A game changer creates a way to stand out. Nipsey Russell did just that with the use of limericks and rhymes. He was known as the poet laureate of Harlem, TV, and heck, all of comedy. He became the most successful black comedian of the 1950s by setting the standard as being the first of his race on a panel for a daily game show and the first again to be a sitcom costar. Certainly, Russell was a game changer.
He was born and raised in Atlanta. Speculation is that he was born around 1924. No birth certificate is on record. Russell given the first name Julius, but his mother nicknamed him Nipsey. The latter stuck. At the age of ten, his comedic interests were awakened after seeing Jack Wiggins perform. Russell told the LA Times, “He came out immaculately attired in a well-dressed street suit and he tap-danced. As he danced, he told little jokes in between. He was so clean in his language and was lacking in any drawl, he just inspired me. I wanted to do that.” Of course, it would be a number of years before that inspiration would come to fruition.
Russell attended the University of Cincinnati to get his Bachelor’s in Literature. His college career was interrupted by World War II. He served as a medic for the United States Army. When he returned, he worked as a carhop at The Varsity, an Atlanta drive-in. He found making people laugh helped his tip money grow. His comedic ambitions had come into play. He started playing at nightclubs and eventually made his way to New York City. The comedian had one of the longest known tenures at the Baby Grand, a club in Harlem.
In 1961, Jack Paar, host of The Tonight Show, hired Russell as a regular, a first for a black comedian in TV history. As his popularity grew, he made several more TV appearances. He was a panelist for many game shows throughout the 1960s and into the 80s. He almost had his own late night show, Point of View, but sadly, sponsors at the time were uncomfortable with an African American host. He did get the chance at being a sidekick on late night TV with Les Crane. However, the show was short-lived competing against The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Russell did have his own radio program in Harlem on WLIB, and he received notable film success such as the Tin Man in The Wiz which also starred Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, and Diana Ross.
The comic refused to play stereotypes. Early in his career, he traveled the vaudeville circuit with Mantan Moreland, and they performed an interruption bit. Neither one would finish a statement, but they would further their story through their interjections. For example:
Moreland: Guess who I saw? I saw old —
Russell: Is he back again? I thought he was —
Moreland: He was, but he got out.
Russell: Is that so?
Moreland: Yeah, he was over —
Russell: Is that so?
When he went solo, his act consisted as series of limericks with funny twists. While on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for Lucille Ball, Russell cited, “Those who think women are the weaker sex/Can’t see the trees from the woods/For although everyone knows it’s the rooster that crows/It’s the hen who delivers the goods.” He along with Rich Little made the most appearances at the star riffing events.
He was a friendly, tongue-in-cheek guy on screen. Off stage, he was know to be very astute and quiet. Nipsey Russell died in 2005 after a year long battle with stomach cancer. While he was the alive, he opened doors for black comedians and proved he was a game changer for all of comedy.