Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy

Director: Robert Townsend
Screenwriters: John Long, Quincy Newell

Institute History

  • 2009 Sundance Film Festival


Timely, insightful, and downright funny, Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy is a sweeping account of the evolution of black comedy in America. Inspired by comedian Darryl Littleton’s book, directors Robert Townsend and Quincy Newell have crafted a no-holds-barred documentary that is both an insider’s take and a critical examination of the cultural influence of black comedy.

Townsend and Newell enrich this hilarious and spectacularly archived film by including interviews with prominent scholars, politicians, cultural critics, and a host of notable comics, including Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Eddie Griffin. Why We Laugh tracks the way black comedy has evolved from Stepin Fetchit and minstrels in blackface to the politically tinged humor of Dick Gregory, and from the television success of Good Times and The Jeffersons to the big-screen accomplishments of stars like Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg. Townsend and Newell turn a perceptive eye on the controversial career of Dave Chapelle and the implications of corporate efforts to capitalize on the massive successes of Russell Simmons’s Def Comedy Jam and Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy.

A major historical contribution to American culture—and a hoot to watch—Why We Laugh is a tribute to the way individuals can change history, as well as a cautionary tale about how tenuous that change can be.

based on Littleton's book

— Shari Frilot

Screening Details

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