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Quincy Newell, “Why We Laugh”: Comedy, Race, and Positive Representation

Quincy Newell, "Why We Laugh": Comedy, Race, and Positive Representation

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: “Timely, insightful, and downright funny, ‘Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy’ is a sweeping account of the evolution of black comedy in America. Inspired by comedian Darryl Littleton’s book, directors Robert Townsend and Quincy Newell have crafted a no-holds-barred documentary that is both an insider’s take and a critical examination of the cultural influence of black comedy.Townsend and Newell enrich this hilarious and spectacularly archived film by including interviews with prominent scholars, politicians, cultural critics, and a host of notable comics, including Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Eddie Griffin. ‘Why We Laugh’ tracks the way black comedy has evolved from Stepin Fetchit and minstrels in blackface to the politically tinged humor of Dick Gregory, and from the television success of Good Times and The Jeffersons to the big-screen accomplishments of stars like Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg. Townsend and Newell turn a perceptive eye on the controversial career of Dave Chapelle and the implications of corporate efforts to capitalize on the massive successes of Russell Simmons’s Def Comedy Jam and Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy.”

Why We Laugh
Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition
Director: Robert Townsend
Screenwriter: Quincy Newell, John Long, based on the book “Black Comedians on Black Comedy” by Darryl Littleton
Executive Producers: Jeff Clanagan, Richard Foos
Producers: Quincy Newell, Robert Townsend, Darryl Littleton, Angela Northington
Cinematographer: Johnny Simmons
Editors: Skip Robinson, Agusta Einarsdottir
U.S.A., 2008, 95 mins., color

Please introduce yourself…

Quincy Newell, 41 years old. Father of four beautiful children Sierra, Taja, Justine and Moses. Husband to my lovely lady Karina. Producer, Director and Writer of “Why We Laugh.” My other job is as Executive VP of Codeblack Enterprises and the President of Codeblack Interactive and Codeblack.com. Born in New Orleans, LA. Grew up and currently live in Los Angeles, CA.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

My goal has always been to support the creation of uplifting and positive imagery that honestly and properly represents the black experience in America. My company Codeblack.com is focused on this mission by providing fans of black film access to a diverse and quality selection of African American and urban themed programming while providing an alternative outlet for independent filmmakers to get their works distributed to an audience that is hungry for art from this perspective. The creation of “Why We Laugh” is an outgrowth of that mindset.

What other creative outlets do you explore?

I come from a long line of musicians, so music has always been a passion of mine.

Did you go to film school?

No. No film school for me. I’ve just been blessed enough to be surrounded by some talented people and have great opportunities arise in my life…this is one of them. I’m just a creative soul that appreciates art and the ability to communicate through art. I have a lot to learn…but that’s the exciting part. More simply though, I just feel that it’s important to tell a story that is smart and has heart, soul and passion. That’s what I tried to accomplish with “Why We Laugh.”

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

“Why We Laugh” was born out of a discussion that I was having with my partners Richard Foos and Jeff Clanagan. We were brainstorming on how we can have a smart and insightful dialogue about the history of black culture through comedy. We then came across Darryl Littleton’s book that eventually inspired the film and provided the central thesis. I then hired Robert Townsend to work with us on the project. We had a pretty dynamic team that held a lot of passion for this topic. I think that passion comes through in the film.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

My approach was simple. We first established the central question “How has American society and the black community been impacted by black comedy and how has black comedy been influenced by society over the last 100 years?” We then set out, in a chronological pattern to answer that question by overlaying the evolution of black comedy with the progression of society throughout the years, always looking at the touch points one had with the other. It was a very interesting journey.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

This is a big topic with so many angles and contributors. The biggest challenge was how to construct a compelling story with smart and coherent conversation without venturing off into every possible area that comedy touches and covering every contributor. It’s a big and powerful story. There was a lot more we wanted to cover but we couldn’t. This topic truly deserves a multi part in-depth analysis. We would love to do a 5 part series.

What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?

One of my favorite films is “The Usual Suspects.” Great story telling. In general though, I’m influenced by many things. We are living in a very creative time…innovation, new ideas both in business and technology. Fashion, music, film, gaming…there’s a lot of creativity out there. It’s all inspiring.

How do you define success as a filmmaker?

I just love the satisfaction you get from being able to express yourself creatively in whatever way you choose.

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