In the early ’90s I hustled my way through New York’s cutthroat black stand-up scene — and learned the hard way that corny jokes were no laughing matter.
The standing-room-only joint was nicknamed “The ’Mint,” short for The Peppermint Lounge. But there’s nothing minty about it. From the stage, comedians speak to a cumulous cloud of blunt smoke hovering over the back of the room while gold fronts glint and interrupting pagers beep digits of customers coveting cocaine. The décor is a cross between abandoned dining hall and the place you’d bet a fake Rolex on a three-legged pit bull to beat up a one-eyed rooster with a shank duct-taped to its foot. Scuffed Timberlands run heel-to-toe, with more gator skins per square foot than any swamp in Florida. But in the place of everglades is the hard-angled architecture and brick-and-mortar buildings of East Orange, New Jersey.
At this point in the evening there isn’t so much a comedy set going on as a sensory assault on the audience; it’s a performance wilding. Onstage, a skinny black man wearing a vest with no shirt underneath asks why women insist that men “take the express train to go downtown on them,” and, once there, the train immediately has to “switch to a local track and make every stop.” But then when it’s the guy’s turn, “she pulls the emergency brake, and the whole subway goes out of order.”
When the crowd responds the room shakes. What sets this performer apart is not the hilarity of his jokes though — you can barely hear them with the Naughty By Nature track thundering through the colossal speakers. What is getting attention are the six strippers he’s brought with him onstage, gyrating, touching, tongue-kissing, and giving everyone close-up tutorials of the places where babies come from. If this were taking place in front of a Lower East Side crowd of New Yorkers, or maybe at some underground absinthe bar in Berlin, such an act might be lauded as performance art. But this is the Def Comedy Jam auditions of 1990.
A hot set on this uncensored show could jumpstart a black stand-up comedian’s career. It was no secret that the show bookers for Leno and Letterman weren’t giving much love to African-American comics back then, as if letting young brothers through the door would be like bringing Bébé’s kids to the Met.
“In Living Color” and Arsenio proved there was an audience for such a brand of comedy, so now there was Def Comedy Jam on HBO, making stars out of folks who at best had a late-night B.E.T. credit while still working a day gig at the D.M.V. It was all or nothing for guys with nothing at all.
The vest-clad comic cracks another one-liner, then points to a stripper who has each butt cheek decorated with a tattoo of a palm tree. She walks to the front of the stage while her cohorts fall back into a pulchritudinous phalanx. The palm tree leaves shake slightly with each step as if being coaxed by a mysterious in-house tropical breeze. Once up front she suddenly produces an orange, plastic lighter — though nowhere on her person is there anything that could be defined as a typical pocket.
She holds it high for all to see.
The crowd grows quiet.
Then, she sets her pubic hair on fire.
It blazes for only about three seconds before she pats it out, but that brief moment garners the loudest, most enthusiastic reaction I have ever witnessed from a crowd. They award her with a mass-jumping, standing ovation, as if everyone is on a giant trampoline.
The comic dramatically drops the mike, and exits the stage with his harem marching behind him in tight formation.
A guy in front of me swathed in head-to-toe Carhartt, his neck wrapped in a gold chain thick enough to tow a small boat with, leans over to a security guard and says, “Damn, WHO gonna follow THAT?!”
The security guard looks at the lineup of acts posted on the wall. He smiles and replies, “Psssssss… They got some white boy,” and then shakes his head.
The guy with the gold chain snorts, “A white boy?! I gotta see this.”
I would like to see such a reaction from the audience as well, but I can’t because I’m making my way through the dense crowd to the stage.
That white boy is me.
* * *
To the average person, being a stand-up comedian might seem like an unusual way to make a living. But being a white comedian who, for many years, performed for all-black audiences is a subcategory that most people probably don’t even know exists.
Todd Lynn, a controversial black comic infamous for wielding his opinion like a blunt instrument, once said to me, “You’re like the white dude in that movie ‘8 Mile,’ but with jokes.”
I’d moved from Washington, D.C., to New York City to be a comedian, leaving behind a day job, a night job, and an ex-wife who wanted babies when the only babies I could love were the new bits I wrote on scraps of paper all day.
I’d landed in a Bronx apartment on top of a Jamaican patty shop that doubled as the local weed spot. The owner, Trevor, who looked like the reggae singer Shabba Ranks, frequently sang along to country music he played in the background.
I always gravitated toward characters like him: people who seemed to have one foot in another world.
One of my first comedic impressions was of a guy named Keith, who, in spite of being white, reminded everyone of George Jefferson because of his walk. It was as if he was always scooping an imaginary substance from out in front of himself and putting it behind him. Keith was the janitor at my elementary school back home, and he pronounced his name “Keef.”
He perpetually had a plastic hair pick with a black handle in the shape of a fist jutting out of his back pocket. Keef crooned the Chuck Brown lyrics “I feel like bustin’ loose” to the black female teachers who made up the bulk of the school’s staff.
Every Halloween between third and sixth grade, while other kids were Spiderman, ghosts and pirates, I dressed as Keef, hair pick and all.
The fact that my stand-up act in 1990 was comprised of characters inspired by people like Keef was probably a contributing factor to the difficulty I had breaking into mainstream comedy clubs. That, as well as having no TV credits, no representation, and not knowing one soul who could act as a reference, led to my being able to perform only occasionally at dive bar open mikes for three drunks at four a.m.
On the rare occasions I was able to wangle a club audition through a lottery — after waiting in line for hours — the feedback was blisteringly harsh.
Lucien, at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side, told me he already had enough “real Spaniards” working at the club, and didn’t “need a white guy who looked like one.”
Louis, the show booker at Catch a Rising Star in Chelsea, looked at me sadly after my audition set there and rasped, “Not really sure what I just saw up there, kid, but it’s not for Catch.”
I had to bribe the doorman, Neal, with a carton of cigarettes and ten bucks like we were in a penitentiary to get on stage at a West Village club called The Boston. Then, he waited until one a.m. to put me on, just as the last two audience members paid their checks. Neal smoked one of the butts I gave him while he watched me by himself.
Compared to Louis from Catch, he was more to the point, though. “That sucked” was the extent of his review.
About six months into my time as a stand-up, wondering if I’d made a huge mistake, I bumped into a comedian friend from my hometown, Tony Woods, who told me about the Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem, run by Momma Brown and her two sons, Kevin and Andre.
“You probably be the only white guy there, though,” he said.
I grew up in the heart of 1970s D.C., a town affectionately known among locals as “Chocolate City.” I was a beige-complexioned, liver-lipped white kid with an ass like a Buick busting out of my thrift shop, high water corduroys. One of my first jokes was about surviving D.C. public schools, “the only school system with White History Month.”
Because of my complexion, people in the neighborhood would say, “He look like he mixed with something.” When I asked my mother what that meant, she just gave me a tan piece of candy and told me I was the “butterscotch,” and that butterscotch “tasted best when mixed with chocolate.”
The following Sunday after chatting with Tony Woods, Butterscotch hopped the A train to Harlem.
* * *
At that time, The Uptown was a factory of untapped talent, a semi-circle of bleachers around a pit with a big stage in the middle. It was utilitarian, raw, and always packed.
I showed up Sunday night — “New Jack Night,” where the audience applauded those they liked and booed whomever they didn’t. The venerable Momma Brown, owner, talent scout, treasurer, advisor, and sometime-bouncer, sat behind a podium at the door and collected tickets. After I introduced myself she turned to the host, Uncle Jimmy Mack, and said, “Put him on. I’ll see what he got.”
The rules of this unwritten test were that if I made it through three minutes without getting booed by an audience who loved to boo, I’d pass. When the time came for me to take the stage, Uncle Jimmy Mack looked at me and said, “Just don’t be corny.” At the Uptown, corniness was the real c-word, the kiss of death.
My opening bit about how black people and white people pose for photos differently bombed, and a chorus of “mmmm-mmmmm-mmmms” buzzed around the room like impatient bees.
I thought about going home to my tiny apartment, defeated, leaving a trail of corniness in my wake. Instead, I shifted gears away from what I’d prepared, Rupert Pupkin-like in the mirror throughout the week. I desperately dug deep in the crates and came up with my childhood Keef impression, where I re-enacted some of Keef’s daily lines to a female audience member in his voice.
“Yo boo, can I hollah at you a minute? Don’t be scurred. I’m white but not white-white. I can dance, I can dunk, I don’t call strangers ‘Buddy,’ wear shorts in October, think Elvis is still alive, or have a tiny little ding dong.”
“Keef” killed, and allowed me to ease back into what I had prepared, which ended up getting me laughs — a sound that had eluded me for some time.
When I got off stage, Uncle Jimmy Mack looked me up and down and said, “Ms. Brown says come back next week. You passed.”
I was at the Uptown every weekend after that for the next three years.
* * *
It was an amazing time to be in comedy. I was surrounded by talented young comedians who performed only on this circuit, with no two styles alike. There was Freddie Ricks doing his Ghetto Shakespeare bit, The Toothless Lover using the mike stand as a hair-weave detector, Ruperto Van Der Poole’s Dominican Popeye character complete with a corncob pipe, Mike Epps’ old dudes talking smack on the corner, and Faceman’s signature anti-comedy “Tragedy” bits. Tasha Smith talked about beating her white boyfriend like a slave (as he requested); Macio’s whole act was done in a faux Caribbean accent; Capital J demonstrated how Puerto Ricans will breakdance anywhere; and Mike Britt’s song parodies were better than the originals. The list of incredible performers was seemingly endless, but it was all topped off by an up-and-comer named Tracy Morgan.
The Uptown became my boot camp where I beefed up my craft. I learned subtle cultural nuances, too. For example, the casual phrase “you people,” with which comedians commonly addressed audiences in mainstream rooms, took on a whole different meaning at The Uptown.
It was there, months after my initial tryout, in the back of the club over a shared forty-ounce beer, that I got “made” by none other than Uncle Jimmy Mack himself. Like a capo de tutti capi, Jimmy granted stage names for comics like Brooklyn Mike and JP Justice. To be named by him was a badge of honor. If your act sucked, you could just go right on being whatever your parents called you, but if he thought you had the right stuff, then there’d be a malt-liquor christening. He dubbed me “D.C. Benny” because I “was Benny from D.C.” and no one could say my last name right: Wartofsky. Although Jimmy recently passed away — he was with Tracy Morgan when a truck collided with Morgan’s limo, causing a multi-vehicle pileup in 2014 — those of us who got our names from him will forever have that little piece of the Uncle with us.
* * *
Besides the Uptown, there were “the spots,” indie rooms in various neighborhoods where a number of comics organized shows each night of the week. Unlike the city’s high-profile, low-pay “showcase clubs,” where a comic might get between $50 and $75 for a sold-out weekend show, the spots offered plentiful stage time, and they paid better.
There was the Sugar Shack in the Bronx on Thursdays, Nell’s Downtown on Sundays, and Indigo Blue in Times Square on Wednesdays. These were the sweet spots in contrast to the so-called “hood rooms”: Sheila’s on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, The Manhattan Proper in Queens, and Nagasaki’s on Long Island. All of those rooms were a gauntlet for comics, each the setting of a more Herculean trial than the last. If a comic did well at one of them, the word got out. They got booked at the next one, and then at the next, and soon they were working New York’s “Chitlin Circuit,” as the black comedy scene was sometimes called by comics and club bookers in the area.
The Chitlin Circuit had its own rules. Joke-stealing was frowned upon, but “snaps” — insults — and crowd work were public domain to be passed around like a joint until burnt to a roach. Comics were to never step foot onstage in a pair of torn-up shoes; your act could be dirty as a used Pamper, but your appearance had better be clean. If a show’s start time was nine p.m., think ten-thirty or later if there was an after-party, which was sometimes the only event the audience really came for.
It was not unusual for relatively unknown comedians to have huge entourages, with each member having a designated job like “car parker,” “groupie phone-number procurer,” or “Heineken holder.” As for the acts themselves, the “white guy voice” was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, as was the church deacon end-of-every-sentence laugh, “hah.” And on any given show, the stage’s stool was humped so much it needed birth control.
The golden rule, though, was: ALWAYS. GET. YOUR. MONEY. If it was time to get paid and the promoter came over to the performer saying, “We had a situation with the budget,” the comic was being tested like new meat at Rikers Island, and had better be ready to scrap or inevitably be labeled a “punk.”
I ploughed through all of these rooms working my way toward an audition for Def Comedy Jam, the show created by Russell Simmons, who named the program after his Def Jam record label. When I finally did get my shot at The ’Mint — following the stripper who closed with the almost-biblical burning bush — I walked onstage with a fire extinguisher pulled from the wall, blasted the smoky air, went into my act, and got my first-ever standing ovation.
The booker for Def Comedy Jam came up to me afterward and said, “You might be the one. We gotta talk,” and I knew what he meant.
The first white guy on Def Comedy Jam would represent a little piece of history. There was an unspoken no-white-comic policy on the show, believed by many in the industry to be some sort of racial payback for the lack of black faces in mainstream comedy. The taping was coming up and the industry players had eyes and checkbooks ready to cash in on all the fresh young talent.
I campaigned hard to get that spot, maybe too hard, cornering Russell Simmons in the bathroom at Nell’s one night, handing him my business card. Under my name it read: “Finally a cracker with flavor.”
I was getting close. Tracy Morgan, fresh off his own appearance on the show, stopped me to say, “Streets is talkin’ man. D.C. Benny about to do Def Jam.”
About a week before the anticipated taping I got what I thought would be “the call.” But it wasn’t happening. Def Comedy Jam wasn’t going to “dilute the product” with a white performer just yet, someone associated with the show on the other end of the line told me.
I was crushed. I felt like a kid who was left back a grade in school and watched all the other students in his class move on. Comics who saw me at The ’Mint that night came up to me, shaking their heads, saying, “Damn, after that set, I thought you had it locked.”
But I picked myself up and hit the underground scene, getting gigs at alternative rooms: Lower East Side staples like Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious — places where performance art slipped off-Broadway theatre a roofy and got it pregnant with alt comedy. I performed in front of any audience I could. I did comedy in laundromats, on the subway, in pizza joints, even Washington Square Park, where the “house M.C.” William Stevenson schooled me on how to create a crowd of pedestrians from scratch.
Then, one Sunday in the spring of 1996, I got a phone call from another person who was at The ’Mint that infamous night: the booker from NBC’s “Showtime at The Apollo.”
“Could you come down for an alternate spot on tonight’s taping in case a scheduled act doesn’t show?”
I was back on the A train to Harlem.
As it turned out, the crowd that night at the Apollo was in a very bad mood, booing everyone off the stage: singers, dancers, talented children, the show’s producer, and even the usually beloved host, Steve Harvey. While Steve battled the crowd, the producer turned to me backstage at one point and said, “You’re on next. We need five minutes to finish this taping. Do whatever you have to do.”
Harvey went back out and gave a rousing speech about how there were no opportunities for black performers in this business, and asked how black people could treat one another so disrespectfully.
Then he introduced me.
By now this scenario was like déjà vu. I was a boxer who’d been training every waking hour for a title shot and finally got it on a fluke.
The first word out of my mouth after Harvey’s speech was what everyone was thinking: “Surprise!”
It killed and I went on to have a great set.
I closed with my impression of Trevor from the Jamaican patty shop, doing my best Shabba-Ranks-singing-country-music impression, and the whole room shouted, “Whoomp, there it is.”
That Apollo set got me an agent, a manager, a college tour, a Comedy Central campaign, a shot at SNL, and a talent deal with NBC, all of which consequently broke me into the mainstream rooms where I began to work regularly. Finally, all the hard work was starting to pay off.
One of the author’s later sets at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City.
* * *
About five years ago I was sitting in an office at Columbia University with Todd Lynn, my old friend who had once called my life “8 Mile with jokes.” We were on a bill together in the school’s auditorium — Todd had finally begun dipping his toe in the waters of the mainstream comedy circuit. He was pacing the makeshift greenroom, his underarms soaked with sweat, mumbling to himself, “Man this crazy, I can’t do this, this is crazy!” He cracked open the adjacent door and peeked at the audience of older white men assembling in the space, and then resumed his pacing and mumbling. This situation was truly the yin to what had been my yang that night some twenty years prior at The ’Mint.
Todd had called me in a panic a couple of days before the Columbia gig. Somehow, he was booked to perform at a convention of scientists, and since I was one of the few white comedians he hung out with, he asked me if I would open for him. He figured I could be a cultural attaché, a Caucasian buffer.
As he paced, I tried to talk to him.
“What are you so scared of, man?”
“Have you looked in that room, man?!” Todd said. “Everyone looks like Wilford Brimley. They gonna hate me! They gonna give me that condescending smile, but on the inside they thinkin’, Just another n-”
The event’s host knocked on the door.
“We’re about ready to start,” he said.
Todd nodded and the host left to make the opening announcement.
“You’re gonna be fine,” I said. “There is only one thing to remember…”
“Don’t be corny.”
Todd walked onstage when his time came, grabbed the mike, cleared his throat, and said: “Big black dude with tattoos and braids, wearing a hoodie, up here. Two hundred old white dudes in wide-wale corduroys and Crocs, sitting down there. I’m lookin’ at you, and y’all lookin’ at me and we both thinkin’ the exact same question: ‘Is this some kind of experiment?’” The audience exploded in laughter. “I mean, I heard about mad scientists,” he continued, “but whoever put this show together got to be out they motherfuckin’ mind!”
It was one of the last times I saw Todd destroy a crowd before he died of complications from diabetes a couple years later. But I’ll always love that moment. It epitomizes what I think comedy really is: an experiment. It’s a foggy beaker where the unlike matters of a comedian and the audience combine to ponder the question “Who am I?” until the answer finally gets scrawled on the chalkboard: “You are what you laugh at.” And if the guy next to you is laughing, well, then, he is that thing too, which makes him the same as you, whether he’s wearing a wrinkled lab coat or a pair of scuffed Timberlands.