In the early '60s, comic Dick Gregory skewered racial tensions with this story: "I walked into a restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, 'We don't serve colored people.' 'That's all right,' I replied. 'I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.' "
Sprinkling his work with this and other samples of wit, Watkins, a former New York Times Book Review editor, artfully tracks the evolution of African-American humor in this impressive, 652-page history.
From 18th-century plantation humor—born of injustice and passed down by word of mouth—to blackface minstrel shows, vaudeville, Amos 'n' Andy, Moms Mabley and Flip Wilson, Watkins has assembled a vivid array of comic voices.
Especially poignant are profiles of performers like Stepin Fetchit, who were restricted to playing "darky" clowns only to be chastised later for their buffoonery. Watkins is al his best when focusing on such crossover comedians as Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and Redd Foxx, who successfully translated black humor—with a bite of social commentary—for white audiences.
Watkins concludes with a critical appreciation of Richard Pryor, whose raw, deeply personal brand of humor continues to influence contemporary comic performers. While Stepin Fetchit might be bewildered by Family Matters' Steve Urkel, On the Real Side makes it possible to appreciate both. (Simon & Schuster, $27.50)