PRINT November 2018



Random Acts of Flyness, 2018–, a still from a TV show on HBO. Season 1, episode 1. Jon Hamm and Sophie Koski.

IN THE SECOND EPISODE of his short-lived 1977 variety show, Richard Pryor performs a sketch in which he plays the front man for a heavy-metal outfit called Black Death. Before he gets to the stage, the nearly all-white audience, ravenous with anticipation, repeatedly screams in unison, “We want Black Death! We want Black Death!” Pryor’s character—looking like a cross between a member of Kiss and a Muppet—is lowered to the stage from above, his bandmates having already emerged from caskets. He starts in on his performance, consisting of some guitar tricks and screeched, indecipherable lyrics, then puts down the guitar and grabs a few bags full of indeterminate substances. “I got some dope,” he sings, now more easily understood. “I’m gonna kill all of you.” He slings the drugs into the crowd, and despite his warning, they ingest everything he throws at them. Next, he takes out a spray gun full of DDT, which everybody jumps to inhale. Several audience members pass out. Pryor breaks a guitar over an amplifier and then, as his grand finale, picks up a machine gun and fires it to kill off the rest of the spectators. After a brief guitar solo, played in front of the dead crowd, Pryor looks out over them and gleefully says, “Far out.”

The first episode of Random Acts of Flyness, created by Terence Nance and airing on HBO, also performs the killing of a white audience, but in this case metaphorically—no machine guns, no violence this time. After a sketch that features Jon Hamm in the role of an infomercial host selling a product that will cure white people of their white thoughts (including, but not limited to, the belief that “All Lives Matter” is an appropriate response to news reports of black people protesting police violence), the show jumps to a scene of Nance at his computer, editing the sketch we were just watching. He receives some incoming messages. “It seems that as ARTISTS we should be addressing whiteness less . . . and affirming Blackness more . . . ,” one reads. “You right,” Nance responds.

The only limitations placed on blackness are those imposed by the white imagination.

To call segments like this sketches may be a disservice to what Nance and his crew of writers and directors have created. Random Acts of Flyness is a television show because it appears on television, but it is unlike anything else on the air. It’s documentary and parody, sketch comedy and musical, public-service announcement and prestige drama, op-ed and game show. It’s a fever dream. There are no limits on its form or content.

And that content is crucial. What Random Acts does that is so refreshing is take for granted the idea of blackness without boundaries. Some artists have bristled at being identified as black artists (or black writers, etc.), because it undermines their work, calling into question its merits as art and its appeal to anyone who is nonblack. Random Acts preempts this not only by declaring its blackness but also through its purposeful decentering of white people as presumptive viewers. Freed from the expectations of this audience, it leans into the aspects of blackness that its creators know to be true, because blackness lives and breathes through varied forms. The only limitations placed on blackness are those imposed by the white imagination; a Claymation broccoli bit is not alien to a show that also features archival footage of Deborah Johnson describing the assassination of Fred Hampton, as well as a satire of a talk show whose topic is black-male bisexuality. No other television series has imagined a video-game simulation of street harassment and a scenario in which Martin Luther King Jr. receives erotic slaps to the face. In this, Random Acts lives up to the “random” part of its name. But here, randomness is a politicized eclecticism, a manifestation of the refusal of boundaries.

Random Acts of Flyness, 2018–, a still from a TV show on HBO. Season 1, episode 1. Jon Hamm and Sophie Koski.

While it has been compared to other contemporary black artistic offerings like Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, and Atlanta, Random Acts shares even more of its DNA with Pryor’s show. There were only four episodes, but their audacity, daring, and randomness are as fully realized as what Nance has managed in 2018. Somewhat incredibly, given that this show ran on a major network (NBC) in the 1970s, there were segments arguably even more transgressive than that of the Black Death concert. In one episode, Pryor plays a slapstick version of Little Richard, only to abruptly interrupt his own performance to give the spotlight to a woman telling the story of her first lesbian sex act; the intermission is sensual and shot in black-and-white.

Perhaps the most famous sketch from Pryor’s show is the one where he takes on the role of the first black president. A major difference between this and Random Acts is that Nance and crew exist in a world where that has already been a reality. They are free to dream a bigger, bolder blackness.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education (Nation Books, 2016) and a consulting producer of Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.