John Witherspoon’s style of comedy was timeless
The legendary comedian leaves behind a legacy that will only increase over time
John “Pops” Witherspoon was black as hell. Or as Ice Cube put it, “Life won’t be as funny without him.”
He’s right. It won’t.
The legendary actor and comedian died at his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home on Oct. 29 at the age of 77. The laughs, characters and moments Witherspoon leaves behind overflow with professionalism, rebelliousness and a healthy dose of ratchetness that made him a beacon of light with every role he took on.
Much has been made of Witherspoon’s robust filmography. He, along with Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, Sandra Bernhard and Robin Williams, are alumni of the influential sketch comedy supernova The Richard Pryor Show.
Yet, if it was James Baldwin’s task to remind America that, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” — then it was Witherspoon’s to remind us that laughter is a form of healing. Pops was a perpetual scene-stealer — evident by his roles as Frank Wales in Barnaby Jones, the hilariously sleep-deprived Mr. Strickland in House Party — “Shut up with all that damn noise! This ain’t Soul Train. And where’s Don Cornelius with his stiff neck?” and “I paid $15,000 for this damn house!” were just two of his many classic quotes. There’s also The Five Heartbeats’ Wild Rudy, Spoon on The Tracy Morgan Show and, of course, Mr. Jackson in Boomerang. In Boomerang, he single-handedly changed the word “coordinate” forever. His role in the 1992 Eddie Murphy-led classic has long been regarded as an all-time great supporting role off the dinner scene alone.
Witherspoon, a Detroit native who began his career at Los Angeles’ famed The Comedy Store in 1974, was a generational lifeline. His comedy held no time stamp — responsible for laughs over five decades. He could make peers cry tears of joy the same way he could with fans young enough to be his kids or grandkids. It’s why those roles as Ice Cube’s dad, Mr. Jones, in the cinematic staple Friday series, or Pops in The Wayans Bros. and The Boondocks’ self-absorbed Robert “Granddad” Freeman continuously struck emotional chords with the acutely personal laughter he’d generate.
Witherspoon, with more explicit flair, carried the same honor as James Avery, who played the iconic role of Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Avery embraced his on-screen patriarchal prestige. He understood the power of portraying a strong black father on television. But he also believed he could influence black boys and girls who would one day become adults starting their own black families. In Witherspoon’s case, he was your favorite uncle who always had a funny story to tell and, when you were younger, let you take a sip of whatever was in his red cup as long as you didn’t tell your mama.
“John Witherspoon was one of the rare performers that was a father figure for the people he worked with and the people he entertained,” comedian Roy Wood Jr. told The Undefeated. “Usually only one of them is true.”
“I’m sad. Broken. Hurt,” wrote his longtime Wayans co-star Marlon Wayans on Instagram. “Yet extremely grateful to God that I got to spend five years of my life working with one of the funniest, sweetest, wisest, humblest loving [men]. You were my TV dad and my mentor and my friend. I miss you dearly.”
“He was the first comedian I met when I got to Los Angeles, and he never hesitated to share leads, advice, contacts, introductions or anything else,” wrote Warfield on Twitter. “And even though we hadn’t seen or talked to each other much over these past few years, I consider him more than a friend, but part of my family.”
“My dad, my grandpa, my comedic inspiration,” said Regina King, whom Witherspoon voiced alongside on The Boondocks. “I love you Spoons! Rest In Paradise, King.”
How people speak of you when you’re gone is a testament to the character one planted on earth. By all accounts, Witherspoon was a great comedian but a better man. Witherspoon was never comedy’s undisputed financial king. His work ethic proved relentless. Until earlier this year he was still performing at comedy clubs. And a video posted to his YouTube page just a day before his death revealed he was looking forward to filming new episodes of The Boondocks and the final Friday installment.
What Witherspoon brought to the soundtrack of countless lives, though, is respect money could never buy.
Visceral pain exists over the loss of a man who made the word “Yitadee!” part of the pop cultural lexicon in the late ’90s. But as the shock of the news gives way to a new reality, the best way to mourn John Witherspoon is the way we celebrated him in life. Just laugh. And laugh hard.