Television

A Man Out of Time: Nipsey Russell (1925-2005)

Bill Gibron

Whether appearing on TV and nightclub stages, or in movies, Nipsey Russell seemed both timeless and perfectly timed.

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

He never looked his age. Whether appearing on TV and nightclub stages, or in movies, Nipsey Russell seemed both timeless and perfectly timed. His passing from cancer on 2 October 2005 at age 80 (or 81, his birth certificate is unclear) marked the end of an era for black comedy.

Born Julius Russell (his mother nicknamed him "Nipsey") in Atlanta, Georgia, he showed ambition and promise from a very young age. At three, he was part of the Ragamuffins of Rhythm tap dance team, and at six, he was the singing and dancing MC of an Atlanta children's troupe. In high school, Russell honed his performance skills while working at the legendary Varsity drive-in as a carhop, using genial jokes to earn bigger tips.

Moving to Ohio to live with an aunt (and earn a tuition exemption), Russell attended the University of Cincinnati. During World War II, he spent four years as an Army medical field officer. Completing his degree in literature in 1946, he hit the black circuit clubs up and down the East coast and throughout the Midwest. And Russell immediately stood out: refusing to act out the usual racist stereotypes, he offered sophisticated takes on topical subjects, sometimes delivered in the form of four-verse poems, the format that would eventually make him a household name.

Whether appearing on TV and nightclub stages, or in movies, Nipsey Russell seemed both timeless and perfectly timed.

In 1949, Robert Q. Lewis gave Russell a shot on TV's The Show Goes On. From then on, he enjoyed increasing exposure in clubs (his six-year stint at the Club Baby Grand earned him another nickname, "Harlem's Son of Fun") and repeat appearances on The Tonight Show. His clever wordplay was well suited for the new medium. In 1961, he was offered the minor part of Officer Anderson on Car 54, Where Are You?, and parlayed that into his most famous role, game show regular. Specifically, he worked on two Mark Goodson shows, What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth.

It was during his 1964 appearances on the Ed McMahon-hosted Missing Links that Russell earned his most famous title, "the Poet Laureate of Comedy." His limerick-like witticisms were rapidly becoming his signature, and no show would end until Russell had delivered his hip quip quatrain. Throughout the '60s and '70s, Russell was a professional panelist and A-list guest star, appearing on The Dean Martin Show and Laugh-In.

But while other artists of color were pushing the limits of race-based comedy, Russell remained locked in his clipped classiness. He believed that education, not exploitation, was the way to present a positive role model, and frowned on fellow comedians who "urbanized" their humor to play down to the audience. It reminded him -- rightly or wrongly -- of Stepin Fetchit, only this time, the artists of color had a choice.

This may be the reason why Russell is not more fondly remembered for his stand-up routines. He made many party records, and never abandoned his stage act roots. But he lacked the "ghetto" fire of Richard Pryor, or the political acumen of Dick Gregory. Many accused him of selling out, and for a while, he seemed to be on every game show during the '70s, from The Match Game to The Gong Show, and in 1985, he was the first black man ever to host a game show, the sadly short-lived Your Numbers Up.

During the late '80s, as a generation of in-your-face comedians emerged, Russell was recast as the go-to relic for one-liners and poems. His was one of the few enjoyable performances in the otherwise misguided The Wiz (Russell played the Tin Man in the 1978 film) and found minor parts in Fame (1980), Wildcats (1986), and Posse (1993).

While well into his 70s, Russell still performed. He was a regular in Atlantic City and Las Vegas venues and made occasional appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Chris Rock Show. But unlike those comedians who reinvent themselves, or are rediscovered and reclaimed by a new audience, Russell appeared purposefully overlooked.

Maybe his later audience wasn't ready for a highly educated, overly articulate and quick-witted black comedian who refused to accommodate expectations. Russell never married, lived alone, and remained a quiet, studious man throughout his life. Call him corny or old-fashioned, but Nipsey Russell was indisputably timeless.


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