Whether it’s on sitcoms, in film, or on the stand-up stage, Black comics have expressed the joys and pains of the African American experience by using their unique brand of humor. Through the lens of comedy, they’ve shared their truths unapologetically, with their hilarious takes on everything under the sun.
To pay tribute to some of the greats of the art form, here are the top 15 Black comics of all time.
Richard Pryor remains the gold standard of Black comedy. Almost 17 years after his passing, Pryor’s influence is undeniable. His immense body of work has been emulated by nearly every comic that followed him. After eventually developing a somewhat clean act in the 1960s, he discovered his own comedic voice by speaking the uncompromising truth about the world and himself as a social critic. In the 70s, he would release several ground-breaking comedy albums such as Craps, That Ni**a’s Crazy, and Is It Something I Said? In 1979, he released Richard Pryor: Live in Concert which is arguably the greatest stand-up special ever. On the big screen, he appeared in Lady Sings the Blues, Which Way is Up?, Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, Superman III, and Harlem Nights. In his remarkable career, he would win a Primetime Emmy Award, and five Grammy Awards. He was also the first recipient of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1998.
Eddie Murphy was arguably the first rockstar comedian. With his iconic custom-made leather outfits, he embodied being Black and cool. In 1980, he made his debut on Saturday Night Live and is credited with saving the show with his spot-on impressions and his vast array of characters. He also made history as the first cast member to host the show. After leaving SNL, Murphy launched into superstardom as a comedic actor in 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America, Boomerang, The Nutty Professor franchise, and the Dr. Doolittle franchise. His two stand-up specials, Delirious and Raw, remain staples in the genre. Showing his versatility, Murphy won a Golden Globe Award and earned an Academy Award nomination for playing James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls in 2007. Without a question, Eddie Murphy is the blueprint of the modern Black comic.
Clerow “Flip” Wilson Jr. was a trailblazer for Black comedy on television. He began his comedic career as a successful stand-up comedian releasing several comedy albums throughout the 1960s and 1970s including the Grammy Award-winning 1970 album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress. He became the first Black person to host his own weekly variety series, the incredibly popular The Flip Wilson Show. He introduced millions of viewers to his iconic character Geraldine and “The Church of What’s Happening Now.” The series earned Wilson a Golden Globe and two Emmy Awards; it was the second highest-rated show on network television at the time. On the show, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and others made appearances before they became household names on TV in their own right. During the 80s, he hosted a revival of People are Funny and played the lead role in the CBS sitcom Charlie & Co. In one of his last TV cameos, he appeared on Living Single in 1993. He passed away in November of 1998.
EBONY’s July 2022 cover star Martin Lawrence has performed on TV, in film, and on the stand-up stage at the highest level. As host of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam in the 90s, he helped to introduce the world to a new generation of comedians. His stand-up special You So Crazy and namesake sitcom Martin, with its cast of unforgettable characters, are highly regarded to this day. Recently, he celebrated the 30th anniversary of his hit sitcom with a reunion with the cast. On the big screen, his films such as The Bad Boys franchise, The Big Momma’s House franchise, Blue Streak, and Life have grossed almost $2 billion making him one the most successful comedic actors ever.
Despite being heavily criticized for the transphobia and misogyny in his specials, Dave Chappelle is a master in the art of stand-up comedy. Chappelle quickly rose through the comedic ranks with his insightful wit, impeccable timing, and social criticism. His satirical comedy sketch series Chappelle’s Show is one of the most successful comedy series ever. Over the last few years, he’s released several specials on Netflix including Deep in the Heart Texas, Equanimity, Sticks and Stones, among others. So far, he’s won five Emmy Awards and three Grammy Awards as well as the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley was a well-known performer on the Chitlin circuit but turned into a star as a stand-up comedian appearing as a toothless, old woman with a house dress. She began her comedy career in the 1920s and 1930s dressed in androgynous clothing before adapting her signature look. During the 1950s, she came out as a lesbian, becoming one of the first openly gay comedians. In her stand-up routines, she covered race, sexuality and having a love life while being a widow. She would record several comedy albums and appear in films and on television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Flip Wilson Show. After years of health issues, Mabley passed away in May of 1975.
Kevin Hart never seems to stop. His relentless work ethic has catapulted him into one of the biggest comics working today. He’s toured the world and performed his comedic routines to sold-out crowds becoming the first comedian to sell out a stadium. The success of his stand-up specials Seriously Funny, Laugh at My Pain, Let Me Explain, and What Now has placed him at the top of the comedy game. With films and franchises such as Ride Along, About Last Night, Central Intelligence, Think Like a Man, The Secret Life of Pets, Jumanji, and Night School, he has become a sought-after movie star. Currently, he hosts his own talk show Hart to Heart on Peacock, a podcast on Sirius XM titled Comedy Gold Minds, and released his latest film The Man From Toronto on Netflix.
Before she became the moderator of ABC’s The View, Whoopi Goldberg was one of the most innovative comedians on the scene. In 1983, her one-woman show, Spook Show, eventually landed on Broadway under the title Whoopi Goldberg, running from 1984 to 1985, earning her first Grammy. Her breakthrough role came in 1985 when she played Celie in The Color Purple, for which she received her first Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. In 1990, she would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Ghost. In 2001, she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Having acted in over 150 films with numerous appearances on TV and Broadway, she became the first Black woman to be an EGOT(Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar, Tony) winner.
Paul Mooney is your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian. He had an unwavering commitment to telling the truth about race in America. A prolific writer, Mooney wrote for Richard Pryor’s comedy albums, The Richard Pryor Show (where he discovered Tim Reid), Sanford and Son, Robin William, John Witherspoon, Marsha Warfield, and Chappelle’s Show. He also created Homie D. Clown on In Living Color, of which he was the head writer for the first season. Mooney released several stand-up specials including Race, Analyzing White America, and The Godfather of Comedy. He passed away in May of 2021 at the age of 79.
Chris Rock has been a giant on the comedy landscape for over 30 years. His hilarious takes on race, relationships, and the world of politics reveal his true comedic brilliance. He made his film debut in Beverly Hils Cop II and was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1990-1993. He went on to release several classic stand-up specials on HBO including Bring the Pain, Bigger & Blacker, Never Scared, and Kill the Messenger. Also, he was the creator and narrator of his own sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. Tambourine, his most recent special on Netflix in 2018 also received critical acclaim. In total, he’s won four Emmy Awards out of 19 total nominations for his television work and three Grammy Awards for best comedy albums.
In his brief but brilliant career, Robin Harris’ in-your-face brand of comedy influenced an entire generation of comedians. A native of Los Angeles, Harris helped to define the emerging Black comedy scene during the 1980s. He made a name for himself as the master of ceremonies at the Comedy Act Theater., and went on to roles in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Do the Right Thing and Harlem Nights. In 1990, he landed a starring role as the father of Kid in House Party and the next year with a small role as a jazz club MC in Mo’ Better Blues. On March 18, 1990, at the age of 36, Harris died in his sleep of a heart attack after performing for a sold-out crowd at the Regal Theater. One of his signature bits about “Bebe’s Kids” became the basis of an animated film that was released posthumously.
A comedy trailblazer, Redd Foxx made a name for himself during the 1950s for his raunchy comedic routines. Known as the “King of the Party Records,” he performed on more than 50 albums in his lifetime. In 1972, he became a superstar with the premiere of his legendary sitcom Sanford and Son, for which he won a Golden Globe Award, and received three more nominations, along with three Primetime Emmy Award nominations. He went on to star in The Redd Foxx Show, The Royal Family, and Harlem Nights alongside Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Foxx passed away in October of 1991 at 69 years old.
As one of the most unique personalities in the space of comedy, Katt Williams has a style all his own. His comedy is just as well put together as his hair. After making his film debut in 2002 in Friday After Next, he released his first stand-up special Katt Williams: Live: Let a Playa Play in 2006. He followed up with his second special The Pimp Chronicles, Pt. 1. In 2007, he was amazed fans in American Hustle, which launched him into the mainstream of comedy. In 2018, he won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in Atlanta. He released his latest special World War III in 2022.
Bernie Mac was one of a kind. His imprint on comedy is unquestionable. After toiling on the comedy circuit honing his craft, Mac finally received the recognition that he deserved as a member of The Original Kings of Comedy. He starred in The Bernie Mac Show, which ran from 2001 through 2006, and earned him two Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. He would appear in numerous films including The Players Club, the Ocean’s 11 franchise, Head of State, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Guess Who, Pride, and Soul Men. Although he passed away in October of 2008 at the age of 51, Bernie Mac left behind an enduring legacy of comedy that will never be forgotten
After debuting as a comic in 1987, Wanda Sykes came to prominence as a writer on The Chris Rock Show, earning a Primetime Emmy Award in 1999. She released her first stand-up special on Comedy Central Tongue Untied followed by I’m a Be Me, What Happened… Ms, Sykes? and Not Normal. In 2003 she starred in Wanda at Large on Fox and in 2004 she debuted in Wanda Does It on Comedy Central. She had roles on The New Adventures of Old Christine, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and black-ish. In 2020, she won an Emmy for playing Moms Mabley in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Currently, she stars in The Upshaws on Netflix with Kim Fields and Mike Epps.
Cedric the Entertainer
Cedric Antonio Kyles, more famously known as Cedric the Entertainer, has lived up to his stage name. He hosted BET’s ComicView during the 1993–1994 season and Def Comedy Jam in 1995. He co-starred on The Steve Harvey Show and was one of The Original Kings of Comedy. He also released several stand-up specials including Cedric the Entertainer: Taking You Higher, Shaq & Cedric The Entertainer Present: All-Star Comedy Jam, and Cedric the Entertainer: Live from the Ville. In 2019, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He currently stars on the hit CBS sitcom The Neighborhood, which will air its fifth season this fall.
After grinding for years in comedy clubs around the world, Tiffany Haddish has ascended to the top of the comedy world, and in her own words: “She ready!” Following years on the comedy circuit, she gained notoriety for her role as Nekeisha Williams during the three-season run on The Carmichael Show (2015–2017). Her breakthrough role was in 2017’s comedy film Girls Trip. She also won a Primetime Emmy Award for hosting a Saturday Night Live episode (that same year. Her memoir The Last Black Unicorn was a New York Times best-seller. She starred in The Last O.G. (2018–2020) and executive produced and voiced Tuca in the Netflix/Adult Swim animated series Tuca & Bertie (2019–present). Haddish released her stand-up special She Ready! From the Hood to Hollywood in 2017 and Black Mitzvah in 2019, for which she won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, making her the second African-American woman to win this award after Whoopi Goldberg.
Every Black comic owes a debt of gratitude to Dick Gregory for breaking barriers in the world of comedy. He launched his comedy career in the 1950s as a student-athlete at Southern Illinois University. Hugh Hefner hired him to work at the Chicago Playboy Club, which led to a performance on The Tonight Show. He became the first Black comic invited to sit on the couch with host Jack Parr. His biography Nigger was released in 1965, becoming a best-seller—and it has never been out of print. Gregory pioneered “political comedy” where he used his comedic platform to shed light on the plight of Black people. Eventually, he left comedy after becoming heavily involved in the Civil Rights and the Anti-Vietnam War movements. He later continued his work as an activist and returned to standup. In August 2017, he passed away at the age of 84.