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.

In keeping with its storied history, St. Louis remains a vital comedy center today, the breeding ground of talents such as standup comic Lavelle Crawford, actors Joe and Guy Torry and, of course, the big guy who dances with Grimace.

The scene-stealing star of Barbershopand The Steve Harvey Show, Cedric the Entertainer became a household name after co-headlining the "Kings of Comedy" tour, the highest grossing comedy tour ever and the subject of a concert film made by Spike Lee in 2000. Locals might remember Cedric from his playing days at the Funny Bone and as host of the Gong Show at the Wiz (now known as the Diamond Cabaret).

"Cedric really put us on the map," says local promoter J.P. Phillips, who adds that he considers St. Louis "one of the comedy meccas." Phillips runs a black-centric events-listings Web site, www.holleratus.com, which lists local black comedy events for nearly every night of the week. "Blacks really come out to support their own," he adds.

"I want to be able to help people, like Dick Gregory did. I want to be able to open doors for other comedians, to make a difference." --Arvin Mitchell
Jennifer Silverberg
"I want to be able to help people, like Dick Gregory did. I want to be able to open doors for other comedians, to make a difference." --Arvin Mitchell
The roots of St. Louis' funny-black-men family tree can be traced back further than Cedric the Entertainer, to Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory (pictured).
Jennifer Silverberg
The roots of St. Louis' funny-black-men family tree can be traced back further than Cedric the Entertainer, to Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory (pictured).

But too many black comedians, Mitchell says, are unwilling to cross over to a white audience.

"I think some black comics don't care to do white rooms because they love black people so much. They're like, 'These are the people I'm around all the time, this is who I want to make laugh.' To me, that's where you have to differentiate between who you love and who you want to entertain."

Mitchell wants to entertain everybody.

"I don't just wanna do 'my dick so big,' 'the police beat the shit outta me,' 'I smoke this joint' jokes," he says. "Don't get me wrong, though," he says, smiling mischievously. "I got some weed jokes myself."


"I smoked weed for the first time last week," yuks a comedian who calls himself The Rookie. It's a Wednesday night and 400 folks have gathered at The Spot on North Broadway. The Rookie drags the microphone cord behind him as he paces. "But then yesterday I quit." He pauses for comic effect. "I ran out of money."

A drummer somewhere silently ba-dum-chings.

The audience boos, but that doesn't stop the aptly named comedian from launching into his next gag. Pulling a cell phone out of his pocket, he pretends to talk to the Hollywood producer of the movie Training Day. The gist of the joke is hard to determine. The booing gets louder, though The Rookie is oblivious.

"Hello?" he says into the phone, plowing on. "Yo, you stole my idea." The crowd's distaste spins into a hailstorm.

"BOOOOOOO!!!"

The Rookie, by now drowned out, slowly turns to face the crowd. A small "Heh?" escapes from his lips, a meek half-question that seems to ask, "Is that for me?"

Quickly escorted off the stage by the club's 300-pound bouncer, The Rookie looks indignant. Meanwhile, unruly crowd members are getting up out of their seats and yelling at the now-empty stage. Perhaps they've taken too much advantage of the club's three-dollar Hypnotiq special or not gotten the joint that's been making the rounds in back.

Jessie Taylor, the evening's MC, quickly comes onstage to ply some damage control. The six-foot-four comedian has his hair in short twists and a "JT" medallion around his neck. He looks down at his mother, Shirley, who's sitting at a front table, and smiles. He's seen this situation many times before and quickly brings the crowd back by directly addressing their complaints.

"He knew it was boos, but black people, we be in denial," he says, imitating the comedian's slow gait across the stage and asking the crowd to boo him. "Booo!" they holler, still upset. He turns to face them, mock-surprised.

"Heh?"

This imitation -- conceived on the spot and repeated for the rest of the night -- is a metaphor for being shown a truth you're not ready to receive. "It's like when you're fucking someone and she tells you you're no good," Taylor explains, looking into an imaginary unsatisfied lover's eyes. "Heh?"

A low level of non-hostile laughter indicates that the crowd's mood is beginning to shift. "You know," he goes on, "when people talk about sex they always say that brothers have a big dick. Not everybody's got a big dick! Make some noise, brothers with a little dick!"

Silence, and then laughter.

"Heh?"

Jessie Taylor is in his element, like a street-ball basketball player who knows how to navigate every crack in the local blacktop. Tonight is his tenth consecutive Wednesday hosting The Spot, an eternity in comedy years, seeing as how the crowd expects new material each time out. Coming to the stage each week with barely any prepared material, Taylor riffs on audience members ("I could've been your daddy but the dog beat me over the fence"), on current events or, if the situation arises, on the incredibly awful comics that precede him.

"Black people will boo you quicker than white people, because they came out for service," he explains later. "They paid money so you would make them laugh. They'll boo the shit out of you if they think you're wasting their time."

Taylor's stage presence is really nothing more than a slightly focused version of his everyday personality. Watching music videos on BET at his home in an unincorporated area near Florissant, he jokes about the neighborhood where he lives with his nine-year-old son, Jessie Jr.

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