What Are You Laughing At?

Arvin Mitchell and Jessie Taylor must contend with a segregated St. Louis comedy scene on their road to the big time. Maybe they'll navigate the system. Or maybe they'll just have to blow it up.

Arvin Mitchell is onstage in front of 300 white people at a club called Déjà Vu in Columbia, Missouri. The black comic, clad in a natty black leather jacket and red undershirt, is trying, a bit too desperately, to make them laugh.

"I hate doing the same shows in the same city every night," Mitchell declares. "I had a girl come up to me the other night and ask me, 'How come every time I see you onstage you tellin' the same jokes?' and I said, 'Bitch, you go out too much.'"

The joke doesn't draw the laugh he'd been hoping for -- he's hurried the delivery -- though it does receive a piercing "Woooooo!" from an obviously drunk woman with blond bangs.

Jennifer Silverberg
"Black people will boo you quicker than white people, because they came out for service." --Jessie Taylor
Jennifer Silverberg
"Black people will boo you quicker than white people, because they came out for service." --Jessie Taylor

The St. Louis native muffs his next joke too, saying "Schnucks" when he meant to say "Wal-Mart." The joke after that gets only a modest chuckle from the crowd. He's burying his normally crisp punch lines, as if he's got his material too well memorized.

Part of the problem is a case of nerves. Unbeknownst to the crowd, Mitchell's routine is doubling as an audition for Montreal's prestigious Just for Laughs Festival, where stars such as Jerry Seinfeld and Jeff Foxworthy got their starts.

Mitchell's saving grace, ironically, comes from the drunken blonde.

"I'm glad all the holidays are over with and stuff, man--" he starts out.

"Me too!!!" she yells.

"Praise the Lord, that's what I'm talking about," he says, looking over at her. His shoulders relax. "I'm afraid to be around white people when y'all get drunk, man. Y'all get to knockin' stuff over." Mitchell breaks into falsetto. "'Hey, sit down, Becky! The Rams won!'" He staggers toward the microphone stand, knocking it over, then smiles, looks back toward the blonde and belches.

The crowd roars. Mitchell's gentle racial rant has gone over much better than any of his safer, prepared material. Although he won't find out until May whether he'll be invited to the Montreal festival, he leaves the stage on a high.

"I could have gone off on that woman all night," he says afterward, flashing his bright, toothy grin. "Sometimes drunks in the audience are the best thing that can happen to you."

But you need a lot more than a few well-placed drunks in the crowd to make it big as a black comic these days. Just ask Mitchell or Jessie Taylor. These two are, by most accounts, St. Louis' two great comic prospects. They're both highly talented, good-looking and ambitious.

Both comedians want their own show, a Martin or a Bernie Mac that will pave the way to superstardom. But their comedic stylings are very different. Mitchell, age 28, relies heavily on impressions and prepared bits, while Taylor, who's 29, is almost always joking off the cuff. They manage their careers differently as well.

What the two have in common, everyone agrees, is the potential to hit it big in Hollywood.

"They're young, they have a lot of stage presence, and they're likable," says Dave Carlo, who has worked with both comedians as vice president of operations for the nationwide chain Funny Bone Entertainment. "They're the perfect comics that you can develop a TV show around."

But before Hollywood, Mitchell and Taylor must navigate the highly segregated St. Louis comedy scene. Although both men's bread and butter is performing for black crowds, the ultimate goal is to move from being "black comedians" to being simply "comedians." To cross over.

Rocky terrain, for sure, but nothing new for African-American funnymen. Indeed, Mitchell and Taylor are the most recent examples in a legacy that dates back to Dick Gregory, a St. Louis native who broke through nationally during the racially charged '60s.

In his memoir, Callus on My Soul, Gregory describes the night Hugh Hefner invited him to host a comedy show at his Playboy Club in Chicago. When Gregory got there, the doorman tried to convince him not to do the show; it seems the club was packed with white southerners in town for a frozen-foods convention. Broke and unknown at the time, Gregory paid him no heed.

"I just walked right past the [doorman] and into my future....I looked into that audience and I didn't see Southern Whites; I saw...my future. I went for it." The jokes he told were ones no white comedian could have gotten away with, and the crowd ate them up: "Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant. The white waitress came up to me and said, 'We don't serve colored people here.' I said, 'That's all right, I don't eat colored people, no way! Bring me a whole fried chicken.'"

St. Louis native Redd Foxx's brand of potty-mouthed social criticism brought him into millions of homes across the nation in the 1970s. Toning down his outrageous live act for television, his Sanford and Son was one of TV's first shows featuring a primarily black cast, paving the way for hits such as Good Times and The Jeffersons.

Gregory and Foxx opened doors for other black comedians with strong social messages, such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. That they came from St. Louis should be no surprise. Our city's segregation-by-choice may be a bane to guilty white liberals, but there's no denying that it produces fertile comedic ground. The city's racial tension becomes fodder for the rarely voiced observations that good comedy depends on. And in an increasingly politically correct culture, black comedians have an advantage. (Imagine Mitchell's joke about drunk white women with the races reversed, for example.)

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