Based on the four shows I saw, and what I heard from other festival-goers, A Very Funny Festival was a hit. The producers are hoping to make it an annual event, so hopefully the box office receipts will warrant a return next year.
Despite the presence of Zanies, Lakeshore Theater, Jokes & Notes, and several thriving amateur stand-up rooms, Chicago is still best known for improv and sketch comedy. A stand-up showcase with the terrific sort of talent on display at AVF last weekend would be a welcome and much-needed addition to the Chicago comedy scene.
After watching the all-white roster for Let Freedom Hum: An Evening of Comedy With Martin Short at the Vic on Thursday, I was curious to see how the place would be transformed for the predominantly African-American lineup of David Alan Grier: Comedy You Can Believe In, featuring Ralph Harris, Marina Franklin, Mark Curry, Bruce Bruce, Aries Spears, and Filipino-American Jo Koy. Sure enough, down came the ballroom backdrop and up came a brick building/alley one–an urban setting reminiscent of early Def Comedy Jam stages. Hip-hop, predictably, was the preshow soundtrack. (The showcase will air as a TV special on TBS Sun 6/28 at 10 PM.)
Stand-up audiences in Chicago are typically segregated–mostly black at Jokes & Notes on the south side, mostly Latino and Asian for Mikey O productions at Joe’s on the north side or WATRA on the southwest side, and mostly white just about everywhere else–so it was great to see a truly diverse crowd at Grier’s show. I sat between a mixed Latino-Indian couple and a Filipina, who was sitting next to a white couple and a middle-aged black woman who cheered throughout the show with “That’s right”s and “Uh huh”s, like it was a Sunday sermon.
Overall I thought this bunch of comics was more entertaining than the one in Let Freedom Hum. They were more physical and personable. Grier came out following a video segment depicting him as a speaker at Obama’s Grant Park rally on election day. Onstage, he read a very short set off a teleprompter, including an Obama joke: the President entered office looking like Denzel Washington, but “three months later he looked like Fred Sanford.”
Actor-comedian Ralph Harris set the tone for the evening with his energy and enthusiasm. He was the first of three comics I heard during the fest who ripped the airline industry for its supertight security and cheap on-flight accommodations. His skin lotion confiscated by a security guard, he complained about his ashy skin: “My hands looked like powdered donuts. ‘That ain’t anthrax man, for real!'” And he did a hilarious impression of a bossy girlfriend who’d flinch at him like she was going to hit him.
Though she now lives in Harlem, Marina Franklin was born and raised in Chicago–as you could tell from the crowd’s response when she came out. Sandwiched between the animated, loud Harris and Mark Curry, one of the most hyper, athletic comics I’ve ever seen, Franklin and her soft-spoken, mostly sedate style got practically buried. She’s also a novice compared to the others on the bill, and her material wasn’t nearly as sharp. Setups took too long, her timing was a touch late, and her delivery was unremarkable. Still, she did a promising impression of an irate black mother, and she told one of the few Michelle Obama jokes I’ve heard. On struggling to relate to the First Lady: “She don’t look like she ever went through a slut phase.”
Curry’s character on Hanging With Mr. Cooper–the TV show he’s probably best known for–doesn’t prepare you for his stand-up. The tall, lean comedian burst onto the stage and never stopped moving. Impersonating a blind stripper, a crackhead sent to Iraq to help fight the war and reduce prison populations, and African runners at the Olympics who are bored with the competition, Curry gesticulated, danced, and paced his way through the longest set of the night. He also delivered one of the most acerbic commentaries I heard during the festival, criticizing the trendiness of adoption in Hollywood: “Oh my god, is that a Chanel purse?” “No, it’s a black child.” “I want one!”
Jo Koy was decent, doing newer, undistilled material about his 6-year-old son–though I doubt TBS will keep much of it for broadcast. His boy likes to pull his penis “down past his thigh” in front of his parents and their friends, and even colors it green, drawing eyes on the . . . well, you get the drift. Koy then pleaded with men to “pull out,” explaining the consequences: “baby, no baby–broke, rich.”
I was most looking forward to Atlanta native Bruce Bruce, who didn’t disappoint despite a short set (possibly because Curry went over). The massive comedian was quick to address his size, telling a guy in the front row, “I’m not gonna tip over.” He griped about parents who don’t discipline their kids. “If anybody got any kids,” Bruce said, “beat ’em. Go home, wake ’em up and beat ’em.” He also did a funny bit on African-American colloquialisms, noting how words get combined, like “gitcha something t’eat.” “What is teat? I have no idea what teat is.”
Aries Spears, best known for his versatile work on MADtv, closed the showcase with a very strong set. “What it do, Chicago?” he began with his gravelly DMX-like voice and macho manner. His mission in life, Spears said, is to “help white people.” Picking up on Bruce’s frustration with parents, Spears asked white parents: “Why don’t y’all beat your kids?” But Spears’s bit got theatrical, with a singing plantation slave and a parody of a new The Nanny featuring an abusive “nigger nanny.” He then did some spot-on impressions: one of Arnold (brilliantly reducing the sound to a gargle) and three of Denzel Washington, hilariously imitating the actor’s gruff, sexy, and all-business accents. The show ended with a simple “good night” from Grier after all the comics came back on stage for another round of applause.