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.

Mitchell lists Taylor as one of his influences, and Taylor returns the compliment, claiming Mitchell's A-game has helped bring his to the next level.

"Arv's good," Taylor says, "and he's hungry. Right now everybody's making a big rivalry between us. Black people always got to have a number one and a number two, like, 'Nelly's better than Chingy.' I don't think he's better than me, but he's just as hungry as me, so that's a reason to compete."

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

As it turns out, Mitchell has good reason to be hungry. The north-side native spent three years in the pen for assaulting a police officer after he was pulled over while driving a stolen car in 1996. He was charged for the assault, as well as for carrying a concealed weapon.

"Being in jail gave me more of a drive," he says now. "It made me see what I was good at: making dudes laugh. Guys sentenced to life and double-life, 25 years, they crackin' up. Just to be a light of hope for them, just letting them pass time listening to me b.s., I knew that's what I wanted to do."

Mitchell's hoping to play to a different kind of audience these days. He plans to go to LA as soon as it's financially feasible. And he has fans in high places. "Arvin has movie-star good looks," noted actress Kim Coles, a judge on BET's Coming to the Stage, a comedy competition in which Mitchell was a finalist. Pauly Shore, also a judge on that show, described Mitchell as "the whole comic package" and suggested that he move out to Tinseltown as soon as possible.

"If I got a [development] deal, I'd go the next day," Mitchell says. Until that happens, he's trying to build up a backlog of jokes. He wants to have good material so that when he gets his big shot -- say, at the Montreal festival -- he'll be ready.

In the short term, Mitchell is trying to star in as many TV commercials as possible. He recently submitted an application to be in a Crest commercial. The advantage of commercial work is that it pays out over time, which would leave him with free time to write and a monthly income. Right now, in order to support himself, he's got to do local shows on a regular basis, which saps his energy for writing.

Mitchell is as strong a businessman as he is a comedian. He's got his own Web site, www.arvinmitchell.com, and he's actively considering offers from people who want to manage his career. He also has a strong sense of how he wants himself portrayed in the media. In interviews, for instance, he's quick to retract any stray curses that slip into his quotes.

As single-minded as Mitchell is about his success, he's also trying to bring others to the top with him: "This is my avenue. 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."

"Do you ever, like, go up to the Rams cheerleaders and, like, get their autographs, and they're all nice and everything?" goofs Mike Reale, performing at Mitchell's bi-weekly Sunday night comedy show at Blueberry Hill. "And they write, like, 'Love, Lisa' and 'Love, Tonya' and put a heart on it and everything?"

A white comic, he is performing to a nearly entirely black audience in the Duck Room. Although Reale doesn't look the twenty he says he is, his claim to be a virgin is entirely believable.

He grows suddenly outraged. "I mean, they don't really love you! If they really love you, shouldn't they, like, suck your dick?" This line, spoken with a lisp not of a white person trying to be black but of a young child with a speech impediment, rips. "They don't go out with you, they don't even have sex with you. That's bullshit!"

The room roars.

Reale has been doing comedy less than a year. If he is the Eminem of St. Louis comedy, then Arvin Mitchell is his Dr. Dre. Until now, Reale has played largely white rooms and has often bombed. Mitchell saw him playing at the Funny Bone, however, and went nuts for the kid's talent. He thought he would kill at a black show.

"He has a comedy spirit of silliness in him," Mitchell says. "You gotta love his energy. You can tell that Mike Reale is onstage, living out loud. Black audiences appreciate that. I can't say why, but they do."

"I got a riddle for ya," Reale says, closing out his brief set. "What's big and jiggles?

"Titties, muthafucka!"

The crowd pauses and then explodes in a stunned, guttural laugh.

When Mitchell himself performs at Blueberry Hill, he's a bit more subdued. Unlike Taylor, who hopes to bring the house down with every joke, Mitchell is unafraid to infuse more subtle social observations into his act. He ruminates on the ease with which our society sends astronauts into outer space. "But there ain't no money in the budget to find missing kids?"

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