Comedian, anthropologist, author, historian and producer Darryl Littleton knows how the game works. The Los Angeles funnyman has been building his career for more than 25 years, beginning as a writer and producer on BET for the long-running series “Comic View” during D.L. Hughley’s hosting stint in the ’90s. He has since worked with media mogul Robert Townsend and comedians like Katt William. He’s continued writing for stage and screen, and he’s developed his own stand-up comedy act as the conscious persona “D’Militant.” In 2005, Littleton published his first book, "Black Comedians on Black Comedy,” which traces the path African-Americans helped pave to comedy.
Since then, he has continued writing, performing and even produced a documentary about the subject on which he’s become a walking encyclopedia. He’s sharing it with the public Tuesday at 2 p.m. in a talk at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County.
Q: In tracing the history of black people being funny, what is one constant you have seen?
A: How black people take tragedy and make it funny, and I would say that more than other races of comedy. We don’t get so much into observational (comedy) unless it’s very pointed observation. We don’t really make up jokes just for the sake of it being a joke. Even when those guys were going up the Mississippi River singing songs, which were humorous songs — there was still an antislavery/pro-black theme to it.
But even though there were black comedians who made fun of their tragedies, their lives were still tragic. Take for instance, Richard Pryor — he turned his drug use into comedy, but still battled addiction.
Here’s the thing: If you have a perfectly normal, adjusted person who’s happy, they’re not funny. Comedians have to have some kind of angst going on, they have to have something that drives them or spurs them — there has to be a dark side for them really to be funny.
Q: In your stand-up routine, you refer to yourself as "D'Militant." How did you develop that personae?
A: I was working for Tom Joyner as a writer, and that was one of the characters that I came up with for his morning show. A friend of mine named Buddy Lewis said “You should take that onstage.” At the time I was working at a mortgage company — I was one of those suit comedians, but I was still talking militant, and it just didn’t match. When I changed the persona and made the appearance go with what I was actually saying, that was just the perfect alignment — worked ever since. People know what they’re getting before I open my mouth — they just don’t know how they’re going to get it.
Q: So it took you awhile to build your fanbase, naturally. That seems to be the case for a lot of black comedians by the time they’ve risen to national fame.
A: People have said this before, that comedy is a young man’s game, and I really do agree with that in the sense of introduction. You can do comedy until you’re 100 years old, as George Burns proved, and Bob Hope as well. Cosby is still going strong. But none of those guys I named were introduced to the public — including Redd Foxx — when they were old. They had been in the business a long time, people knew who they were — they just stayed in the game.
Q: What is your take on the rise of the black female comedienne?
A: I think it’s great, to be honest with you. I’m married to a comedienne — I love it! She co-wrote the book with me “Comediennes: Laugh Be A Lady.” I’ve worked with a lot of these women — some of them are just ripping machines. They should have gotten credit a long time ago.
Q: Do you feel like women still have to play up, or down, their sex appeal in order to be funny?
A: Moms Mabley, one of the most popular black female comediennes of the mid-20th century, regularly dressed in dowdy clothing for her routines, while comedienne LaWanda Page of “Sanford and Son” told very raunchy jokes well into her later years.
Moms Mabley started when she was young. She used to dress like an old woman and put on the baggy clothes because she had an hourglass shape and women in the audience would get jealous. Whereas when she put on the old woman persona, she was able to do that and nobody objected. Phyllis Diller, by the way, did the exact same thing. I think it’s the vessel that the female comedienne comes with.
Q: Nine years have passed since the publication of your first book — what has changed the most in black comedy since then?
A: Kevin Hart was the last person that is covered in the book. I felt Kevin had the template and the formula for where comedy was going. And it wasn’t going in the one-trick-pony mode that it had been in for a lot of comedians. It was going in writing your own stuff, producing your own stuff, learning how to direct, acting, doing stand-up, stretching your tentacles.
Kevin is also a spokesman now. And, I always go out on a limb when I say this, one day he’ll probably host the Oscars. I don’t doubt it, because he’s in that mode of comedian. It’s more than just being funny — there’s a whole combination of things.
IF YOU GO...
What: Darryl Littleton presents “Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy”
When: Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Where: Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County, downtown Anniston