I remember being young when I first saw an episode of Def Comedy Jam. I’m talking, “we got HBO for the moment, mom’s asleep, so I’ma watch this with the volume down so that I don’t get in trouble” young. I always loved seeing comedians flip-flop between appearances on Comic View (BET) and then make appearances on Comedy Central doing stand-up. Def Comedy Jam, however, was always a different type of monster. Def Comedy Jam was the WrestleMania of Comedy. If you could make it here, then you could fuck up any stage anywhere, without fear.
Russel Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam debuted in 1992. It’s pretty crazy to realize this show, that highlighted and produced so many Black comics that we know and love today, served as the main vehicle for these performers to break into the mainstream. They used this platform to put a spotlight on the culture of no punches pulled, sugarcane raw Black comedy.
Flash forward to 2017, Def Comedy Jam is now on Netflix as Def Comedy Jam: 25, celebrating 25 years of putting muthafuckas on. Which is insane to me even as I type this. To think that Netflix, the most popular streaming service in the world, the kingpin of the television, would be like, “‘Ol up, y’all celebrating 25 years? Let us hold that Russell.” It’s incredible to see a room full of peers that made a name for themselves after appearing on this platform. Lemme rephrase that, a room full of Black peers that made a name for themselves having been on Def Jam. There’s so much talent in the room that wasn’t given an audience by mainstream conventional means, but being on Def Comedy Jam was a home field advantage.
We see comedians like Sheryl Underwood, Cedric The Entertainer, D.L. Hugley, Craig Robinson, Adele Givens, and Steve Harvey running the tape back John Madden style, highlighting the elements on Def Comedy Jam. Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock kicked it off acknowledging Martin Lawrence as the GOAT of hosting. Period. (Also pointing out the bewilderment of why he was never asked to host the Grammys, Oscars, and so on. Which is an important question.)
We then got highlights of how the comedians reported on what was happening, the most famous impressions, and everyone’s first experience on the show. My favorite parts were seeing clips of comedians like Arnez J, Earthquake, and the first appearances of Leslie Jones, Bernie Mac, and Kevin Hart on the show. The comparison between then and now is a beautiful thing. I also enjoyed Tiffany Haddish talking with the female comics like Sheryl Underwood, Adele Gives, and Melanie Comarcho, asking how their experiences as being women and coming to the field and how Def Comedy Jam helped their careers.
The biggest highlight of the night has got to be D.L. Hughley and Dave Chappelle on stage together reading off the teleprompter, then Chappelle goes off script for another take. I can’t remember another occasion of seeing these two riff off one another. When Chappelle starts going on his tangent, D.L. just lets him riff then joins in trying to go back on script and realizing he’s fucked up now too. Seeing them shoot the shit with one another, and still be able to capture the room, touch on topics (like tiki torches, racism, and old school pop culture), while not skipping a beat off one another, is an incredible feat to witness.
Chappelle kept saying he’d get back on script and D.L. kept assuring him, “No it’s fine. This is the most fun I’ve had all night. This is what we need to be taping.” When they start singing School House Rock and incorporate the crowd too? Shouting out their peers, “Hey Jesse (Williams) get up here and say something to make white people feel bad for 20 minutes.” You can’t script out shit that good man. Chappelle saying, “ahhhh we got plenty of tape. We’re fine. You can leave this in too.” When the producers start ripping on’em off over the PA system too? Magic. Pure magic. You’ll love this moment because it’s rare to see two pros able to go off, slow the show down with a random tangent, and that tangent making the show even more organic so you know it’s real.
Def Comedy Jam 25 is the Black comedian’s HBCU college reunion we needed. It was great to see this atmosphere of love, humor, and jokes. Where no one was taking themselves to seriously, even Steve Harvey reverting back to cursing and risking fucking his money up with the networks (as he was comically worried for throughout the night). This celebration is a great look at what got this generation of Black comedians through the wire. There’s a moment where the pushback against Def Comedy Jam from the older generation and the clean cut older Black come– I’ll just say it…Cosby. Cosby (that MFer) hated these cats and what they were coming with but we see now (if you were daft enough to not recognize back then) that Def Comedy Jam was a necessary platform. Respectability politics in comedy isn’t a surefire way to get ahead.
There’s something about seeing Black folk joking around in the same manner of as you and your friends yet still being a scholar with the manipulation of the way their jokes land and work. Come on man, a few ‘muh fuckas’ dropped in a set doesn’t make any Black comedian less of an artist or scholar when performing their craft. Def Comedy Jam is such a great time capsule for not only Black humor but comedy in general. Pay homage and check out Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam 25 on Netflix.