly relatable, navigating sexual experiences, complicated friendships and outrageous families just as humorously as those featuring white women. 

Black women in comedy are a rising threat to the stale white standard that has too long prevailed in Hollywood. Creating their own platforms while simultaneously eviscerating the racial wage gap and the false belief that black women are each other’s enemies, Coel, Haddish, Oliver, Rae and Thede have given us impenetrable black female comedy squads that are crucial figures in a scene that has historically laughed at black women rather than with them. So, if the apocalypse is nigh, as Preacher suggests, we can at least rest assured we’ll go out crying tears of laughter. Lucky us.

Main image: Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready, 2019–ongoing, video still. Courtesy: Netflix

Candice Frederick is a freelance TV/film journalist living in New York City. You can find more of her work here. Follow her on Twitter.