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There's a scene near the beginning of Comedian, a 2002 documentary that follows Jerry Seinfeld as he crafts a new stand-up act from scratch after retiring twenty years of material: A younger comic about to take the stage at Stand-Up NY in Manhattan confides to Seinfeld that "I was gonna do at least 70 percent new stuff in at least 100 percent new order and open with something I've never opened with before." "Really?" Seinfeld shakes his head. "Wow. I wouldn't do that. You're taking your life in your hands."
On this Wednesday night at II STL Brothers Smooth Jazz Club, 25-year-old aspiring comedian Brie Renée Johnson is gonna do 100 percent new stuff.
The sound system booms Sir Mix-a-Lot as she steps to the stage:
I like big butts and I cannot lie!
You other brothers can't deny!
That when a girl walks in with an itty-bitty waist
And a round thing in your face
You get sprung!
Johnson grabs the mic, sighs in mock-exasperation. "Why do you guys have to play that every time I come up here?"
Maybe it's because her slender frame is composed of 80 percent cheekbones, 10 percent cascading auburn hair and 10 percent "ghetto booty." Or because she's a former lifeguard currently juggling a bit of modeling work for Apple Bottoms jeans along with her budding comedy career. Or perhaps, to borrow from Monsieur Mix-a-Lot, because it's just so round, it's like, out there. She's just so...black!
Only she's not.
A Mufflermat, a discount beauty-supply shop and a pair of dollar stores share strip-mall space with II STL Brothers on Natural Bridge Road in Bel-Ridge. The surroundings might be down at the heels, but inside the setting is swank: linen-covered tables, chandeliers casting a golden radiance, a bar awash in soft candlelight. Everyone's well turned-out, the men in button-down shirts and pressed pants, the women decked out in Sunday dresses. The décor is mostly black-and-white, but virtually everyone here is black.
Everyone except Brie Johnson.
With her baby-doll tee peeking out from under a sleek button-down shirt she "probably got from Wal-Mart," Johnson jumps rump-first into her opening bit, thick Southern drawl suggesting she's out of her element in the big-city setting: "I cannot go through one day without at least five guys talking about my butt. But today a guy came up to me and said, 'Girl, your daddy's black, ain't he?' I said, 'Well, my last name is Johnson.'
"I had another guy once say, 'You've got some black in you, don't you, girl?' And I said, 'Well, not today.'"
Her yokel accent has caught the crowd off guard: The bit kills.
Less than a year into her career, Johnson is a regular at II STL Brothers. When she steps off the stage, audience members and fellow comics flock to offer congratulations and advice. The scenario's similar when she appears at other weekly comedy nights around town Plush, Toxic, the Spotlight, Big Jake's and the Crown among them.
From these informal gigs, Johnson hopes to move up to the regional comedy-club circuit. Already she has attracted the attention of Michael Roberts Jr., head of Gateway Entertainment (and son of local developer/business tycoon Michael Roberts Sr.), who says he and Johnson are discussing the possibility of her signing to Show-Town Entertainment, the artist-management company he recently co-founded with his twin sister, Jeanne.
"She's a sweet girl, and she really has the potential to take it all the way to a world level," Roberts says. "There's nobody like her. I've never seen anybody like her before."
One Tuesday last March, Johnson downed a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice Triple Black, rode to the Westport Funny Bone with a group of friends, drank "five or six" Michelob Ultras and, with a four-minute open-mic performance, popped her comedy cherry.
"I was drunk as hell because I was soooooo nervous," she remembers. "My friends told me I was onstage cracking myself up, and I don't even remember what I said.
"I was going strictly for shock value. When I got offstage, my friends said, 'Oh my God, Brie, that was so funny. When you did your first joke this girl fell backwards out of her chair.' I'm like, 'Hey, that's what I'm going for!'"
Johnson got a little cocky after her debut, thinking the whole comedy thing came naturally. She didn't realize race and gender would retard her climb in the fiercely segregated world of St. Louis nightlife.
"The thing is, in St. Louis, the black and white crowds aren't going to come together unless you pick a neighborhood that is black and white," says Florissant native Kathleen Madigan, who made the hard-won leap from the St. Louis comedy scene to the big leagues in the 1990s. "The black people in north St. Louis aren't driving out to the Westport Funny Bone, and the St. Charles people aren't going to drive to Natural Bridge Road to watch a comedy show. It's too territorial and too neighborhoody."
During one early gig at Janae's West off Olive Boulevard in University City, Johnson rattled off all the silly, mundane things that happened to her one day, only to be greeted with deafening silence. "The main event of the night was when my friend got a DUI and I had to go pick her ass up from jail. She was swinging at the cops, and this was happening and that was happening and no one was laughing. My friend [U. City rapper] Boulevard came up to me afterward, like, 'I don't know why you were talking about that stuff. Look at the room you're playing in front of.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I've been here before.' He says, 'Brie, everyone in this room has been to jail: We don't care. It's not funny.' I did the same thing in front of a white audience and they thought it was hysterical. After that I took a step back and figured out what was for which audience."