Teens Seek Laughter in Life’s Pain
Beau Smith looks exhausted. Two days ago, he ran away from his group home in Van Nuys. He spent last night under a highway overpass and then made his way on foot, about 15 miles, to the one place he feels safe, the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, where he’s expected this morning. He limps up to the comedy club’s door, and owner Jamie Masada, who has been frantic about the missing boy, opens his arms. Beau collapses in sobs.
Beau--17, hardheaded, softhearted, angry and alone--has spent the last seven years moving among group homes, foster homes and emergency shelters. He can’t take the system anymore, he tells Masada.
“Things will get better, you’ll see,” Masada tells the wilted boy over and over. “You just have to be strong.” He takes him upstairs in the club with a plate of Chinese food. Don’t you know how many people would die for your talent? Masada asks. You’ve got everything. You’re strong, smart--people would die for a face like yours, chiseled to perfection.
This point hits home. Even in his darkest hour, Beau is struck by his own beauty. He looks up. You’ll be somebody someday, Masada continues. Now eat some food. Then come downstairs. It’s time to go on stage.
Every Saturday morning in the summer, a group of teenagers--many grappling with the consequences of poverty, abuse or neglect, sometimes living apart from their parents--take the stage and try to squeeze laughs from one another. It’s Masada’s Comedy Camp, in which he and the children pay homage to the deepest roots of stand-up comedy: pain, abandonment, cruelty. For 17 summers, Masada has been telling new crews of youngsters to use their hurt to make themselves and other people laugh. So they stand on stage and craft routines forged by pesky little brothers and nagging teachers--and beatings and hunger and motherlessness.
Beau blossoms under the spotlight as he strides across the stage and takes the microphone. His shoulders pull back, and a sarcastic smile slides across his face. He tells the other kids that he’d run away from his group home because he’d been in a fight that the staff was slow to break up.
“So we’re fighting, and it went on and on and on because there was no one there to stop us. I mean, only about eight, nine, ten staff were there watching.” He’s exaggerating to make it a better story. By the time he is done, the staff will have popped popcorn, chosen favorites and placed bets on whether Beau or the other kid will win. Beau’s cohorts crack up. Masada is impressed. It is advanced comedy technique: Beau has used the fight to illustrate the lack of love in his life that is consuming him. He conveyed the real reason he ran away and made them laugh at the same time.
If he could, Beau continues, he’d like to go to Tennessee to visit his mother, who he said simply could not earn enough to support seven children. When did you talk to her last? Masada prompts, trying to teach Beau how to extend his routine’s momentum. “Two years ago,” Beau answers. There’s a moment of silence in which the old, crushed Beau surfaces, just as quickly replaced by his spotlight persona who’s able to tell the audience that Mom hung up on him the other day. “Me and her will get a cool relationship when she sees her handsome son successful on TV,” he says optimistically, and saunters off the stage with a smile.
Others stand in the spotlight, begin their spiel and lose their way in the darkness of their lives, crumpling offstage in Masada’s arms. All great comedians are in pain, Masada tells them. The best can manipulate the swirling sadness inside to keep themselves sane.
The camp’s counselors are some of the nation’s best-known comedians--Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Paul Rodriguez, Jay Mohr, Chris Tucker, Adam Sandler and the Wayans brothers among them. Richard Pryor used to do the camp and is still the gold standard for knitting pain and humor. In his day, he would hypnotize the kids, telling them that if he survived growing up in a brothel run by his grandmother, drug addiction, setting himself on fire and having a heart attack, they could, too.
The trick is to talk about the unmentionable with such a sense of enjoyment that the audience is shocked into laughing along. Eddie Griffith makes it look easy, telling them how he had misbehaved so badly that his mother once chased him down the street in her car: “When I ran up on the sidewalk? She ran the car up on the sidewalk too!”
The camp often takes on the personality of the day’s comedian/mentor. Jay Mohr begins by saying he loves them. It is several weeks into the camp, and perhaps they are growing more comfortable, but with him they are the most open and easy that they have been. Mark Wray, whose humor has focused on teen idiosyncrasies, expands his routine to how adoption has given him a confusing assortment of relatives. Another time, after one or two kids yearn openly for a normal life, Lester Barrie, former host of Black Entertainment Television’s “Comedy View,” reminds them that life back home could be worse. He recounted searching his mother’s bedroom, “hunting for a receipt. I thought that if I could find it, then she could take me back to wherever she got me.
“I don’t know why,” Barrie says from the stage. “But God wants you to be where you are right now.”
Talk-show host and comedian Byron Allen gives Beau a homily on self-reliance and setting goals. Does he want to be an actor or does he want to go live in Tennessee? He can’t do both. Does he smoke? Does he drink? “Yes” and “no” are the answers. Cut it out, Allen says. Beau tells him he’ll turn 18 in three months, and Allen shivers. “Pick your friends very, very carefully. You’re a young black man. You will not be treated like a juvenile.”
Allen’s manner is firm, but as they talk he casually moves to the back of the darkened room so Beau won’t see the tears in his eyes.
“I think my mother’s name is LaTanya,” is how 15-year-old Jamesha Joann Trammel begins her routine, in which self-confidence battles heartbreak and, for the time being, loses.
Drawing on Disaster
She tells a story of her childhood attempt to make a dinner of bacon for her little sister and cousin who were hungry after being left alone all day. “How could I know that bacon didn’t take hours to cook?” Treating it like a pot roast, she set it to cook and they went outside to play.
The police, firefighters and her mother all pulled up in front of their apartment together as smoke began to billow, she said. “But my mother couldn’t say anything. She had to take the blame because she didn’t want them to know she’d been gone and left us alone.”
She smiles, then weaves that story into one of stark abandonment. “This here ain’t no joke,” she says, and she tells them everything: Who hurt her and how; the way her mother left for days and her father left forever. “Our social worker called him, and we said we wanted to start a new relationship with him, and he said no, he didn’t want to see us.” She sprinkles the story of her life with inspirational messages for the other kids. “It hurt, but you have to move on.”
Offstage, she takes refuge upstairs in the club, huddles in a chair and cries into a paper napkin. Jamesha, who lives in a group home in Sylmar, aches for her sister. “My little sister, we’re like twins, is in Pasadena--this is the first time we’ve ever been separated,” she had said onstage. “Last night, she called me crying, and it made me sad because I’m a big sister and I wanted to go see her and I can’t.” She hates the powerlessness. “It’s like moving through the world invisible.”
Not all kids at the camp are in the system, nor do all of them focus their routines on the pain in their lives. Antonio Johnson, 15, who lives with his mother and stepfather, wants to be a comedian; this is his chance to prove himself to Masada. He gets a laugh just by describing himself as an African American-Irish-German-Italian-Romanian Jew--with freckles. From the stage, he comforts Beau and Jamesha, then he cracks everyone up with his observations about “ghetto” behavior. What’s with these girls who have mountainous curls, braids and weaves rising into the sky? he demands. You’ve seen those hairdos, he says--you know just what I mean. He snatches a stool, puts it upside down atop his head and suddenly the legs resemble a spiky Patti La Belle hairdo. The room explodes with laughter.
The teens did a double take when Geoff, 11, auditioned for the camp in early June. He’s small, white and lives in Woodland Hills with his grandmother. But he worked hard on his material and drew some of the biggest laughs of the summer.
“You know how most boys go to their first baseball games with their dads?” he asks. Well, he went with his grandmother. The boys groan. “Is that the game with the basket?” Grandma wants to know, and he knows it’s going to be a long afternoon. Clutching the stool on stage to use as a walker, he describes their trip to the handicapped seating section, where geriatric fans use the seventh-inning stretch to whip out inhalers and oxygen. “We’re sitting so close to the players that you can see the chewing tobacco leave their mouths,” he says. Yet the mitt he has brought to catch foul balls goes unused. “Instead, I keep yelling, ‘Duck, Grandma! Duck!’ ”
Masada, 41, says he started the camp after he noticed how a kid whose face was deformed grew more confident after he hired him at the club. Officials who run foster homes and institutions for children said they saw the same kind of transformation in some of the children they allowed to come to the Laugh Factory.
Masada, a chronic worrier, is unstintingly generous with the kids but personally frugal. He promises jobs, food, clothes, anything they need. Filled with guilt because over the years he has amassed eight pairs of shoes (“Who needs eight pairs of shoes?”), he thinks rich people should have to--should want to--give at least 20% of their income to the poor. A six-figure car weaves through traffic on Sunset while he’s talking, and the sight ignites his ulcer. Why are all these horrible things happening to children? he asks again and again. Why are some children beaten and raped and starved so that they end up on his stage in tears year after year?
“These kids,” he says, “are little mice trying to survive in the jungle.”
He says he knows what it is like. He arrived alone from Iran at age 14, speaking only Farsi, and almost instantly homeless. An apartment manager in Hollywood gave him a couch to sleep on in a garage, and for weeks he cried himself to sleep at night. He began hanging out on the Sunset Strip and soon was befriended by the comics at the Comedy Store. When a comedian friend, unable to make a living, killed himself in despair, Masada vowed he would help all comedians make a living. He scraped up $10,000 and at age 17 leased the hole-in-the-wall on the Strip that would become the Laugh Factory.
Beau is paying the price for having run away from that Van Nuys group home. He is now at the county’s McClaren Children’s Shelter in El Monte.
“Since it’s my own fault, I guess I have to put up with it,” he sighs. The day is regimented, the doors are locked and the food is awful. “It’s like prison,” he says. (He, like all children in the system, attend the comedy camp with a court’s permission.) He has been in McClaren twice before and gotten beat up badly both times. Already three or four boys are after him, he says, and he’s sure that it is only a matter of time before the next beating.
Plans to Go AWOL
Beau and Jamesha arrive on another Saturday, both intending to go AWOL--he from McClaren, she from a group home in Sylmar. “I’m not going back there,” Beau says in an angry whisper. By the time Byron Allen is done talking to him, Beau says he plans to stick it out, but Jamesha is adamant about not returning to her home where, she says, she is not treated with respect.
Beau warns her of the danger of ending up somewhere even worse. The social worker who brought her to the comedy camp advises her that if she does not go back, she will be declared a runaway and the police notified. Jamesha bursts into tears and storms out to the parking lot, followed by Masada and Allen. After three hours, a compromise is reached: Jamesha is allowed to go home with a mentor, whom she regards as a big sister.
Jamesha wipes her tears, relieved. Then she turns a speculative look on Byron Allen. “Where’s your wife?” she wants to know. “I don’t have a wife,” he answers. She says, “My big sister is single, you know.” He hugs her and tells her to write to her little sister. What if the letters don’t get there? Jamesha asks. It doesn’t matter, he says. Never let go of your family. Write.
In a few hours, Allen will go on stage as the headliner at the Laugh Factory. But right now, he’s shaken. In all the years he’s been a Comedy Camp counselor, he has never experienced a session so raw. Needing comfort, he jumps in his car and drives westward, with no destination in mind, dialing on his cell phone, calling family.
A few days later, Beau runs away from McClaren. He stops by the Laugh Factory to tell Masada he’s staying with a friend. As of Thursday he was still missing.
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