There is an episode in the first season of Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness — a surrealist melodrama that tackles topics ranging from gender fluidity to Black love — that involves a horrific 70s-style game show called “Everybody Dies.” Hosted by Ripa the Reaper, played by Tony Award-winning Tonya Pinkins, the sketch features a “Murder Map” of America. I watched the show at a screening hosted by HBO in 2018, and the skit made the Brooklyn audience audibly uncomfortable.
In the sketch, Ripa sings a macabre nursery rhyme, ushering Black children through to the space between life and death. At the time, the names of police brutality victims like Saheed Vassell and Stephon Clark were still ringing out in streets across the country. Later on in the sketch, a few precocious white kids follow in behind a row of Black children. Ripa quips at them, “You’re lost. You want the third door down the hall on the left. There’s cookies in there.”
The bit proved that surrealism can encompass the comedic, the tragic, the whimsical, the absurd and nonsensical. A combination of all these themes, when filtered through the Black American lens, can be damning and damn funny at the same time.
The beat didn’t hit with the stuffed shirts in the room, but I laughed. What I took away from it was that while it’s true that death comes for us all, Black Death™ is exceptionally hard to watch — even for Ripa the Reaper herself, who cries at the end. Looking back, the sketch was a perfect bit of Black absurdism that would usher in a style of storytelling that continues to impact comedy today.
I grew up on a healthy diet of left-of-center acts like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bob Odenkirk, Kids in the Hall, and Tim and Eric, all considered architects of absurdity. Random Acts of Flyness disarmed and disrupted the genre and built upon a tradition within the Black comedic family tree whose timeline includes Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle.
“Most comedians do what they think is funny and then the public categorizes comics as ‘absurdist’ or a ‘shock comic’ or whatever,” Victor Varnado, creator of the legendary Black absurdist documentary The Awkward Comedy Show, tells Mic. “The best comedians realize how absurd the world is and then join in. They add to the chaos and mayhem of the world because it is hilarious how nonsensical it is.” In Varnado’s 2010 film, comedians such as Baron Vaughn, Marina Franklin, Eric André, and Hannibal Buress were featured alongside Varnado, who described them as of “the nerd variety.”
And while many felt there weren’t a lot of Black comedians who shared this similar vibe, those who moved to New York during the rise of Buress, Jermaine Fowler, and Nicole Byer would disagree. They’d say they were following a rich tradition within the space that had begun long before them.
“Absurdism has always been a strain in Black comedic spaces,” Keith Lucas, one-half of The Lucas Bros., tells Mic. “It wasn’t always the forefront, nor was it always the most practiced, but I would say [that] Richard Pryor certainly dabbled in absurdism.” In 1977, The Richard Pryor Show was a first of its kind for NBC, as the G.O.A.T. comedian brought in a ragtag group of anarchists (the late Robin Williams, Paul Mooney, and John Witherspoon were cast members) and built on his budding reputation as a comedy tour de force. It only ran for four episodes before it was canceled, but in the premiere, Pryor was shown nude with his genitals removed like a Ken Doll. In another episode, he was a Black man in a gun shop who could hear the weapons talking to him, revealing their shocking confessions.
At the time, it was considered outlandish and controversial. But it was a precursor to Dave Chappelle and Neal Breannan’s Chappelle Show, and with bits about a Black president and the different personalities of guns, marked a clear delineation between Black absurdity and regular comedy.
Black comedy as a whole has been breaking apart the fixtures of a traditionally white landscape on film and television. Recent years have seen shows like Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, Jerrod Carmichael’s The Carmichael Show, Henry Bonsu’s Lazor Wulf, and Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle’s Sherman’s Showcase — all absurdist comedians kicking up dust. This type of humor has permeated pop culture while still retaining its punk roots, while the industry would likely have dismissed these shows as niche a few years ago. “In the case of Eric André, he’s such a natural at what he does and what he wants to do that he’s the best at advancing his thing,” Reggie Watts, self-proclaimed “disinformationalist” and bandleader for The Late Late Show with James Corden, shared with Mic.com when speaking on the genre’s imprint.
Eric André is the comedy equivalent of if Tom Green merged with George Clinton. He lent his voice to 2019’s The Lion King, and his 2021 run is heavy with three more films: his own Bad Trip, Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and the animated film Sing 2. But none of this would have been possible without the success of The Eric André Show. First airing in 2012, it is one of the best absurdist comedy television shows ever made. The Eric André Show is this generation’s Monty Python — it isn’t for everyone, but for myself, it was an insane induction to the next wave of hilarity by Black absurdist comics.
The absurdist comedy tree has produced more opportunities for many Black comics in the space. Victor Varnado told Mic in an emailed exchange that The Awkward Comedy Show will return with a new and weird twist audiences must see to believe; The Lucas Brothers, refreshed from those six Oscar nods for co-producing and co-writing Judas and the Black Messiah, are said to be in the lab for Sherman’s Showcase season two; and after directing Space Jam: A New Legacy, Terence Nance will return to bring Random Acts of Flyness to HBO Max for a second season.
“Those who traffic in the weird and extreme push the limits and the boundaries for everyone else,” Dillon Stevenson, one third of the Super Video Bros. collective, tells Mic. “It’s encouraging to see someone take a big swing on an insane premise or bit. Whether it connects or not, that ‘fuck it’ factor benefits all.”
With Atlanta soon to return, absurdist comedy has not-so-quietly become hyped up thanks to the show’s use of experimental jokes that give way to timeline fodder for Black Twitter. Much like “Everybody Dies” from Random Acts of Flyness, Atlanta has its share of surreal moments — especially memorable, mysterious characters like Ahmad White (aka “Nutella Man”) and Teddy Perkins — that uniquely reveal incisive truths about what it means to be Black in America. Moments such as these prove that this Black Absurdity is beyond ready to create a new mainstream, as comedians subvert expectations with an assemblage of shows that point to the future of funny.
Not only are these talented creatives dismantling the notions that people attach to Black people, they are breaking through barriers to enter rarefied spaces. This inexplicable and imaginative offering of ridiculousness makes this rising wave of TV and film feel revolutionized and subversive. Cutting through the noise of the past several years, where reality has begun to feel more and more unreal, Donald Glover discussed the absurdist choices he makes for Atlanta.
“I feel like the absurdity of the world … is more interesting,” Glover said during the 2016 Television Critics Association tour. “I mean, like, Donald Trump is running for president right now. When I was 8, I saw him in a Pizza Hut commercial, like, that’s fucking weird.”
The art coming out now can be best defined as a resistance to labels while containing a multiplicity of styles. If sitcoms from the ‘90s were characterized by Living Single and Martin, and the ‘00s by mockumentary-style, Modern Family-based comedy, this decade and beyond will be inundated by chaos-infused plotlines and jokes that erratically shake the table.
“What’s great about absurdity or high-conceptual comedy is that it’s more of a human thing,” Watts said during our call. “Absurdity is a universal language. It’s like music — and that’s what I love about it.”