Russell Simmons says not much has changed for black comics since he created “Def Comedy Jam,” the early-’90s HBO series that introduced Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Sheryl Underwood, Cedric the Entertainer and many other comics to national TV audiences. It was a weekly showcase for edgy and outrageous comedians at a time when “The Cosby Show” and its (then) righteously wholesome star Bill Cosby was the mainstream face of black comedy.
TV’s “gatekeepers” still tend toward “the most accessible, easy-to-digest” black entertainers, Simmons said, but he’s newly inspired after making “Def Comedy Jam 25,” a celebration of the series’ comedians and cultural impact that premiered Tuesday on Netflix.
“I’m very excited after looking at the rough cut,” Simmons said in a recent interview. “I really believe that people are going to have a great time watching and it will revive a few careers.”
He especially wants that for Adele Givens, an original “Def Comedy” performer who Simmons said “never got a break in Hollywood.”
“This time around, maybe somebody will see her for who she is,” he said.
The 90-minute special intersperses clips from the original series with live appearances by a slew of comedians, including Lawrence, Underwood and Cedric the Entertainer, along with Steve Harvey, Tracy Morgan, Craig Robinson, D. L. Hughley, Katt Williams and Dave Chappelle.
A de-facto host of the special, Chappelle hilariously went off-script during the taping earlier this month at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
“There’s a white-supremacist starter kit at Target. Let me get some tiki-torches and khaki pants, I’ve got something going on next week,” he said before spontaneously leading the crowd in the “black national anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“You can leave this in, too,” Chappelle said. “It’s a reunion. I was drinking backstage.”
Simmons said “pretty much all” of Chappelle’s off-script run made it into the final edit.
Rising star Tiffany Haddish said “Def Comedy Jam” provided an outlet for female comics that didn’t exist elsewhere. She got her break on the show in 2008.
“It was an opportunity for an uninhibited female comic to say whatever she had to say,” Haddish said. “Let’s be honest, that’s where you want uninhibited people to be: on TV, not at your job.”
The show allowed black comics to “be unapologetically and unflinchingly who we are,” said Hughley, who hosted the second iteration of “Def Comedy Jam” in 2006.
Simmons is bringing the series back for a third go in November: “All Def Comedy” will have a six-episode run on HBO, he said.
The anniversary special is like an entree and a retrospective leading into the new season, Simmons said.
“It really inspired me and it reminded me of all these movies in development and all these people who should be working. Some are famous from ‘Def Comedy Jam’ and they tour in the black community, but haven’t crossed over, which is the case with almost every stitch of black comedy,” he said. “So it reminded me how excited I am to do a new chapter of ‘Def Comedy Jam.’ There are so many under-served comedians who deserve a break.”
‘Def Comedy Jam 25’
Now streaming on Netflix
Six-episodes starting Nov. 12
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