Does Modern Comedy Owe a Debt to African Tribes?

Expert Traces Comedic Tradition Back to Tribal Culture

LOS ANGELES, CA--(Marketwire - Aug 30, 2011) - On the streets of Brooklyn, Harlem, Watts and Compton, they called it "the Dozens."

It was the tradition of hanging out with your friends and hitting them not with punches, but punch lines. Kids would gather and hurl insults, tell "your mama" jokes and compete to see who could be the funniest. It was the basis for some of the earliest comedy routines of Eddie Murphy and other black comedians because it was a way of life on the street.

Elizabeth Evans, an educator with a Master's Degree and a lifelong interest in African history, believes that African tribes originated the concept of the Dozens hundreds of years ago, and they are due to take a bow. Evans, author of the book "Sanakhou" (, said that kids who play the Dozens today aren't doing it much differently than the originators.

"African tribes dating from the 13th century had a strong tradition of using oral communication to pass down their histories, their ancestries and, yes, even their humor," she added. "The tradition was a particular boon to those tribe members who were not great warriors or physical specimens, because their verbal skills afforded them respect among tribe members that they wouldn't have otherwise earned."

The game originates from the devaluing and bargaining off of deformed or defective slaves in auction houses, according to Evans. This element of the African-American oral tradition in which two competitors, usually males, go head-to-head in a competition typically features good-natured insults. They take turns "cracking," "snapping," "ribbing" or insulting one another, their adversary's mother or other family member until one of them has no comeback. This is called playing the Dozens or Doin' the Dozens, and sometimes Dirty Dozens. The Dozens is a contest of personal power -- of wit, self-control, verbal ability, mental agility and mental toughness. Each putdown, each "snap," ups the ante. Defeat can be humiliating, but a skilled contender, win or lose, may gain respect.

About Elizabeth Evans
Elizabeth Evans grew up in suburban Philadelphia in a home full of books on Africa and a father who was a writer. After earning her Master's Degree from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, she and her husband and two children moved to Los Angeles where she continued her career in education.

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