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.

The Sunday-night shows, which also feature spoken-word performances, are standing room only. "It could be the opening of a long gig," says Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards. "That is, until Arvin gets so famous that he's traveling all around the world."

Taylor's thoughts seem less about traveling around the world and more about traveling around St. Louis. He's been hunting for a site where he might open a new comedy club.

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

On a recent chilly afternoon, he pulls his Lincoln Navigator into a lot at the intersection of Interstate 270 and Bellefontaine Road. "St. Louis Nites," reads a slightly rusted sign, which faces the freeway from the top of a modest brown brick building. Shivering beneath his sweatsuit and lightly tinted sunglasses, Taylor gets out of the SUV and looks around the plot.

"Parking, man," he says, having a Field of Dreams moment. "Parking is wide open. It's got 92 parking spaces!"

Taylor dreams of opening what he says would be St. Louis' first black comedy club. (Venues such as The Spot aren't comedy clubs, per se, because they feature other events, such as concerts, on other nights). He might call it Comedy Impact.

The site before him seems perfect, both for its convenient location and its renovated kitchen. The owner wants six figures for the property, but Taylor is confident that he can line up investors.

"I think whoever opens a black comedy club could do good, because right now the people are starving for it," he says. He cites as proof his most recent Sunday-night show at The Spot, which he says drew upward of 500 fans. "Club owners make a killing on food," he adds. "Black people eat."

Taylor wants to get out from under the club owners, promoters and network executives. "Sometimes they blackball you," he says, referring to the comedy world's political players. Comics who play the Funny Bone, for example, will often get a chilly reception if they want to play the Comedy Forum in St. Peters, and vice versa.

But Taylor's even loftier goal is to change the segregated nature of the St. Louis comedy scene. "This is a mixed area," he says, referring to the racial composition of the club's location, the town of Bellefontaine Neighbors. He points to the other side of the freeway. "It's real diverse. Blacks, whites and Latinos stay in these apartments."

Taylor wants mixed audiences to come to his shows, to "cross over" themselves. "I learned how to be more crossover while I worked at Westport," he says, referring to his tenure at the Funny Bone, which began more than a decade ago. "They love me at white clubs. I kill 'em."

Back in the car, Taylor turns up the volume on a comedy CD of Jewish comedian Rich Voss, which he listens to for inspiration. He looks out at the cars whizzing by on the freeway a hundred yards in front of him and sighs audibly, as if every person in those cars could be coming to his club instead.

"Everybody knows where this space is. You say '270 and Bellefontaine' and they know. It's perfectly located. The cops out here are pretty good, they're quick and responsive. It's a good neighborhood, it's doing good things."

Animated now, he turns down the volume of the CD and explains his deceptively simple comic philosophy.

"To me, comedy is comedy. I don't think there's such a thing as a 'black comic.' You have to be relatable to everybody."

To Taylor, being a "black comic" would mean not being a comic at all. "You have to be crossover," he says.

And with that, he starts his Navigator and heads back toward home.

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