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Film Thu Feb 03 2011

Phunny Business: A Black Comedy

03_Raymond_Lambert.jpg

All Jokes Aside, the comedy club that dominated the city's South Loop district in the '90s, was a viable force in Chicago entertainment until it closed in 2000. The club, which hosted a "who's who" of black comedians including Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock and the late Bernie Mac, is the subject of the film Phunny Business: A Black Comedy, directed by John Davies. Here, owner Raymond Lambert discusses the film, the club, and what caused the laughter to suddenly stop.

How did the idea for this film come together?
I worked with John [Davies] on some other projects and we both said this All Jokes Aside story should be on television, which was then our initial idea. I felt the club didn't end the way I wanted it to and I wanted to tell this story but didn't know how--should it be a feature film? A documentary? I bumped into John again and the idea of a documentary came up.

So that's how the idea to do the story documentary style was born.
Yes. There was a documentary called When Stand-Up Stood Out, about the Boston comedy club scene during the late '70s through the late '80s. I thought if that was a defining moment in stand-up, then, humbly speaking, if I look at what we did in the '90s and what we meant to the Chicago comedy scene, we had probably more people than that. Then, Reid Brody, a producer, got involved, and we partnered with him because we all brought something different to the table.

You were originally a finance guy, having worked with Chris Gardner--how did you transition into comedy?
I was always interested in entrepreneurship--I didn't have a specific industry in mind. I developed relationships with local comedians and then I went to California to the Improv and saw these "black nights" they'd have. I met Steve Harvey and a few others and when I would ask them when they were coming to Chicago, they replied, "We don't play in Chicago because we can't get booked there. No club in the city will book us."

That had to surprise you, no?
I thought that was odd so I asked myself, "What would it take to open a club?" I did some research, because it didn't make sense to me that there was a million black people in a city and not one club that targeted this particular audience.

And that's how the idea came to fruition.
Yes. I met with Bernie Mac, who was like the godfather of comedy in the city then, and I asked him if he and the others would be interested and if they would support it. He agreed, and I had the support of both national acts and local comedians. We just did some shows. Things were very touch and go those first six months.

But things did in fact work out for you.
It worked out perfectly. It took us those six months to figure out there was a business, but we needed to know if we'd have both the money and the stamina to see it through. It was then that we booked Steve Harvey, which was the turning point for everything. Things took off from there; in fact, we were going to close a week before. We told ourselves that if the Steve Harvey thing didn't go well, that would be the end of this story.

The club was launched in Chicago's South Loop district--how did you settle on the location?
My partner James Alexander and I weren't from Chicago--we just opened in the South Loop because that's where we lived! We had no comprehension of the "South Side" or the "North Side." But I was later told that I was in the best location I could have been because it was attractive to both West siders and South siders.

All Jokes Aside enjoyed its success alongside HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," BET's "Comic View" and others. Talk about that impact.
I think we all complemented each other. All Jokes Aside served as a training ground for a lot of those guys to get experience and develop chops to take them to that next level; i.e., concerts, movies, sitcoms, etc.

The collaborative relationship with those networks must have been beneficial to the club's success, then.
Yes. And we worked in conjunction with them and I became a consultant to them. I fell in love with stand-up and didn't want to see it performed outside a club. I never understood why anyone wanted to see comedy at like, the Chicago Theater.

It looks like you loved the intimacy the "club setting" provides.
I was a purist back then.

Did things ever change with those collaborative relationships?
We all worked closely because technically, we weren't competing with each other, but what ended up happening is that the concerts and TV had a negative impact on my business, ultimately.

How so?
Well, as time moved on, people became, in their minds anyway, aficionados of stand-up. In the early days, they trusted we knew what we were doing and they just showed up. As time went on, they wanted to know, "Well, has this person been on 'Def Comedy Jam'?"

I know what you mean. I have friends who absolutely refuse to see a comedian if he or she isn't "famous."
Just because you've seen comedians on "Def Comedy Jam" doesn't mean they're funny.

So amid all this, All Jokes Aside is up and running; it has an upscale crowd, things are going well, and then all of a sudden, it was gone. What happened?
There were three defining factors: One, the area was gentrifying, two, the concerts changed the overall dynamics and three, all the other comedy clubs had closed--there was only one other club besides All Jokes Aside, and that was Zanies. That made me re-think this business, which is when I attempted to move north in Chicago.

So the plan to move to the city's North Side was when you realized you needed to make some changes?
I knew I had to change something in order to survive--something that would allow me to fill those seats. I knew I couldn't fill them with just a black audience. I decided to have a great comedy club--period. I went off our goal from the very beginning which was to be the best comedy club in the country. The market had changed, so I decided to go after everything.

You had this vision to expand things with a move to the North Side; however, knowing Chicago as you did, was there any pessimism there?
Being a black man, that has to be an issue I have to take into consideration, no matter what I'm doing. I took that and my impeccable track record into consideration and thought things would be okay. I didn't know the intensity of moving. It was stronger than I had anticipated.

When you told business partners and associates about this intended move, what did they say?
I went at this solo. I had a group of investors who trusted I knew what I was doing. Even in the South Loop though, I had to consider that it was a predominately black business with predominately black people both patronizing and performing in it. I went out of my way to insure everything we did was impeccable because I knew the spotlight was going to be on us. But I just didn't know--or I underestimated--the resistance we'd get from business owners, which I found absurd. That took me aback, but I wasn't necessarily surprised.

During the club's heyday, with predominately black performers, was there ever any pressure to assimilate?
No, not for me. I booked the most talented people available. I had folks ask me, "Why don't you have more white comedians?" We booked comedians of all races, but it was a matter of the audience--that dictated who would be on stage.

When All Jokes Aside closed, it was visibly tough for black comics in the city; in fact, when we interviewed Damon Williams, he talked about how he and other Chicago comedians did their best to keep the circuit alive. Were you aware of any of this?
I had a comic tell me, "When you closed, I didn't know what I was going to do." That's unfortunate and sad, but for me, as an entrepreneur, I'd like to think I didn't underestimate that, because I really thought a move to the North Side was going to happen and that there would still always be a place for them.

Were you disappointed with how things turned out?
Yes, because it was really something I thought could be special. I also underestimated the fact that certain people heard about the club [who might have wanted to visit], but didn't travel beyond Congress Pkwy. I had heard that about 22nd Street, but Congress? That was unbelievable.

When the end of All Jokes Aside was inevitable, did any of the big "Chicago names" [Bernie Mac, Adele Givens, et al] reach out to you?
I didn't really talk to them because at and that point, those guys were pretty much gone doing concerts, on the road, and so forth. The focus had turned to what comics were coming up next.

The comedy scene is still seemingly segregated here.
Well, it was in the Chicago Tribune that Chicago still is the most segregated big city in America--to this day--so... There you go.

10_Raymond Lambert_John Davies.jpg Raymond Lambert and Director John Davies

Let's get back to Phunny Business: A Black Comedy. What was the comedian selection process like for the film?
It was hard. I watched thousands of hours of tape. I certainly had more talent than I could use for the film. During the process, I figured out that I worked with over 250 comics and about 75 who are really like, headliners. There are 28 in this movie.

In the film, do the comedians touch on how they no longer had Chicago as an option as a major city to perform in?
The beauty of Phunny Business is that Chicago is actually a character in the film! They do talk about what it was like to live and do business here and perform stand-up here; they even talked about the weather, and just the entire gamut of what made Chicago so special to them. Cedric [the Entertainer] said something like, "When you got booked at All Jokes Aside, you knew you were at the top."

A lot of comedians who got their start at All Jokes Aside are pretty much all now enjoying enormous success--two Academy Award winners, among others. I'm sure you're very proud of that.
I'm blown away. It's amazing to me all those folks that came through that club that I had the opportunity to work with very early in their career.

How would you describe the state of comedy today?
I dropped out the scene after all this--it took me about 4 years to be able to walk in a club again. I'll always enjoy stand-up comedy and I think there's talent out there, I just don't know where the outlets are for them. I also know that during times like these, people want to laugh and escape.

Well, I can definitely tell you that a lot of people really miss All Jokes Aside, so it's wonderful to have this documentary as nostalgia.
It was a certain time--it was the right time--and the right place. And despite having all these difficulties [in Chicago], I don't think All Jokes Aside could've happened in another place.

Phunny Business: A Black Comedy, will premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Saturday and Sunday, February 5 and 6.

Raymond Lambert photo courtesy of Todd Winters.

LIGHT SKINNED BROTHER / February 5, 2011 4:28 PM

Damn, Mrs. Williams! Another great interview. You seem to always ask questions no one else ask's and you always bring out the best of your interviewees. Great post!

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