This past weekend, Chris Rock concluded another terrific season of his HBO show, and one of the episode’s high points was a sketch in which Rock portrayed Lionel X, “the first Black Muslim country singer.” In a cowboy hat and strumming a guitar, the rail-thin Rock looked like an African-American Hank Williams. The bit had bite — in this mock-biography, one of Lioinel’s biggest hits was “I’m So Black I’m Blue,” and he was supposed to have been regularly beaten up by the “crackers” in the audience.
Rock doesn’t often play other characters — he prefers to work from his own edgy yet genial persona as a stand-up comic. So seeing him assume the guise of Lionel X reminded me of another black stand-up comedian who “did” characters: Flip Wilson, who died last week of liver cancer at the age of 64. Wilson hit it big in the ’70s, cross-dressing as the sass-talking Geraldine and coining pop-culture catch-phrases like “The devil made me do it!” and “What you see is what you get.”
What you saw in Wilson was a warm man with a round face and a wide grin, a man who’d spent a tough youth in foster homes to emerge into adulthood with an intense desire to please and be accepted. During a period of heightened racial tensions and black radicalism, Wilson’s non-threatening comedy was seized upon by black and white audiences, and he became the first black comic to host his own variety show in 1970.
The other major black comedians of Wilson’s era were the then-well-established Bill Cosby and the brilliantly mercurial Richard Pryor. If it’s Pryor’s slashing style that Chris Rock’s most resembles (he channelled it by way of his more immediate influence, the Pryor-adept Eddie Murphy), Rock nontheless owes Wilson a debt. What Wilson did was to demonstrate to other black comedians that you could be a clown without sacrificing your dignity or becoming an Uncle Tom. You could assume the mask of another person, and your true soul would shine through. Wilson had this knack, and Rock continues to demonstrate its effectiveness and power.