The Oral History of BET’s ‘ComicView’

Show creator Curtis Gadson, ComicView alum, and others discuss the impact of bi-weekly comedy TV show that still resonates today.

Black stand-up comedy exploded into the mainstream in the 1990s after experiences like Def Comedy Jam, Phat Tuesdays (Guy Torry’s all-Black comedy night), and New York’s Uptown Comedy Club gave comics a  high-profile platform to hone and showcase their talents. Another marquee show, BET’s ComicView, which premiered thirty years ago today, September 15, offered Black audiences a (bi-weekly) opportunity to connect with comedians whose commentary and perspective were designed with them in mind. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, we spoke with a host of talent about the show’s impact and more. 

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Beginning with ace comedian, and ComicView staple, Arnez J, who then spoke to, declared, “[Stand-up] was a battle, people came to be entertained. Comedy that works is about the moment. My job was to [make audiences] feel better when they left.” Sheryl Underwood, who was the show’s 12th host from 2005-2006, tells, “Two [key] things [that] triggered the Black comic explosion in the ’90s [was,] ‘Def Comedy Jam’ and ‘ComicView.’” Well, if HBO’s Def Comedy Jam unlocked the gate, then BET’s ComicView thrust it wide open. 

When asked his opinion about the impact of ComicView, Kevin Fredericks, better known as KevOnStage, told, “‘ComicView’ was such a pivotal show for people like me. Here’s the truth. There are some comics I [still] go see live because I first saw them on ‘ComicView.’ There [are] jokes I still say and laugh [at that] comedians said on ‘ComicView.’  That’s how important that show was.”

While shows like, In Living Color, incorporated pointed jabs in ways that showed audiences a different side of sketch comedy, ComicView ushered in a style of stand-up usually reserved for Black comedy nightclubs into people’s homes every Tuesday and Thursday. Underwood, voted 1994’s Funniest Female Comedian on ComicView, opined, “A myriad of comedy graced the ‘ComicView’ stage [and the performers’ material represented] a merging of the comedy club, Black empowerment meetings, and church. You could reach everyone… and ‘ComicView’ definitely did.”

And if you ask creator Curtis Gadson if he expected BET’s ComicView to help foster a golden age of Black comedy in the ’90s, he’ll tell you he cracked the formula in 1982 working as a producer, host, and video director on the singing competition, Saturday Night Music Machine, in Detroit, Michigan. In its time slot, the show stayed number one for five years. With Music Machine as proof of concept, Gadson turned his eye to comedy. He wanted to bring “the Black family a stand-up [comedy] viewing experience that could be shared in love and laughter.” 

His rule of thumb for creating a show was to “look at what everyone else was doing and make a conscious choice not to do that,” he shared via email. So, Gadson shied away from the live auditions at clubs, choosing instead to judge comics from taped performances. His number one rule? No profanity. He wanted a show his religious parents and then young daughter could watch. He reiterated, “If [a] video had no profanity and made me laugh over and over for days after the first viewing, I invited the comic to be on ‘ComicView.’” When thinking back on judging video submissions, Gadson recalls, “The funniest was Cedric the Entertainer. He made me laugh so hard, I was in tears.”

Gadson’s focus on serving a ‘family-friendly’ audience, created an opportunity for comics to highlight their ability to finesse their material without blunting its edge. From the outset, Gadson says the goal was “to expand fan and revenue bases, and [increase] venue access [without sacrificing] their connection to the Black experience.”

Several ComicView alumni unilaterally agreed, that the show helped ticket sales and increased their cut of club money. The show’s availability via basic cable broadened the comics’ reach; introducing viewers to talented club veterans and up-and-comers killing the game on the strength of their wit, ability to read the room, and a no-holds-barred attitude alone. Arnez J asserts, “The format didn’t force a change in my act. I was one of those outsiders [that] people couldn’t quite figure out. I was about doing characters, but I was never a cliché. ‘ComicView’ pushed me. I refused to cheat my audience, and [they] liked me.”

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Gadson, both then and now, considers designing ComicView, a place for rising Black voices and non-Black comics, as his most impactful contribution to comedy culture. Both Arnez J and Underwood however declared that for performers, the ComicView stage was, “One of the proving grounds.” Underwood added, “If you could stand flat-footed and make a ‘ComicView’ audience laugh, then you knew you had something.”

And she was right.

A well-received act often kick-started the kind of momentum that makes (or breaks) a career. The ComicView hosts through the 1990s: D.L Hughley (1992-1994), Cedric the Entertainer (1994-1995), Sommore (1995-1996; 2014), and Don “D.C.” Curry (1996-1997; 2013), might as well be considered the Mount Rushmore of Jokesters. Now, they are considered some of the biggest and most iconic names in comedy today, conquering film, television, radio, and publishing —all with ComicView on their résumé.

But for a comedy newcomer like Staci Lynn Fletcher, who appeared in the Season One premiere, hosted by Hughley, ComicView was formative. “‘ComicView’ was such a wonderful experience for me. I’d only be[en] doing stand-up for about [six] months when I was asked to be a part of the show. I was still trying to figure things out and find my voice. At the time, they were looking to elevate clean comedians on a national level. Because of that, my desire to keep my act clean was solidified. I had in my young comedic mind that I had to be dirty to be considered funny.”

 Alternatively, a ComicView veteran, Melanie Comarcho says of her experience, “‘Def Comedy Jam’ and ‘ComicView’ put me on the map in the ‘90s. Those shows turned me into one of the [era’s] ‘It Girls’ for comedy. The love that we got from ‘ComicView fans, pushed many comedians to go on to bigger and greater things. And Underwood credits her “humor and restraint” as co-host of The Talk, to her time on ComicView. She shared, “People told me I’d never book ‘ComicView’ because my act was mostly blue humor. But you can see the evolution of Sheryl Underwood. That’s the stage where I learned to shape those [political] jokes and navigate the duality of being a Black [woman] comic and a host.” 

Arnez J recalls his time as host of  ComicView’s Caliente season as positive. “My experience with ‘ComicView’ was phenomenal. When I hosted, I wanted comics to come out with a warrior attitude. There were great people around me and it went well for me. I was given the freedom to be a visionary. When you have a good outlet you have to capitalize on it to the fullest.”

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Others lauded the show as a mainstay staple that’s influenced their work. For Rod Morrow, writer for HBO’s Game Theory with Bomani Jones, and co-host of the comedy talk show, The Black Guy Who Tips, the impact of BET’s ComicView on his comedic sensibilities is multifaceted. “BET's ‘ComicView’ brought a lot of comedic Black voices into my house during my formative years. And in the later years, when it shifted to comedy montage-style episodes, the show was instrumental in illustrating what went into a joke and the different avenues a comedian could take from setting up, all the way to the punchline. In a world that was constantly blocking Black comics out of opportunities, ComicView’ gave Black folks a path onto my TV set routinely.”

The ComicView stage proved Black comedy shines brightest when it walks that fine line between poking fun, calling out, and the irresistibly funny, if uncomfortable, color commentary. It helped establish the commercial viability of Black comedic voices. And ComicView alumni all overwhelmingly declared it past time to give the show and its comedians their flowers. 

Lil Rel Howery shared his feelings about ‘ComicView’ with by phone, “Eddie [Murphy] is why I wanted to do stand-up but there were two people that I saw on ‘ComicView,’ Kevin Hart and Meechie Hall, who convinced me that I had to do this. I could give you a rundown of ‘Best of ComicView’ jokes right now, no problem. Being a part of it is still unreal to me. ‘ComicView’ was my first television appearance; being on that stage, hearing my name called gave me chills.” 

He continued, “Comedy Central wasn’t knocking on people’s doors, not then. We talk about ‘Def Comedy Jam’ but we don’t talk enough about how ‘ComicView’ was the source to see who was funny — especially for urban comedy.  At the end of each season, there was a competition to see who’d be the next season’s host. That’s how we got Cedric the Entertainer, Rickey Smiley, Bruce Bruce, and Arnez J. as hosts. Rickey was Mr. ComicView. To this day, Smiley’s the only one to have their own ComicView special. And that’s another thing, at the end of your set they gave you your tape. It's still surreal when I watch my tape back. I remember having all my friends come over to watch five minutes. Most of us walked around with our tapes on us.” 

When asked his thoughts about stand-up’s reach today, Lil Rel proclaimed, “I think it’s a perfect time to bring it [‘ComicView’] back. We need a show that brings urban comedy directly to the people on TV again. There’s just nothing like it.”

An original star of Snoop Dogg’s Bad Girls of Comedy, Luenell, is emphatic about that very need to celebrate the show’s milestone, saying, “‘ComicView’ was a huge turning point for Black comedians because [the show] was the first time so many comics were showcased regularly on national television. The popularity and attention that we received as a result of national exposure were immeasurable. I, myself, did a consecutive eight seasons of ‘ComicView,’ and it raised my profile profoundly. It was an institution that should not be forgotten.”

Ro Moore is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved freelance film/TV critic, writer, and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, the Online Association of Female Film Critics, and a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat. You can always find her talking about villain agendas, invasive species, and costume dramas. Follow her on Twitter @BookBlerd.

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