Shirley Q. Liquor: The Most Dangerous Comedian in America
That,” says Lecia Brooks, is bullshit. You’re going to heal racial wounds by ridiculing poor black women and calling it God’s will? What arrogance!” Brooks, the education director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, helped organize the protest against Knipp’s Montgomery show.
“I was incensed to see all these white folks nonchalantly giggling at a white man in blackface drag,” says Brooks, who is black and a lesbian. “It’s amazing to me that even the rampant homophobia in the South doesn’t put a dent in the sense of racial privilege presumed by the white gay men who patronize this clear example of racism and misogyny disguised as entertainment.”
Like most of the protesters at Knipp’s performances, Brooks admits she’s never actually seen Knipp do his thing. But she’s never been to a Klan cross-burning either, and she’s still pretty sure she’s not down with the Klan: “I don’t need to see his show because I have lived it. I have witnessed every vile, demeaning, dehumanizing stereotype he draws upon to create his caricature. Blackface is not acceptable, period.”
So it’s a given that performing in blackface remains such a fraught historical taboo that Knipp could read a FORTRAN programming manual as Shirley Q. and still piss a lot of people off. Just ask Ted Danson. But according to Knipp, his act is more than just mean-spirited and offensive parody — it’s really a key to a uniquely American code.
“I think sometimes my act is viewed as a violation of a private language,” Knipp says. “Starting with slave songs that contained multiple meanings and cries for freedom their masters couldn’t comprehend, black slang, or private black-speak, has been a primary social identifier of black culture. For this reason, there are people who feel it’s a violation for white people to talk black, even though there are a lot of black people who talk white depending on the situation. I just love speaking black English, and I wish more white people could or would feel comfortable enough to speak it, because it’s a beautiful, fun, rhythmic, more supple way of speaking. It just sounds better.”
Knipp grew up in Orange, Texas, where the Klan had a storefront on Main Street and held monthly cross-burnings. He attended segregated public schools until the fifth grade. “That’s when I met my first real black people,” he says. “I’ve been a natural mimic since I was a little bitty kid, and I came home from school that first day talking black.”
He attended the University of Mississippi, where he majored in nursing and played tuba in the Ole Miss marching band. All the other tuba players were black gay men, and he’d sit up with them late at night, drinking rum and listening. “They’d do all kinds of imitations, old black men, old black women, Gulf Coast accents, Mississippi Delta accents, all the black Southern dialects.”
Knipp later got a nursing job at a hospital back in Orange, where he spent hours in the smoking room, listening to the other nurses, who were all black women. “By being the only white guy in the room, and practicing the mimic’s art of listening to not only the patterns and inflections of a dialect but also the vocabulary, and watching the nonverbal expressions, I was able to crack the code on private black speak,” he says. “You just listen and watch and imitate.”
Then, in 1990, his mother asked him to do one of his black voices on her answering machine. “Girl, the lady you callin’ ain’t even up in here right now,” Knipp said on the message. “You gonna have to call later on. She through. She busy.”
The message became so popular among his mother’s friends that Knipp began updating it daily and soon named the character Shirley Q. Liquor.
In 1996, the manager of a radio station in Beaumont, Texas, who’d heard the messages asked Knipp to do his character on air. Later that year, Knipp got his big break — and it came from the very people who laugh at Shirley, rather than with her. The right-wing African-American talk-radio host Ken “The Black Avenger” Hamblin started having Knipp call in to his nationally broadcast show in the slot right after none other than Rush Limbaugh. (Knipp identifies himself politically as a Libertarian who supports socialized medicine.)
The exposure led to syndicated Shirley skits on radio stations across the country. Then came the requests for live stage shows.
“At first I thought I’d just get up there with no makeup and do it like Rich Little,” Knipp says. “Then I thought, ‘Do I dare?’ “
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