Sometimes, the main difference between stand-up comedy on HBO and stand-up comedy on Showtime seems to be that HBO lets you know it's coming. Their promotional efforts are everywhere. Showtime, you blink, you may miss it. Which is my way of saying a new comedy showcase began last week on Showtime called Comics Without Borders, hosted by Russell Peters. With Peters attached, the first instinct is to think this will feature an array of comics from other lands to get their proper introduction to American audiences. But the show takes the other interpretation, that here, the comedy can and will go anywhere. No borders.
On last week's debut (available On Demand), Peters told the audience at El Portal in Hollywood that his show will put a spotlight on comedians who need to be on TV more, regardless of their past experience. Unlike other half-hour comedy showcases, Comics Without Borders actually gives each stand-up enough time for audiences (both live and at home) to get to know them, preceded by a minute or two backstage introduction in which the comic just talks. In other words, two comics per half-hour instead of three, four or sometimes even five. In the debut: Justin Worsham from Modesto, Calif., and Dean Edwards from Brooklyn, NY. For Worsham, this was his TV debut, and he joked about babies, what parents do to their toddlers, and how he and his wife interact and sleep. Edwards had a short stint on SNL. In his return to television, he didn't mind dishing on the differences between Eddie Murphy and his brother, Charlie, poking fun at Charlie's need to share "true Hollywood stories," as well as impersonations of Jay-Z and Denzel Washington. Almost to remind you that SNL could've used him better when they had him (or take him back if they'd like).
Comics Without Borders airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays on Showtime.
Five hours down, and yet, that's really only one-tenth of the way home. The wall behind me hums and vibrates against my back, gently soothing (plus) yet also making me feel dangerously sleepy (minus minus!). The audience is thinning and shuffling. Some customers just moved from the back to the front. I've heard from Jim David and Dean Edwards, who reminded us all that "this is the first time a comedy club has told comedians you can go longer." Kevin Brennan is making Ku LOL very loudly and often, so much so that he wonders if it's a fake laugh. "I'll take it!" Brennan said. Not to worry. Ku's laugh may be loud, but it's real and sincere. Earlier in his set, though, Brennan yells at the crowd. "Just relax...we're trying to set a record, not have a good show!" Interesting point. My body feels like it's in a Sharper Image chair. I'm hearing voices. Is that Gollum as a woman? No, it's Al Ducharme. Some dude brought a pillow. Why didn't I think of that?
If there's such a thing as alt-comedy, then can there also be such a thing as alt-black comedy? Elon James White thinks so. White and fellow New York comedian Baron Vaughn have been trying to educate audiences on the notion that there are many different types of black stand-up comedy, through their Shades of Black shows, their online site, The Black Comedy Project, and this weekend, their first full-on comedy fest, The Black Comedy Experiment. The "Experiment" debuts tonight and runs through Saturday night, with all shows at the two venues in The Tank.
Tonight's mainstage shows are Souled Out (featuring Walli Collins, Rick Younger, Leighann Lord, Dean Edwards, Mike Yard and Marc Theobold) and Desiree Burch's 52-Man Pickup. Other one-person shows include "The Oreo Kid" by Jordan Carlos (who auditioned last week for Saturday Night Live as a potential Barack Obama), "30 Years in Africa" by Michelle Buteau, Robin Cloud's "Bag O' Bitches," "Mystery Up at Negro Creek," by Baron Vaughn, and "2-Faced" by Erica Watson. There'll be special editions of Chicks and Giggles, Laughing Liberally and Shades of Black. And that's not all.
That SNL just got a lot of buzz over their search for a cast member to play Barack Obama only brought more attention to the plight of black comedians in getting the industry to notice them. "We couldn't ask for better timing, literally," White told me last night. That SNL didn't cast a black comedian for Obama didn't surprise White. That Jordan Carlos and Donald Glover got face time with Lorne Michaels pleased him, though. "I was happy that two of the three Obamas were on our festival. There's our buzz!"
In White's view, the fact remains that most audiences and Hollywood industry types think of only one type of comedian when they think of booking a black stand-up. They think of Def Jam, he said. "Everybody feels I'm harping on it," he said. It's not that Def Jam is evil or bad, he said, but rather that the great success of Def Jam created a model that everyone else has tried to duplicate without thinking or considering other forms or styles of comedy. That's been the pattern, White says, going back to Bill Cosby. When Richard Pryor emerged, "he kicked the door down," but then other comics tried to be Pryor, then tried to be Eddie Murphy, then tried to be the Wayans Brothers, and more recently, Def Jam. "It was just bravado. In your face," White said. "But it pigeonholed us for years." The opportunities simply aren't there, from SNL to HBO. "Dwayne Perkins might get to do Conan. But where's his HBO special?" White's online essay in October, "Did Def Jam Ruin Black Comedy?" sparked a furious back-and-forth debate with comedian Todd Lynn. "Todd Lynn says there ain't no thing as an 'Intelligent N----r' show. The fact is, though, he thinks there's one way of doing it, but in my opinion, there are many ways of climbing the ladder," White said.
He acknowledges that "the chitlin' circuit is strong in Harlem and the Bronx," and that New York City has lots of black comedians and black rooms, but wonders where the mainstream breakthroughs are for them. And White also knows that even though he's a Bed-Stuy Brooklyn native, he sounds like he's British and doesn't always fit in either an urban Def Jam scene or a white scene. "There are jokes I have that I can't tell in front of a white audience. It's because they just don't get it, nine times out of 10. They don't have the same life experience I have." So there has to be another way. "It was the same when the alt-comedy scene started. That's why I believe in alt-black," he said. "Some people argue I'm just putting another label on them and I understand that."
Like the comedians who formed an alternative to the club scene so they could work and build their own fan bases, White hopes to do the same for the many "shades of black" comedy. He's not against "urban or Def Jam" comedians who are good, saying Patrice Oneal is great and killed on that show. He's against black comedians who are hack about their blackness, such as the woman who threw her weave into the audience to get a standing ovation.
White still doesn't know if he and Vaughn and the experiment will succeed. "If we make enough ruckus, at least we'll be a footnote," White said.
Lorne Michaels made the interview rounds yesterday to promote the return of Saturday Night Live, and more than a couple of people wondered who'd play Barack Obama. Michaels wonders, too. He told the USA Today that he auditioned candidates last week, "and expects to pick from two or three late Thursday." I don't get the sense that current cast member Kenan Thompson has an Obama impersonation, so it's more likely for someone else to get the gig. But whom? Obama likes to say the election campaign is about the past vs. the future. So might Lorne Michaels' decision. He could look to the recent past and invite Dean Edwards back into the fold. Edwards has plenty of experience with impersonations. Or Michaels could look to the future. Donald Glover, as a writer on 30 Rock, has an in with Tina Fey, and sketch/improv experience with UCB's Derrick. Speaking of the New York branch of the UCB, there's also Justin Purnell, who hosts the weekly School Night showcases. I also thought of my friend Baron Vaughn, who has acting chops to go with his stand-up delights (you can see him most Monday nights co-hosting Shoot The Messenger's satirical morning show with Lizz Winstead), but when I reached him by phone, he was in St. Louis at the national NACA conference which I could've learned from reading his MySpace page. What? You want more name speculation out of me? How about Leonard Robinson?
Whom else should Lorne be considering for the choice role of Obama on SNL? And do you think the guy who gets the gig will get a chance for non-Obama parts in the show, too?