by Dwight Hobbes
Mr. Hobbes is a writer, playright, performance artists and songwriter. Hobbs has written for ESSENCE Magazine, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the MN Spokesman-Recorder newspapers.
From Rustin Bayard, Phunny Business, In the MN Spokesman-Recorder
It doesn’t matter how one feels about homosexuality, even if you’re convinced it’s an abomination. There was no excuse then and there’s less now for the exclusion of Civil Rights Era activist Bayard Rustin from the same public eye that hero worshipped the likes of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young and Rosa Parks. And you can tell your mama I said so.
Then, this being black folk’s month and all, you can go the library and borrow Brother Outsider (ITVS) to find out about this fascinating man who was Dr. King’s mentor and the architect of 1963’s historic March on Washington (he also was a strong influence on Stokely Carmichael and James L. Farmer). You’ll learn that as much as he was a man of peace, he also didn’t take guff off any white man ignorant enough to believe black people are inferior. Even before the heroic Rosa Parks, a racist bus driver had to call a cop to arrest Rustin for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. You’ll learn that he was tireless in fighting for civil rights and lecturing extensively on the college circuit. He was impassioned, articulate and determined that the black voice be heard. You’ll also learn that NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not want Rustin to receive any public credit for his role in planning the famous march and, despite Wilkins, Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph appeared on the cover of Life as “the leaders” of the March. You learn that Adam Clayton Powell forced Bayard Rustin to resign from Southern Christian Leadership Conference — which was organized by Rustin and Dr. King. Importantly, you will learn and, hopefully, appreciate just how important this gay man was to black civil rights. Brother Outsider, directed by Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer, produced by Sam Pollard (By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls) is nothing short of brilliant documentary, exhaustively honoring a hero who should have honored as an icon, not reduced in the public record and our memories to the status of a footnote.
While you’re there and have your library card out, there’s another brilliant documentary you want to check out for Black History Month. That is, if you’ve ever enjoyed black stand-up comedy. No, not the witless, gratuitously foul-mouth garbage that routinely passes for humor. Not that, but the true, characteristically irreverent genius that, yes, sometimes cusses yet that’s not what their whole game is about. We’re talking the likes of such giants as Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Cedric The Entertainer, Dave Chappelle Steve Harvey and lesser known stars who still shine in their own rite, ie Adele Givens, Melanie Camarcho and more. Before there was, the opening titles read, Def Comedy Jam, B.E.T.’s Comic View, Kings & Queens of Comedy, the nightspot All Jokes Aside was making it happen in Chicago, on the South Side.
If you know how to have a good laugh and are grateful for great black comedy, watch Phunny Business: A Black Comedy (Indican), which came out just last year and details how all those names and long list of others at some point played the Chicago club All Jokes Aside which sadly, is no longer among us. Many of those names either got started or received a career-launching boost at All Jokes Aside. There also was Latino wit Carlos Mencia and Honest John who, white as snow, constantly was a wry, dry hit with the black audiences.
Phunny Business is bittersweet. You know all along it’ll have a sad ending. But a brisk, upbeat tone sustains the film’s a lighthearted rhythm. Of course, interviews with a host of wisecracking wizards like Harvey, Mike Epps, Sheryl Underwood don’t hurt in keeping the spirit bright. That and snippets from a slew of ace cutups, including Aries Spears doing an hilarious impression of cartoon character Elmer Fudd getting his freak on and profoundly caustic Laura Hayes. Who got so mad at a heckler, she snatched her wig off and was on her way into the audience, intent on whupping all the black from his skin. Security personnel stopped her.
The team of founder Raymond Lambert with partner James Alexander and co-owner Mary Lindsay had a good thing going. Their creed was professionalism par excellence. Comedians and the crowd alike had to show up dressed to the proverbial nines. Not necessarily formal — you could be casual. But you had to be clean. Performers greatly appreciated not having to deal with a problem that all entertainers dread — showing up to the gig and they get funny about paying you your money. Mike Epps is among a gang of artists who, as he extols, “Never had a check bounce.” They weren’t all exactly crazy about the extent to which professionalism prevailed — running a tight ship, Lambert, Lindsay and Alexander were perfectly serious about a comedian not running long on his or her set. A big clock would light up if you went past your minutes. Camarcho frankly states, “When that light flashes, you better get your [behind] up off that stage. Or what’s gonna happen, you’re not gonna get booked anymore.” Granted, there were times early on when the club couldn’t afford a hotel and the act’s salary. So, Lambert, Lindsay or Alexander picked you up at the airport but you might have sleep on somebody’s sofa. Steve Harvey did it. He also acknowledges, “I don’t know anybody today who’s still doin’ it, who has a long career that didn’t [perform at] All Jokes Aside. Cedric the Entertainer states, “[The venue], during that period, was this incubation of some of the great comics that we have. D.L. Hughley co-signs that in an interview. As does Bernie Mac.
Bottom line, regardless how raggedy it might have started out behind the scenes, the public, from day one in 1991 until All Jokes Aside’s 2000 closing, reveled in state-of-the-art entertainment at a nice joint they couldn’t wait to come back and see good comedy.
Concert venues moved into the market and clubs began closing across the country. All Jokes Aside was one. It didn’t help that Chicago politics was rife with racism and crippled Lambert’s effort to move All Jokes Aside to a thriving entertainment district. Owners in the area didn’t want a business that would draw black customers. And obstructed the move.
It was, as the narrative notes, “The Motown of comedy.” There hasn’t been a black-owned comedy nightclub in America since. Not since pioneering proving ground All Jokes Aside. Expertly directed by John Davies. Well written by Davies and Lambert.
Brother Outsider and Phunny Business: A Black Comedy. One on the dark side, one a bit lighter. Both about Black History.