How to be crude and shrewd

Or, Redd Foxx’s many shades of blue

So you have a bunch of friends over, it gets late, and the conversation dies down. In a certain place and time, that would have been the cue to put on a party record. What was the party record?

By one telling, an album “people would play at night after the kids went to bed, records you weren’t supposed to have.” Why weren’t you supposed to have them? Ostensibly because they featured comedians telling dirty jokes — but really, because the comedians telling those jokes were black and the people who bought those records weren’t.

Originally, the records were for black audiences. Redd Foxx, the comedian who became the king of the party record, came by his material out of necessity. He couldn’t even get into the audience of most white comedy clubs, so he performed exclusively on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. “And they don’t want to hear no Christian Science Monitor stuff — they want nitty gritty,” he recalled. “So I gave it to them funky like they liked it. There was always a double standard for comics in nightclubs. Black comics didn’t get the big bookings, so they were allowed to be dirtier, expected to be.”

After one of these sets, Foxx was approached by a music producer about making a recording of his act. “It was a black thing, in a sense, so I said I’d go ahead and record for my black brother, because no one else had offered me anything.”

The result was 1956’s Laff of the Party, Vol. 1, and though it was kept behind the counter and sold in brown paper bags, it became a viral hit in black America. And by the age-old tradition of Columbusing, or discovering something that already exists, white America soon asked for Foxx by name.

How blue was Redd? Somewhere between periwinkle and azure. In the early days, he never uttered a profane word on stage. He aimed for naughty, not obscene. Like the chef who cooked his beans backwards, giving everyone hiccups. Or how cigarette ads of the day claimed that “of 446 doctors that switched to Camels, only two of  ’em went back to women.” At his best, he left more than half the joke to the imagination of his audience. 

If you listen to what Foxx was up against — and I can’t recommend that you do — you can see how he broke through. The average party record suggests that 1950s America was so starved of vulgarity that people would pay good money to hear a comedian mirthlessly recite four-letter words. As a record producer later told Billboard magazine, “spiciness alone doesn’t sell a suggestive type of record — it has to be funny in the first place.”

The lesson of Redd Foxx’s breakthrough is that you can make much more trouble if you’re subtle. Be salty and be dry. You want the audience to have it, but it’s better if they come and get it. As usual, The Big Lebowski ties it together:

Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.
The Dude: On you, maybe.

Quick quips; lightning

“On that big stage anybody can be obscene and not heard.” — Maurice Barrymore 

This play on words originally coined by the patriarch of a legendary acting family (1849-1905) is close to being perfect — except for the fact that there are very few contexts in which it makes any sense.

I’m as pure as the driven slush.”— Tallulah Bankhead

The most scandalous wit of her day, Bankhead (1902-1968) was upfront about it.

If all the girls in attendance at the Yale Prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” — Dorothy Parker

Parker (1893-1967) was the undisputed master of dressing up a racy remark for cafe society, and it is only fitting to note here that she left her entire estate to the NAACP.

Thanks for reading the fourteenth issue of Get Wit Quick, a family-friendly newsletter featuring little to no Christian Science Monitor stuff.  My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting easily fits into a brown paper bag. Forward this newsletter, friend! And tap the heart below!