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.

"My next-door neighbors are old, they're white, so when I moved in, this was like a rude awakening to them. I come in here with my low rider and they're like, 'What do you do?', and I'm like, 'I sell drugs,' and they're like, 'Oh, so how is it, how's business?', completely serious, and I'm like, 'It's hard, crack sales are really down.' And they just stared at me. They didn't know if I was serious or joking."

Taylor has been drawn to comedy's rebellious nature as long as he can remember. At twelve, he and his brother would sneak into their parents' room while they were at work and listen to their reel-to-reel Richard Pryor tapes. Pryor was Taylor's first comic idol, and his material was forbidden fruit. "We weren't allowed to curse back then," he recalls.

He followed his brother into work at the Funny Bone two years later, starting as a busboy and working his way up to doorman. In 1991 he befriended Cedric the Entertainer, who performed regularly at the club. Cedric liked Taylor so much that he brought him onstage after one of his own performances.

"I was so nervous," Taylor remembers. "My mouth was dry. As soon as I got onstage Cedric was like, 'We've got a comedy virgin in the house, put on some condoms. We don't want him to get pregnant.' Afterwards he was like, 'Smoke a cigarette, we've just had a comedy virgin.'" Taylor remembers that the performance was okay but says he doubts Cedric could have realized then "how funny I was going to be."

But Taylor's career, and vision, were nearly destroyed a few months later. On New Year's Eve 1997, while he was working at the Funny Bone, a cork from a Champagne bottle popped off into his eye, blinding it. He received emergency surgery at Barnes-Jewish hospital shortly thereafter, his nonfunctioning eye replaced with one that doesn't see but looks almost exactly like the other.

Taylor, who was on full scholarship to Washington University at the time, dropped out. Because he'd been good at math and science in high school, he'd been pursuing a chemical engineering degree. "But I don't think I was gonna make it at Wash. U. anyway," he says. He cites his lack of academic motivation, as well as an unsettling racial incident. In a physics class he once heard a fellow student mutter, "What's that nigger doing here?"

Ironically, dropping out of school launched Taylor's career in comedy. Helped by his connection to Cedric and the networking he'd done at the Funny Bone, he was profiled in the June/July 2000 issue of Vibe magazine. He got slots on BET's Comic View and later on NBC's Last Comic Standing, a reality show in which hundreds of comedians compete to be crowned "The Funniest Person in America."

In St. Louis, his fame in the black community is now so great, Taylor says, that when an out-of-town filmmaker came here to find him, he simply asked the first black person he saw on the street where he could see Jessie Taylor perform. That person pointed him to The Spot.

Local promoter Phillips says Taylor has the potential to be the next Cedric, and it's clear he has raw talent to spare. But he's not quite organized enough for prime time. He could have performed at the Just for Laughs audition in Columbia, for instance, but didn't manage to make the necessary phone calls. He dropped out of Last Comic Standingright before the finals, citing the death of a close cousin.

For all his local props, Taylor says he's sick of making low rates for gigs in town. But he lacks the negotiating power to get more. He says he's unhappy with the company that manages him but has yet to hook up with a new manager, despite a bevy of offers.

Taylor understands his underachiever status as well as anybody. "I opened for Damon Wayans a while ago, and he was like, 'You're funnier than I am. I should be opening for you!'" Taylor says. "Everybody tells me the same thing."

But success, says the Funny Bone's Carlo, isn't just going to come up and bite Taylor in the ass. "If you want to be successful, you've got to move to LA," he says. "That's where the industry is, and that's where the industry wants you to be. These people are looking for the youthful look, for breakout talent. They're looking for the next Chris Rock."

Taylor rents an apartment in LA for the steep price of $1,700 a month but hasn't been out there in months. It's hard for him to tear himself away from St. Louis. "I've got to be comfortable, got to be around somebody I care for, like my family," he says. There's also Jessie Jr. to consider. "You get stuck in providing mode. He needs me, and there's a lot of misdirection out here a kid can go in. When I went to LA, he would cry. He thought I was leaving because he did something bad."

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