“We don’t need a Black superhero who’s bulletproof, we need one who can get juries to believe them,” joked D.L. Hughley, at Def Comedy Jam 25, the 25th anniversary special of the groundbreaking series. I was lucky enough to get a ticket to watch the show live, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where it was being recorded for a Netflix special that debuts this Tuesday, September 26 on the streaming platform. Somewhere in the midst of my own laughter, I got a little teary-eyed. I try to refrain from doing that thing where people get weird and overly nostalgic about the '90s, but this was different.
This was being in a room with the greatest comedians of all time, hearing jokes that might not be said in public outside of a Black beauty salon or barbershop. It was being in an environment where I didn’t have to scan the room to make sure the white people weren’t laughing too hard. Now, there were white people in attendance, but they were spots in a sea of Blackness. It was then I remembered that Def Comedy Jam was so much more than a Friday night comedy program. For a lot of us, it was home.
Before social media, your lewd, politically incorrect jokes were told almost exclusively in the company of friends or family. If you’re a kid, it was in the lunchroom. If you’re a young adult it was in the beauty salon or barbershop. If you were really grown, it was at a bar after some shots. At the time, telling jokes raw and unfiltered on national television was unheard of. Since its inception in 1992, Def Comedy Jam was a safe space for Black folks to tell these jokes in public. To make sense of their childhood and adulthood alike. To speak freely about the systems that often hinder Black life. The comedians on Def Comedy Jam weren’t doing anything different than you or I. They were regular ass people telling extraordinary jokes about Black life and that’s what made it special. That’s what made it such a unique yet relatable piece of television. “[It was] a secret only Black people knew about,” says Dave Chappelle at Def Jam’s 25th Anniversary Special. It’s why when I was sitting in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, watching this incredible celebration of the show’s 25 years of success, I was overcome with emotion. I could only think about how the program’s absence has left a hole in television today.
With the rise of digital, one can make the argument that we now have spaces to have these raw conversations and tell these unfiltered jokes. For the most part, it’s true. Twitter especially gives people an outlet to discuss taboo topics. To have a sense of community with friends, family and strangers. In a sense, Twitter has become the lunchroom. Virtually, people are sitting at tables and discussing topics of interest with like-minded people. The problem with any lunchroom, however, is that if everyone is talking at once, it can become a bunch of noise. And increasingly that’s what Twitter has become. Many meaningful and hard conversations get railroaded by folks playing devil’s advocate or by folks who are simply bored and want to be mean-spirited. On the other hand, Twitter can provide valuable information. It can introduce and amplify new ideas or new voices. Twitter at it’s absolute peak, however, is when Black Twitter comes together as a family to watch and live tweet a television show. There is no better moment to be on the internet. The memes, the hashtags, the inevitable hurt person who internalizes what they see and publicizes the drama in their life and many times simply the exchange of knowledge and information. 30 minutes of Def Comedy Jam and Black Twitter would be a match made in fuckery. Just imagine having the Twitterverse during Bernie Mac’s infamous “I Ain’t Scared of You Muthaf******!” stand up performance.
But Def Comedy Jam wasn’t all lewd and squeamish jokes. The program gave viewers a hard-hitting reality of what it’s like to be Black in America. Male comedians did bits on police brutality in America. Female comedians spoke on what it’s like to be “a f*cking lady.” It’s the kind of raw political commentary we could use in Trump’s America. There’s tons of commentary on this administration, but even within those voices, there’s few telling it like it is. Def Comedy Jam never held back the punches. Everyone from Michael Jackson to Clarence Thomas could be named in a joke. Everything and everyone was up for grabs. That’s what made Def Comedy Jam the best water cooler show. Jokes that were said on stage would be in real life conversations for days. It’s a big reason why I believe the show would work in this digital era.
Although, you can almost guarantee that there will be backlash at some point. Probably even more so in the age of Twitter fingers. During the show’s early run, it faced harsh criticism from critics and peers alike about the show’s content. Some felt that the comedians gave a negative depiction of Black people. Given the climate today, I almost expect a similar disconnect. Especially for the older comedians. Chappelle faced some backlash about the trans jokes during his Netflix specials. Even with that threat, it still would be a worthwhile endeavor for new, young, up-and-coming comedians to have a space to figure it out for themselves. And for us to figure it out with them.
Def Comedy Jam did so much more for the culture than just bring in the laughs. From the fashions to the hip hop music. It televised every facet of Black cool. The show had Kid Capri DJing, cameos from the biggest names in rap music and Black cinema. That kind of melding pot is something that we could use on television today. Especially in this era of Black artistry where shows like “Insecure” and “Atlanta” exist. Where there’s this emergence of punk rap. A single program that brings together all of those elements could be an amazing thing for the culture. Beyond just breaking new comedic talent, it has the possibility of throwing a spotlight on the rappers and filmmakers coming up now, much like the original did. It was a space for us to be us. A space for us to come together from all walks of Blackness and laugh at the bullshit going on in our world. And boy do we need some laughter right now.