A Dose of Reality: Def Comedy Jam, 25 Years Later
Now for some of you millennials who might be asking, ‘What the hell is Def Comedy Jam?,’ well, that’s why we hate you little motherfuckers! Y’all don’t know shit!
These are the poignant thoughts of one of the Original Kings of Comedy, Cedric the Entertainer, one of four legendary comedians — alongside Steve Harvey, Sheryl Underwood, and Dave Chappelle — responsible for welcoming the viewing audience to Def Comedy Jam 25, a Netflix special commemorating the 25th anniversary of the landmark comedy show's first television airing. You might call Cedric’s words crude (disclaimers: it’s comedy; he’s a comedian; no, I never planned to censor his sentence for profanity; sorry, Mom, if you're reading this), but they’re not untrue in this case. Def Comedy Jam premiered on July 1, 1992, 3 weeks after my birth. If I’ve seen an episode of Def Comedy Jam before, I can’t remember it. Granted, I grew up in a house without HBO, and by the end of the show’s first run in 1997, I was barely old enough to watch television unsupervised.
Regardless, watching that special — that celebration — instantaneously made Def Comedy Jam my favorite thing, maybe ever. Netflix was kind enough to give us 90 minutes of their reunion. I need that unreleased footage though, and sooner-than-later.
There is likely no mainstream black comedy without Def Comedy Jam: no Martin, no Undercover Brother, no Chappelle’s Show. More important than making these black folk extremely rich, Def Jam gave them a platform, one that granted them the mainstream legitimacy the majority of these comedians sought for years. During his tribute to the show, Eddie Griffin recounts the impact his first appearance had on his fledgling career: according to Eddie, Martin Lawrence, then the host of Def Jam — which, let us please take a second to acknowledge that Martin Lawrence, comedy legend, once hosted this show — approached Eddie at the Comedy Store in Hollywood and implored him to come do his set on Def Jam. Eddie, by then starting to make incremental headway on the comedy circuit, initially dismissed Martin; HBO already committed to filming a comedy special with Eddie, which he felt would make his rise to stardom inevitable. Except Martin hit his brother-in-comedy with a harsh reality: “Martin said, ‘Don’t nobody know who the fuck you is. Do five minutes here, motherfuckers will know you.’” Eddie, and other comedians like him, found appearing on Def Jam instrumental in the growth of their careers. They might’ve been a bit too unapologetic for late night on Jay Leno or David Letterman's shows, but not for HBO, and certainly not for Def Jam.
“Laughz N The Hood,“ a 1992 Los Angeles Times article detailing Def Comedy Jam’s popularity, caught up with co-founder Russell Simmons, most well-known for creating the music label from which the comedy show derived its name. His quotes capture the essence of what Def Jam aspired to be for its performers: “These guys are expressing their real values and attitudes. If they are not as positive as you would like them to be, you have to listen to them and understand them. It’s a dose of reality.” According to the article, heading into the show’s second season, it was already HBO’s most-popular late-night comedy program in the network’s history, and those comedians having trouble breaking through on the mainstream circuit were suddenly being appreciate for their clear talents: Martin parlayed hosting Def Jam into a FOX television series that we now know as one of the funniest sitcoms of all-time; Eddie Griffin got his comedy special and more, inking a development deal with HBO; comedy legend J. Anthony Brown (!) even did a set, and he argued that his one appearance on Def Jam made him infinitely more recognizable than before.
Over the special’s 90 minutes, we get video testimonials from Kevin Hart and Chris Rock, Mike Epps and Joe Torry being as goofy as they probably (read: definitely) were 25 years ago, a wonderfully hilarious yet unexpected two-man monologue from Chappelle and D.L. Hughley, OGs like Adele Givens and new favorites like Tiffany Haddish, who I had no clue ever appeared on Def Jam. I even laughed at Steve Harvey’s jokes, and not once did I hate myself for it. Def Comedy Jam made legends out of black comedians, folks who mastered the art of taking our struggle and somehow locating the funny inside. In its semi-brief run, Def Comedy Jam became a black institution —as Chappelle puts it, “the watercooler show” for black people. When I was in sixth grade, you couldn’t miss Chappelle’s Show on Wednesday nights lest you be the lame kid who knew none of the jokes at school the next day. I have a hunch most campuses and workplaces were like that for the black people who’d missed the most recent Def Jam.
I watched Def Comedy Jam 25 for the first time 4 days ago. In the midst of whatever it is Donald calls himself doing — chief among them empowering people who don’t like me to actually do something about it — the special felt sort of like church, a chance to catch up with all my favorite comedians and get some reassurance via laughter that white supremacy will not kill us. Def Jam alumni are most certainly the epitome of black excellence: Tracy Morgan, still alive and kicking, thanking Martin for his influence; Mike Epps and Joe Torry skewering each other on stage before turning their attention to literally everyone else in the audience; Katt Williams much more reflective and demure than ever before; Chappelle destroying those lame white supremacists from Charlottesville like only he could. It was cathartic to see these young black folk all grown up. But none of them have changed a bit, except maybe Steve Harvey. And for their jokes, I’m forever grateful.
In conclusion, if any of y’all want to buy me the first five seasons of Def Comedy Jam on DVD, feel free. Until I get the package in the mail, you can find me on YouTube, watching old clips, wishing I could’ve seen Bernie Mac live just once. Feel free to join me if you’d like.