Late Night Last Century: Nipsey Russell Shares a Fable With Conan

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Late Night Last Century: Nipsey Russell Shares a Fable With Conan

Looking for a sure way to get a laugh? Go online and search two words: Nipsey Russell. 

Born in Atlanta, Russell began performing at the age of six. He got his start as a comedian after World War II while working as a carhop at Atlanta’s legendary Varsity burger joint. He later became a staple on television and nightclub stages from the late 1950s on. He wowed audiences with his wordplay and references, delivered in his lyrical voice with impeccable timing. Drawing on the Homer, Chaucer, and Keats he read from an early age, the New York Times described his act as “hip, glib and conspicuously intelligent.” 

A classic example of a Russell joke concerns a Black representative to the United Nations. The diplomat visits a restaurant in Maryland and is denied service. “But I’m the delegate from Ghana,” the diplomat says. “Well, you ain’t Ghana eat here,” the server replies. 

Generations of television viewers would come to know Russell through his frequent appearances on game shows. In 1964, he joined the short-lived Missing Links, becoming the first Black performer to be a regular panelist on a game show. The program was originally hosted by Ed McMahon, who was then only a year into his gig as the sidekick on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. 

The story goes that one night, McMahon asked Russell to say good night to the audience. Russell, ever the lyricist, came up with a poem on the spot. Then, on the next show, McMahon once again asked Russell for a poem. “Well, Nipsey didn’t have another poem. He had to come up with it off the top of his head, and then he realized this was his hook,” his manager Joe Rapp told NPR. “Like Rodney Dangerfield had `I don’t get any respect,’ he would have the poems. A lot of the people used to call him the original rapper.” 

In the 1970s, Russell became a regular on shows like The Tonight Show and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. “I don’t joke about Italians,” Russell said to Martin. “We Sicilians need to stick together.” Audiences today may know Russell best from his performance as the Tin Man in the 1978 adaptation of The Wiz. 

Prolific until the end, Russell became a regular contributor to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which debuted in 1993 on NBC, the year after Jay Leno replaced Carson. His work on Carson included spreading Christmas cheer as Santa Claus with Andy Richter, and sitting in a box for an hour with Sy Sperling, the founder of Hair Club for Men. Yet no segment better showcased Russell’s gift of gab than when he read the fable, “The Turtle Who Thought He Was A Corn Muffin.” Thank you, Nipsey, for the laughs and life lessons.

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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