It turns out no one knows why we call comedy dealing with adult topics blue. The term is centuries old, and its origins remained obscure. Its use could, as Phil Hartman-as-Frank Sinatra once said, prevent you from “working the big rooms,” but his specific example, Redd Foxx, ended up working one of the biggest rooms of all, inasmuch as he had his own sitcom. Which is unusual for just people in general, much less a middle-aged black man in the 1970s.
His childhood wasn’t as desperately hardscrabble as some we’ve covered, but he definitely didn’t grow up rich. In the ’40s, he got out of the army by eating half a bar of soap to create heart palpitations. He worked as a dishwasher; in the circles he ran in, he was called “Chicago Redd” to distinguish him from the “Detroit Red” who also ran with their group. Both Reds would go on to great fame, although one of them would go back to his birth given name of Malcolm, albeit without the surname of Little. Chicago Redd, born John Elroy Sanford, would go on to a different fame.
There is, I think, great humour to be had from adult situations. I’m not hugely familiar with Foxx’s take on it, but I would speculate that humans have been making jokes about sex as long as there have been humans, even when such things were officially taboo. Because sex is funny. The jokes you make are all on you, and not everyone finds the same specifics funny, but so what? Quite a lot of people found Foxx funny, and he’s one of the most commonly cited names when it comes to influences of modern comedians.
Especially, of course, black comedians. Because, yes, Foxx had to overcome more than white comedians to get attention. And he did. And he was one of the biggest names in comedy. Sanford and Son may have been adapted from a British sitcom originally, but Foxx used it to help launch friends of his—one of the things I’ve consistently read about him is that he had a generous nature. Many of his guests were black, and his version of the show showed overtones of black culture.
It’s curious, really, and something everyone feels the need to comment on. Because first, there was the soap trick. And then, of course, there was the whole “I’m coming to you, Elizabeth!” thing, where he’d claim heart attacks on Sanford and Son. And then, while doing a rehearsal for his show The Royal Family, he actually died of a heart attack; it took the cast and crew a moment to realize his fall wasn’t a bit. I don’t know if the whole thing was that there was a family history of heart disease or what, but it’s now basically obligatory to mention. So I have.