Monday is the slowest night of the week for clubs, but on a recent Monday more than 800 people packed the House of Blues. They came out for the Damon Williams Comedy Jam, a monthly competition that brings together black performers from across the country. The Chicago area's last two Afrocentric comedy clubs--All Jokes Aside on South Wabash and the TNT Comedy Hook in Lansing--closed recently, but Williams thinks he's onto something big with the jam. "The beauty of this concept is that we're not dependent on big names, because we have grassroots underground support," says Williams. "As long as we keep bringing quality shows, the word-of-mouth success will follow."
It's an uphill battle for comedians of any color, with clubs closing left and right. The Comedy Hook closed in August, after a fire, and All Jokes Aside shut its doors this summer when promoter Raymond Lambert's seven-year lease expired and the Chicago Housing Authority exercised an option to expand its adjoining office space. But Williams and his partner Reggie Banks have built on the success of their first three jams with a canny mix of street flyers and radio appearances, and their ability to draw a large crowd willing to pay a $15 cover proves there's still an audience for black stand-up. Williams thinks the competitive format is a big drawing card, promising verbal face-offs between the more mainstream comics on Black Entertainment Television and the blue comics who appear on HBO's Def Comedy Jam. "It's interesting to have both styles in one forum," says Williams, "because there's traditionally been a dividing line in comedy between people who were 'TV clean' and those who choose to work with more graphic language. Even though TV's language restrictions have eased over the last five years, here the audience can really decide which style they enjoy more and who brings more ideas to the stage."
One performer who's seldom short of ideas is Shay Shay, a 30-year-old comic who recently won the Chicago open-call audition to appear at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen next March. Shay's observations are generally even more shocking than his language, but despite the edginess of his act he's managed to cross over to the Zanies audience. "I don't understand white people's fascination with cults," Shay confesses in one bit. "Every three or four years, they get together and kill themselves....If Farrakhan ever mentioned the word suicide, you'd see bow ties dropping like panties on prom night."
For a talent like Shay, seeing the last two black clubs close down was especially difficult. "Now we're down to one real full-time comedy club in the city, and that's Zanies," he says. "So these shows are absolutely key to keeping yourself fresh and in front of black as well as white audiences." Lambert, who opened All Jokes Aside during the waning years of the stand-up comedy boom, thinks the club scene is emerging from its recession. This year the "Kings of Comedy" show, featuring Tommy Davidson of In Living Color, sold out the United Center. Inspired by its success, Lambert staged a successful show last month at the New Regal Theater, and he's negotiating for future shows at Park West and the Chicago Theatre. "The whole point of running All Jokes was to give exposure to new talent," he says, "and that's a mission that should be continued. I think stand-up is here to stay, period. But the customers have seen so much comedy on television that they've become experts. You really have to show them something special for them to make a trip to a show."
The next Damon Williams Comedy Jam is at 9 PM Monday at House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; for information call 312-527-2583 or 312-923-2000. --Carl Kozlowski
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Shay Shay, Raymond Lambert, Damon Williams photo by Nathan Mandell.