You gotta be a real one to be called “Pops” where I’m from. Anybody with a little snow on the roof and a story to tell can be an “old head” but “Pops” is somebody who you actually want to listen to. With a smile and a wink, Pops will instruct you to heed the angel on your shoulder but leave a little room for what the devil has to say too.
John Witherspoon was was all of those things.
He was “Pops.”
John Witherspoon neé Weatherspoon was born in Detroit, Michigan–the northern soul of Black folks. The comedian, writer, and part-time model exuded Black cool without trying. There’s a select ring of respect for performers who were able to guest star on both TV shows like Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because he could make all of us laugh. In those moments, he managed to inspire many of the comedians shining on the stage and on the screen.
“Everyone young and old had a reason to love John Witherspoon and his self-awareness to remain connected to the community that loved him,” says The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr. “The loyalty to his roots was reflected in his material which remained as relevant now as it was when he started his career.”
Spoon’s work speaks for itself. The man worked as a cast member on The Richard Pryor Show, played the ill-tempered boss in Hollywood Shuffle and guest-starred on Good Times, 227 and Amen (look it up). Basically, if it was Black and funny, you had to have Witherspoon and his specialized brand of comedy come through and make a sitcom writing staff look like geniuses.
His star turns on those legendary shows pale in comparison to what he gave us on June 28, 1992– the day Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang debuted in theaters.
In only 3 minutes and twenty seconds of screentime, he gave us “COOOOOrdinate” “Don’t be p***y whipped, whip dat p***y!” and the phrase that would be his calling card, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” I don’t give a damn how funny, original, or scene-stealing you call yourself, if you claim to have never quoted Willie Jones from Boomerang, I’ll call you a liar.
”John Witherspoon was the guy who felt like family and you could always depend on making you laugh,” says comedian Yamaneika Saunders. “Put it this way, the man stood toe to toe with Eddie in his own damn movie, using only a guest spot. There’s no such thing as small roles. If they give you one line, make it the one line everybody remembers. But Pops tripled up on it.”
Legend is a word overused when we talk about our greats who have moved on to that leisure suit in the sky, but Spoon gifted us with over five generations of comedy.
His relevance was staked in his ability to reinvent. Comedian Aminah Imani recently opened for him at the DC Improv, making her dreams a bigger reality. “The one thing that gives me peace of mind is the fact that he was loved and adored by his fans,” she says. “I was introduced to him in Boomerang, I grew up with him on Friday and The Wayans Bros., and I learned about how the world works through Grandpa, Huey, and Riley on The Boondocks.”
When he convinces Ice Cube’s character, Craig in Friday how our generation is so quick to pick up a gun because we’re “too scared to take an ass whoopin” …we felt that. So many Black men in Detroit, Chicago, Philly, and many other cities across the country avoided a fatal outcome because Pops told us to use the only two weapons God gave us. “You win some, you lose some, but you live to fight another day.” Those thirteen words granted many of us to have another day to fight for.
While “America’s Dad” may have gone on a couple of years ago, Pops was right there all along. Always working. Always there for us.
I can’t even fully open a new pair of sneakers without crooning “new shoes, neeeew shooo-ooes,” like his Granddad character from The Boondocks. Inside of every Black man exists a mix of a conscious-outthink-your-enemy like Huey and a chest-out-in-ignorance Riley-like character that are dually at odds.
Witherspoon’s Grandad was the voice of reason we’d aspire to mature into. It’s a holy trinity of our daily battle against making the wrong decisions. You win some, you lose some, but you live to fight another day.
Legacy is not appreciated as much as it should be in Black entertainment. We like to differentiate between generations and downplay anyone not doing as better as yesterday’s icons. But John Witherspoon was a direct plug between Pryor and the many young up-and-coming comedians he was gracious enough to let open for him.
Comedian Lil Rel had plans to showcase some of that legacy soon with Witherspoon in mind. “The crazy thing was how I was talking to my publicist last week about creating a real show or special or something that celebrated our Black superstars that don’t necessarily get the Hollywood legend tap until they pass away,” he reflects. “I only thought more about that after watching John Witherspoon on the DL Hughley Show. This dude is a damn legend and we haven’t for honored him for that.”
He wasn’t too cool to do an Instagram video of him cooking with no shirt, while still headlining clubs and colleges all over the country well into his 70s. My condolences pour out to his wife of 31 years Angela, and sons Alexander and John David. We just say thank you for sharing him with us.
They remain the same for any black comedian who has done the following:
- Needed a line from a movie to make everyone laugh.
- Understood the importance of Witherspoon’s business decisions in the world of comedy.
- Who needed a word from Pops to simply tell us what to do.
Bang, Bang, Bang.
Clark Jones is a comedian who starred in shows like Crashing and Night Train With Wyatt Cenac. He’s also the host of the Classic Black Dude podcast. Get a laugh or two in from his socials @theeclarkjones.