Tiffany Haddish has once again proven herself to be a tickling delight on the big screen. The comedienne, who made her film debut in the 2017 smash hit, Girls Trip, got her shot at a leading role opposite Kevin Hart in Night School. The movie debuted last Friday and topped the weekend box office at $28 million, making back almost all of its budget in just a few days. I watched Night School and found my chuckles easily transitioning into cackles at various points. It’s a funny movie that I was able to appreciate more because two of the most in-demand Black comedy stars are at the center of it. But I’m not sure that I’d add Night School to the list of great Black/urban comedies — like Harlem Nights, Friday, or more recently, Almost Christmas — despite the huge role that Haddish, Hart, and Black producer Will Packer played in bringing it to life.
I would argue that Night School is a crossover success, a project that intentionally appeals to a broader demographic. In the film, Hart’s character attends a diverse school where both his best friend and nemesis are white, as are some of his night school classmates. Haddish and Romany Malco, who plays a classic hotep named Jaylen, are the only characters who consistently make use of Black vernacular. They are two racialized characters in an otherwise perfectly blended world. In other words, it’s not explicitly Black, even with the rare cocktail of two Black leads.
How is this possible? Comedy, just like other forms of creativity like music, visual art and theater, takes on a different form when it intersects with Black culture. Jokes formulated within the lexicon, codes, and performative dimensions of Blackness — elements that exist independent of the white gaze — and with Black recipients in mind, are what make urban comedy. It is style of comedy that has been mastered by stand-up comics like Katt Williams, Mo’Nique, Mike Epps, Sommore, and Bernie Mac. There are a few white comedians who specialize in Black comedy , like Gary Owen. (“Black comedy” should not be confused with “dark humor,” the dry, ironic, bleak tone of mostly-white films like Heathers and Fight Club.) Inversely, there are Black comedians who do not, like Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams from 2 Dope Queens. Then there are people like Haddish and Hart, who find a sweet spot for appealing to both Black and broader audiences, and thus successfully make the transition to mainstream movie and/or TV stardom. Under the general umbrella of comedy — stand up and otherwise — there is certainly a hierarchy and Black/urban comedy is often at the bottom of it. This pecking order is not lost on those who specialize in the genre.
A couple of weeks before Night School hit theaters, Katt Williams kicked off what has been characterized in headlines one-sided beef with Haddish. As a guest on V-103’s “Frank and Wanda” radio show, Williams criticized Haddish’s quick rise to fame and the big breaks that she’s received as a result. According to him, her ability to leave audiences in hysterics during Girls Trip was the result of good script writing, not her talents as a comedian. “She been doing comedy since she was 16, you can’t tell me your favorite Tiffany Haddish joke,” he started. “Why? Because she ain’t done a tour yet. She ain’t done a special. She has not proven the ability to tell jokes back-to-back for an hour.”
Williams then went on to name several Black female comedians he deemed more worthy of the spotlight, like Lunelle and Mo’Nique (who notoriously called out Netflix for lowballing her in an offer for a comedy special). Interviewer Wanda Smith suggested that audiences have taken to Haddish because she’s “real.” But Williams quickly countered that the industry has actually embraced Haddish because she’s light-skinned and “she wanna sleep with a white man,” citing her comments on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon where she joked about wanting a baby with Brad Pitt.
Williams’ condemnation was picked up by outlets as a personal attack on Haddish — he later made amends to her at the Emmys — thanks in part to his troubled history with drug use and tendency to speak bluntly on controversial topics. Hart himself suggested that Williams was blaming Hollywood instead of holding himself accountable and working harder. However, the subtext of Williams’ rant — that Haddish is benefitting from a comedy industry that is not immune to whitewashing, or at the very least, making Blackness less explicit — shouldn’t be brushed off as the ramblings of an bitter comedian, jealous of other people’s success.
The truth is that people who make jokes that are more universally relatable and tone down their Blackness are more likely to get opportunities like hosting Saturday Night Live! and leading roles in big blockbusters. The stars that we are most familiar with have chosen this route at some point in their careers. Black comedians, like Donald Glover and Jerrod Carmichael, have managed to completely avoid the urban comedy circuit. And some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed talent haven’t made it until they’ve crossed over. Jamie Foxx was a regular on In Living Color — a Black ’90s sketch comedy show on FOX that also launched the career of Jim Carrey — and Def Comedy Jam in the early ‘90s before he went on to become an Oscar winner. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Wanda Sykes also followed similar trajectories from Black comedy experts to big-and-small screen superstars. Leslie Jones is dominating SNL but she got her start on BET’s ComicView, which showcased emerging Black comedians in the ‘90s as well. And I would be remiss not to mention that Eddie Murphy laid the groundwork for stand-up-to-film superstardom with a career that started in 1980. We’re witnessing the legacy that Hart is building in real time. And should the stars keep aligning for Haddish, she’s up next.
Unlike Williams, I don’t believe that achieving a universal level of success necessarily equates to being a sellout, a point he has made about Hart. Urban comedy has a special place in my heart, because performers in the genre speak a language that I understand intimately. But that doesn’t mean that films like Night School, or Chris Rock’s The Week Of with Adam Sandler, or any of the really white comedies that Wanda Sykes has been in are any less respectable or good. Sykes’ humor and personality, for example, aren’t diluted one bit in Monster In Law. By occupying white screens, attention, and imaginations, these entertainers are helping to actualize the kind of diversity that we desperately need more of in Hollywood. Not only does it make for more interesting content, it gives them the platform to uplift other Black artists. They deserve their seat at this table.
There is a bit of renaissance happening with Black comedians right now. Get Out was a horror film,– with a “Black comedy” edge in that other sense of the term – but as the brainchild of funnyman Jordan Peele, it still ended up in comedy categories during awards season. Peele’s success following Get Out is a perfect example of the Black comedy conundrum and the delicate tightrope that Black comics have to balance. He is not an urban comic. Key & Peele had a similar effect to Chappelle’s Show, a heavily racialized sketch series that invited people from all backgrounds to talk about race. This broad fan base helped Get Out secure both an Oscar and the co-signs of the same liberal white people that the movie persecuted. On the flipside, the movie also helped to put Lil Rel Howery on the mainstream map.
The Chicago native is now helping to continue the Black comedic resurgence. He debuted his sitcom Rel — also ushering in the return of Sinbad to primetime! — on FOX. CBS’s The Neighborhood has Cedric the Entertainer and Tichina Arnold (arguably one of the queens of Black sitcoms) as the well-to-do couple next door in a Black neighborhood. NBC’s Marlon, starring Marlon Wayans, is a Black family sitcom for the social media era. Happy Together, starring Marlon’s nephew Damon Wayans Jr. premiered on Monday as well. The opportunities for Black comedians are out there. But as we get out laugh on, we have to remember to ask ourselves: how much of this is by us and for us?
R29 Unbothered presents Trap Glazed, a bi-weekly column where Senior Entertainment Writer Sesali Bowen looks deeper at what’s happening in Black pop culture.