When Raymond Lambert's friends were complaining a few years ago that they couldn't find work, his natural response was to try to help them out. Lambert, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, had came to Chicago in 1989 to work in banking. Through a friend he became involved in a volunteer program speaking to schoolchildren about his career, where he met people of all different callings--including comedians.
His fellow volunteers introduced him to other stand-ups, and friendships developed. But Lambert's new acquaintances told him the clubs in town didn't regularly book the kinds of acts they were doing. "I honestly think that a lot of minority comedians are just totally overlooked," Lambert says. He recognized their talent--one of them, Steve Harvey, now has his own prime-time series, Me and the Boys, premiering this fall on ABC--and became convinced there was an untapped market in Chicago for black-centered humor.
"I frequented comedy clubs, and I knew what I liked to see. . . . I knew what kind of act would be cool, what would be hip." He wanted to showcase performers who were "primarily black, Hispanic. What I'd call comedians on the edge, who might do some stuff that's a little more risque, maybe, than what one of the major clubs might want to do," he says. "You see comedy going in that direction. That's what's new and exciting."
In August 1991 Lambert and partners James Alexander and Mary Lindsey started All Jokes Aside at a temporary space in the South Loop, offering shows on weekends. It was a hit almost immediately, and they soon moved to a permanent space down the street, at 1000 S. Wabash, with 299 seats and a backdrop painted to suggest an el platform.
And Lambert's circle of friends keeps widening. While the popularity of stand-up seems to be cooling down--a lot of clubs have closed or cut back hours--All Jokes Aside has retained its heat. Lambert and his partners have often been lauded for their community-minded efforts, with special attention paid to kids: the club has put on several interactive shows for kids and held a Christmas party for homeless children and their families in 1992.
All Jokes Aside celebrates its third anniversary this month with a five-night comedy festival that presents an ambitious roster of 20 performers, including LA's Carlos Mencia, who currently hosts Loco Slam on HBO, and Shirley Hemphill, who some may remember from TV's What's Happenin'? The first night will feature primarily local talent: Eliz Wright, Mr. Dos, and All Jokes Aside regular George Willborn. Next year Lambert plans to expand the festival, offering workshops on stand-up, improv, comedy writing for TV, and other topics.
Lambert says it was hard to narrow the list down, even to 20 names. And in spite of the difficulties of organizing a show this size in a nightclub, Lambert says he was "very adamant" that it not be moved to a larger venue. "I hate seeing stand-up in the Regal Theatre, the Chicago Theatre, with 5,000 seats. I just don't think that's where it can be best enjoyed, or where the comedians can be intimate. I think that's what really makes stand-up great."
The All Jokes Aside Comedy Festival runs Wednesday through next Sunday, August 7. Show times are Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 and 9, and Friday and Saturday at 7:30, 10, and midnight. Tickets are $14-$16, and there's a two-drink minimum. For reservations call 922-0577.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.