Comics Cope With the L.A. Riots : Comedy: African-American stand-up comedians probe for deeper understanding in a South-Central club.
On Saturday night as South-Central Los Angeles still grieved over burned businesses, lost jobs and rampant looting, one man had a room of people laughing about the rioting and feeling no shame.
“Even babies were looting,” said Keith Morris, a wiry comedian who stood in front of the audience of about 60 African Americans at the Comedy Act Theater, practically next door to the Crenshaw Shopping Center. “They had babies stealing, had them pulling TV sets down the street while they were in their strollers.”
The audience burst into laughter. Morris quickly loaded and fired another joke. “Then I saw someone throw a couch on top of a Hyundai,” he said. “A Hyundai! And you know that car doesn’t go that fast.”
Hold it. Isn’t this kind of humor going a little too far? Not so said a group of African-American stand-up comedians. They believe that everyone from rioters to Rodney King are fair game as they probe for a deeper understanding of the chaos and violence that wracked Los Angeles.
As the rest of the world tries to analyze the meaning of the riots, these African-American comedians are finding plenty of new material. While most of these comedians were angered by the verdict in the Rodney King trial and the rioting, they say that comedy can heal some of the anguish and even educate others about the meaning of it all.
“The purpose of making jokes about the riots is to make people realize what they’ve done,” said an earnest Morris between one of his routines. “I feel that the rioting was justified, but then it was not justified. The looters burned down things that we need. You don’t burn down things that we need in the community.”
Many wondered how the Comedy Act Theater survived the looting and burning. It was lucky. Located on 43rd Street two blocks east of Crenshaw Boulevard, the club escaped unscathed despite 36 hours of violence that left a rash of charred gas stations, minimalls and small businesses.
Founded in 1985 by owner Michael Williams, the club has emerged as a premier training ground for young African-American comedians. The club helped the careers of prominent comics such as Arsenio Hall, Robert Townsend, Whoopi Goldberg, Marsha Warfield, Sinbad and the late Robin Harris.
Every Thursday through Saturday night, the Comedy Act Theater normally offers stand-up comedy to near-capacity crowds. But this Saturday, the dimly lit room dominated by a stage rich with tradition was only one-third full. But the low attendance and the sensitivity of the rioting issue didn’t cause Williams to close the club.
“Any time some great event like this takes place, there’s got to be some release,” Williams said. “Comedy is basically the vehicle for it. There’s always some humor in something like this.
“You have to look at the situation and say, ‘It’s serious, but it’s not that serious’ because there’s another day, and we all have got to be able to laugh at life.”
That’s exactly what the Comedy Act Theater’s group of young, brash comedians was trying to do. Just about every jokester came forward with a one-liner or a routine that alluded to Rodney King or the looting.
Air’e Sanders, a 30-year-old Tennessee native who has lived here for three years, said: “When they told me to come to L.A. and live like a king, I didn’t know that I could end up like Rodney.”
Morris, the emcee for the comedy show, later returned with advice on how store looters can get rid of excess furniture. “This is what you do--you put the new stuff in storage,” he said. “Then you leave the old stuff outside your house piece by piece.”
When Sweetie, a husky 22-year-old comedian who wears Spandex and a black Fedora, took the stage, looting was the first topic of discussion. “You know, I’m glad the riots happened,” she said with a serious face, “because those prices have just gotten to be so ridiculous!”
Offstage, Sweetie, who declined to give her real name, acknowledged that she was upset when she heard the verdict in the Rodney King case. Yet it also got her mind spinning about ideas for jokes.
“Some of the burning I didn’t like,” the Philadelphia native said. Then she flashed a grin and said: “But they didn’t have to burn down Fatburger. That just broke my heart. I mean, is there any justice in the world that people can burn down Fatburger?”
Ron Paul talked about sex all night. At the end of his routine, he started complaining about how his girlfriend made him mad. “Man, I got so mad at her, I left her in the car and spray-painted KOREAN OWNED on the windshield of the car,” he said.
“White people are treating black people differently now that the riots are over,” Paul continued. “I went to work the other day and they were playing rap music, burning incense that smelled like chicken. And they treat me like I know Rodney. They say, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry to hear about Rodney, man.’ ”
The audience enjoyed and raised no objections to the jokes, which ranged from tame to crude in tone. “I felt it was OK because it’s easing the tension and it’s making us think about what happened,” said Tido Smith, 22, of Lynwood.
Finding material for jokes hasn’t been a problem. The 10 African-American comedians said media coverage of the riots bombarded the public with images and anecdotes of looting and burning. The hard part, most of them said, was dealing with the initial anger they felt about the verdict and the shock of the massive looting and arson.
“When I heard about the destruction happening that night, I got this tremendous sense of dread,” said John Marshall Jones, who performs often at the Comedy Act Theater. The 28-year-old Jones was in Westwood when he heard about the rioting. “All I could do was hold back the tears until I got out of this restaurant,” he said.
That same night, Jones had to perform at another comedy club and began thinking of jokes to tell about the Rodney King incident and the looting. “I didn’t have the luxury of being angry for too long,” he said. “I had to figure out a way to discuss this anger and disgust and still be funny.”
One of his jokes went like this: “One of the lawyers for the officers said that race isn’t the issue. Well, of course race isn’t the issue if you’re the baton.”
Jones said the comedy helped the audience deal with the issues more easily and gain perspective. “Part of the healing process of any situation like that is being able to laugh about it,” he said. “It becomes a little easier to talk about it, but it’s also necessary that you come out and deal with reality.”
Jones said that he made videotapes of the riots to help him develop more material that he will use at other clubs besides the Comedy Act Theater. “The white audience sees the hypocrisy of it and feels more freedom to laugh because they don’t have to be a victim of it,” Jones added. “Whereas the black audience sees the hypocrisy and truth in it, and the truth touches them more deeply because they do live it.”