Amazon’s new doc is an inspirational oral history of L.A.’s Black comedy scene
“Phat Tuesdays,” a three-part docuseries premiering Friday on Amazon Prime, tells the story of the weekly show that brought Black comedy and Black audiences to Hollywood — West Hollywood, technically — and the Comedy Store, from 1995 to 2005, as well as what came before and what’s come after. Directed by Reginald Hudlin (“Boomerang,” “Safety,” “Marshall,” lots of television), it’s an oral history with pictures, interspersed with clips of comics in their youth, that details what Dave Chappelle calls “an under-recognized cultural moment.”
Moved along by a cast of famous and less famous faces from older and less old generations, including Tiffany Haddish, Cedric the Entertainer, Regina King, Luenell, J.B. Smoove, Jay Pharoah, Nick Cannon, Steve Harvey, Chris Tucker, Snoop Dogg, Lil Rel Howery, Bill Bellamy and George Wallace, it is surprisingly sweet and inspirational for something also quite raucous and more than occasionally raunchy.
That might have something to do with the character of its central figure, comedian and actor Guy Torry, who created Phat Tuesday, and though it is true that Torry is the executive producer of the series, there is much testimony to his generosity, openness and all-around niceness, qualities that also come through in his onstage segments. He seems to be using the documentary as a platform to thank all the people who helped him, and to give credit to the people he helped.
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“Guy was different,” says Chappelle. “He moved different from a lot of people; easygoing, funny. He worked and was a community member…. Guy curated a great crowd…. It was eclectic, like Black life is eclectic.”
It’s a Golden Age story, looking at a special place in its years of glory; the pitch is both to people who remember and the uninformed ripe to be amazed and jealous — nostalgia and nostalgia by proxy. (“Phat Tuesday was something very, very special to witness, to say you were there,” says Anthony Anderson. “Isn’t that what this whole documentary is about?”) As an instrumental stage, seemingly, of most every comedian who’s gotten famous since the 1970s, the Comedy Store has itself been the focus or the incidental setting of many documentaries; the very fact that Phat Tuesdays took place there gave the showcase cachet. “It put a lot of weight on it,” says comic Kym Whitley. “This is the big time.”
Before there was Phat Tuesday, there was the Comedy Act Theater, where in the early 1990s Guy’s already established older brother Joe Torry was working as the emcee; running through the docuseries is a story of sibling rivalry and support. The Leimert Park venue was founded in 1985 by Michael Williams as a place for Black comedians who had trouble finding spots in largely white clubs, or had to adjust their routines for largely white audiences, to work in a Black neighborhood. It was a phenomenon that gave birth to other phenomenons.
Originally hosted by Robin Harris, who became famous for his “Bebe’s Kids” routine — “He didn’t care who you was,” Harvey says of Harris’ audience interactions, “he fed you to the lions”— the Comedy Act program attracted established comics and gave time to newcomers, brought in producers, agents and bookers; when TV director Stan Lathan brought hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons to the club, it led them to create “Def Comedy Jam” for HBO, hosted by Martin Lawrence, which gave national exposure to a coming generation of comedians and inspired an even younger one, Guy Torry included.
In 1990, Harris died suddenly of heart failure, at age 36, on what was widely considered to be the eve of breakout success. (Hudlin, who had directed him in “House Party,” memorialized him in the “Bebe’s Kids” animated feature, which he scripted.) The Comedy Act Theater never quite recovered: “Robin dying was like taking the backbone out of a body,” remembers comedian-actor Tommy Davidson.
Joe Torry replaced him (“Nobody wanted that job,” he recalls), and the shows went on, but after the Rodney King uprising in 1992, industry people grew loath to travel “south of Wilshire.” When Guy Torry moved out from St. Louis and in with his brother, thinking to follow in his footsteps, he found the scene there was “not as represented,” but he went to work, learning; Joe got him work as a production assistant on “Martin,” where he eventually found his way into the writers room.
By 1995, Guy was well enough connected that he was able to pitch a Black comics night to Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore (represented here by son Pauly). He was given a month of Tuesdays to make good, in the smallest of the club’s rooms, the Belly Room; after nine sold-out months, the show moved to the Main Room, where it continued to sell out. It was, King, says, “Very similar as far as energy ways to the Comedy Act, but young; this was really our space.”
“If you’re not in front of the right crowd and the right people to make things happen,” says Guy, “nothing’s going to happen.” There were celebrities in the audience, from music, movies and sports, and crowds outside hoping to get in. “You would have thought it was Studio 54,” says actor-comedian Finesse Mitchell. “It wasn’t just a comedy club, it was a nightclub,” says actor-comedian Aries Spears. The success of Phat Tuesday would keep the Comedy Store afloat through otherwise lean years.
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It coincided with an explosion of hip-hop and of Black television shows, films, fashion lines, magazine covers. People got television deals and movie roles. Tucker (after a set that Guy Torry says “blew the roof off; you could look up and see the moon”) was cast in “The Fifth Element,” a career-changing role that Guy was being scouted for. Similarly, Guy was cast in “American History X,” a role that Tommy Davidson was looked at for. And hosting the room, and his air of fun and friendliness, got him the job of emceeing the Kings of Comedy arena tour with Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac. Eventually, Guy was so busy with other things that he brought Phat Tuesday to a close, though the hopeful point is made that it gave rise to dozens of urban comedy nights the world over.
Like most any documentary determined to tag every base, it taps some lightly, others firmly; the third episode is largely a grab bag of themes. We learn more about Guy and Joe; Guy’s teeth; the sexual scene; Guy’s openness to female comics when women had to fight or, let’s say, barter for stage time at many other venues, and his booking transgender comedian Flame Monroe (“long before,” says Monroe, “trans was all over TV”); Phat Tuesday comics who weren’t Black (come on down, the late Bob Saget, who worked there for six months); the similarities between music and comedy, rappers and comics; bombing and the demands of the Black audience (Harvey is especially funny on this); and the fact that comedy, at a high level, is hard work, an art and a science, inspirational and experimental, requiring not just talent but also discipline. A generous amount of time is devoted to the new generation of comics, who do their work through social media, independent of any place or scene.
And finally, there is the Comedy Store wall, and the importance of having one’s name written there — “It’s immortalizing,” says Pharoah — which leads to an overtly sentimental but genuinely moving conclusion.
‘Phat Tuesdays: The Era of Hip Hop Comedy’
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: 18+ (May not be suitable for those under age 18)
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