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Q & A

NIPSEY RUSSELL : Comic Laureate


Nipsey Russell, the poet laureate of television, is one of several African-American comedians featured in the new documentary "Mo' Funny: Black Comedy in America," premiering Tuesday on HBO.

Narrated by Charles Dutton of Fox's "Roc," the 90-minute special chronicles the history of black comedy in America, from the black-faced "minstrel" teams of the turn of the century, to comic servant movie actors of the '30s, to the civil rights comics of the '60s, to the current crop of comedians such as Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor.

The Atlanta-born Russell began his career as a youngster as part of the tap-dance team of Ragmuffins of Rhythm. He turned to comedy in the 1950s, and along with Timmie Rogers and Redd Foxx, was one of the first black comics to refuse to talk in "Negro" dialects, to wear outlandish outfits or to appear in "black face."

Besides being a regular on numerous game shows, Russell, known for his comic rhymes, has appeared in such films as "The Wiz" and "Wildcats."

Russell talked with Times Staff Writer Susan King about his career and black comedy in America.


What do you think audiences will learn from "Mo' Funny"?

It seemed to have a threefold purpose: one, of course, is obvious--to amuse. The second is to to give a sort of, I guess you call it, historical account of what comedy was; and three, to sort of superimpose it as a social commentary on the development of the black experience through the years. But to my way of thinking, all arts speak to experience.

I tried to point out (in the documentary) that the comedians who came along in my era, came as ourselves, not as comedy characters, which had been true of Lincoln Perry as Stephin Fetchit and Eddie Anderson as Rochester (on "The Jack Benny Show"). See, Eddie Anderson was part of a dance team called the Anderson Brothers and when he went to do the thing with Jack Benny, he became known as Rochester. So wherever he went, he was Rochester. Wherever I went, I was Nipsey.


Who inspired you to become a comedian?

Well, I was not inspired by comedians. I was a tap-dancer. I was part of a dance team called Ragmuffins of Rhythm and I am going back to (when I was) 3, 4 and 5 years old.

There was a dancer by the name of Jack Wiggins. The first time I saw Jack Wiggins, I must have been 9 or 10. He came out immaculately attired in a well-dressed street suit and he tap-danced. As he danced, he told little jokes in between. He was so clean in his language and was lacking in any drawl, he just inspired me. I wanted to do that.

I didn't do it immediately. I just tap-danced with my partner. The jokes came later when I became a soloist.


You mention in the documentary that one agent wanted you to get a partner because he found it too aggressive if you talked directly to a white audience. Can you talk about that incident?

It was one particular guy who had in his office as clients Buck and Bubbles and Chuck and Chuckles--all of those comedy dance acts. That was the way he thought black people should perform. When Mr. Frank Schiffman, (the owner) of the Apollo Theatre, asked him to come and see me, he saw me and said, "He is just great. We got to get him a partner, maybe a girl partner." I said why do I need a partner? He said, "You can't talk directly to a white audience. That is too aggressive. You can't look (a white audience) in the eye and make eye contact. You talk to your partner and they will hear your jokes as you tell them to your partner. They will be spectators and you will be performers." That was his thinking. I don't even know if he was malicious in his thinking.


Is it true you were the first black regular on daytime game shows?

The very first and the only one who did it as a regular thing over the years.


How did the game show gigs happen?

They had a party at the Academy (of Television Arts & Sciences) and they were honoring (game show producer) Mark Goodson. I did that party and Mark Goodson was there and his producers and they said, "Gee, that guy is very clever. I wonder if he has enough knowledge to play game shows?" So they brought me in and gave the test they give game show contestants. I was so good at that they put me on a game show they had called "To Tell the Truth," and I became a regular panelist for three or four years.


Did you begin rhyming on the game shows?

There was one game show called "Missing Link." Ed McMahon was the host. I had two poems I had known from other comedians and Ed got me to say one of them and I got a really big hand. The next day, I used the other one and on the third day, Ed said, "Now, we will hear from the poet laureate of television." I didn't know any more, but I knew I had found a gimmick. I said, "God, if I could I could write those, I would become really the poet laureate." So I went home to see if I could write them. It is very simple to do. The way I start is with the joke line and write backward. It got to the point I always started (a game show) with a poem. Of course, with my poetry, I was easily identified. Truck drivers stop me and say, "What is the poem for the day?" or "Give me a poem for my girl." I have one on almost every subject.

"Mo' Funny: Black Comedy in America" premieres Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. on HBO; it repeats February 15, 18 and 24.

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