Think back, if you can, to the period in pop-culture history before such comics as Bernie Mac, Dave Chappelle and Cedric the Entertainer were household names. What's the link between then and now?
“Def Comedy Jam.”
Remember that show? The brigade of stand-up comics, airing late on HBO, hip-hop music blaring between acts — the unapologetically coarse urban comedy? Indeed, how could anyone who saw it forget?
Stewarded by Russell Simmons, the show debuted in 1992 and instantly became a phenomenon. Harnessing the raw, anything-goes energy of a still-burgeoning hip-hop culture and broadcasting it on television, “Def Comedy Jam” gave a platform to dozens of young black and brown comedians whose observations, ranging from witty and ironic to deliriously raunchy, otherwise might not have found an outlet in the mainstream.
The show was hugely influential; you'd have a difficult time naming three comedic black actors working today from the A-list (Jamie Foxx, Mo'Nique) even down to the still-sort-of-underground (Sheryl Underwood, J. Anthony Brown) who aren't alumni of the show. As a launch pad for careers, “Def Comedy Jam” was something like the black “Saturday Night Live.”
Of course, all that ended more than a decade ago. And though the “Jam” formula has been replicated — not always with success — nothing has quite had the same oomph.
But all that could change with one of the show's original producers, Bob Sumner, painstakingly re-creating the format with the new show, “Russell Simmons Presents: Stand-Up at the El Ray.”
Two key differences are that the show, which premiered on Comedy Central in July, is free of graphic jokes about copulating (Damn network!), and it no longer exclusively features people of color (Welcome, white folks!). What's more, comedians who've appeared on the show will appear in comedy clubs around the country as part of a group called Laff Mobb; once a month, Laff Mobb lands in Richmond and in Virginia Beach.
“I'll go anywhere,” says Sumner, the architect of careers of comedians such as Chris Tucker, Mo'Nique and Bill Bellamy. Sumner scours the country — doing as many as 20 cities in a month — for Laff Mobb talent. “If I introduced the world in the '90s to the Jordans [of comedy],” he says, “now it's about the LeBrons.”
Richmond and Virginia Beach are two in just a handful of cities — all of them bigger markets including New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Philly — that for now get a chance to see the Laff Mobb comedians live. The show, which will feature two headliners from the Comedy Central program, is at the Funny Bone, usually on the third Tuesday of every month. Turae Gordon and Damon Rozier headline the next installment Aug. 24.
Laff Mobb also gives local comedians an opportunity to perform at the premier — if corporate — comedy venue. Richmond has a small but vibrant stand-up scene that includes shows at places such as Gibson's Grill, beside the National, and the Ethiopian restaurant Sheba in Shockoe Bottom. But the Funny Bone is devoted entirely to comedy acts, and it's there that performers have an opportunity to work in front of Sumner, who always announces his presence in the audience.
“That increases awareness for the club,” he says. “I'm into developing stars. I'm like a big brother or uncle to all of them. If they need advice or someone to talk to I'm here to talk.” Conversely, he says: “Sometimes it's not their time. It's one thing to be a comic — it's another to be a comedian.”
Alex Scott, a local comedian who's appeared on a number of national shows including “Def Comedy Jam” and “Comic View,” says Laff Mobb can be a boon to locals. “I grew up in Culpeper, Virginia,” says Scott, who returned to the area in 2006 after working in larger markets. He now performs regularly at the Funny Bone and serves as host of Laff Mobb night. “I got to ‘Def Comedy Jam' through this man,” he says of Sumner. “So if you're a local growing up in Walmsley Court or Jackson Ward, this one show could change their life. You're one show away from that. Now someone else can have that same opportunity.”
Since working with Sumner, he says, he's been getting help writing scripts and has been talking with power players about working on sitcoms. But the Laff Mobb series is good for patrons too, he says, because of the chance to see local talents on the rise. “Come see them now,” he says, “before you have to pay $30 or $40 to see them.” S
Turae Gordon and Damon Rozier will appear at the next Laff Mobb night, Aug. 24, at the Funny Bone, 11800 W. Broad St. at 8 p.m. For information go to richmondfunnybone.com.