Phunny Business: A Black Comedy debuts tonight on Showtime at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Phunny Business is the story of Chicago’s premier black comedy club, All Jokes Aside, which was open from 1991 to 1998 and hosted many of today’s premier black comics, including Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, MoNique, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Craig Robinson.
While the old footage of today’s superstars is definitely enjoyable (some clips of Jamie Foxx in extremely high-waisted, nipped-in pants are pretty choice), the story is really about black entrepreneurship. Morehouse graduate Raymond Lambert began the club. He worked for investor (and The Pursuit Of Happyness author) Chris Gardner until a visit to an L.A. comedy club inspired him to try his hand at club ownership, despite a total lack of experience. Lambert, along with partners James Alexander and Mary Lindsey, applied what they knew about the business world to owning and operating a comedy club. Begun on a shoestring with comics sleeping on the owners’ couches and with an investment from Alexander’s mother, the owners’ business acumen eventually began to pay off. While the staff and comics grumbled about being asked to study a conduct code or attend meetings, they were also better-paid and better-treated than they were at other clubs.
It wasn’t just the employees of All Jokes Aside that were treated well: Lambert took the philosophy of “The customer is always right,” which resulted in the club being known as one of the nicer black entertainment venues in the country. Other black comedy venues had a tendency to have a reputation to be “ghetto” (this is a quote from the documentary), but All Jokes Aside was clean, organized, and well-run, which resulted in a sophisticated, well-dressed clientele that included many local black celebrities, including Michael Jordan.
Phunny Business is partially a love letter to Chicago, with plenty of stock shots of the El and skyline and some well-intentioned but occasionally cliched paeans to the city’s food, weather, and politics.
In fact, there’s a lot of stock photography in this film. Phunny Business doesn’t miss an opportunity to use an obvious graphic or silly sound effect. When Lambert’s policy of “no comps” is mentioned, you see the word “COMP” with a big “NO” sign slammed onto it. (This effect is used several times.) When we hear of someone looking up phone numbers, we see stock footage of someone perusing the yellow pages. When partner Mary Lindsey is described as being as “serious as a funeral,” familiar dirge music is played over a photo of her. The heavy use of effects makes it seem as if the producers worried that the content of the film alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the audience’s attention. The effects also cheapen the movie, giving it the look and feel, at times, of a negative political campaign ad.
Sometimes, it’s a little difficult to discern whether this is a story of black comedy, black business, or simply of Raymond Lambert himself. While the film is narrated by John Ridley, Lambert himself serves as a talking head throughout the story, narrating and reacting to his own history. (Plus, his face is on the DVD cover, surrounded by tiny photos of the faces whose careers he helped launch.) It seems a bit unnecessary, considering that Lambert also co-wrote and produced Phunny Business, but at the same time, considering that he built the dream from scratch, watched it take off, and then saw it blow away in a storm of frustrating politics, perhaps it’s understandable that he wanted control when it came to telling his story.
Issues of race and politics in Chicago were part and parcel of not only All Jokes Aside’s success but also its demise. After the South Loop club closed, partially due to comics taking bigger gigs in bigger venues and on comedy specials, Lambert sought to open up a new incarnation of the club one mile north in a whiter part of town. It’s more than implied that Lambert was denied a liquor license due to racism from the ward neighbors, but Lambert also put out feelers to open up a club further south, in Bronzeville. Lambert received the blessing of high profile black alderman Dorothy Tillman, but Tillman ultimately granted the spot to Second City. (Lambert does express his frustration with Tillman’s decision, not as a businesswoman but as a black woman.) At the same time, though, would All Jokes Aside have thrived as it did had it not benefited from being a black club in a black part of town? (Another one of the reasons why the club shuttered was due to the neighborhood’s gradual gentrification and subsequent rent hikes). The documentary addresses these issues, and while it could have pushed further, this may have clashed with the film’s inherently jocular, light-hearted tone.
Phunny Business doesn’t seem quite sure where to end: After All Jokes Aside closes, we learn about Lambert’s agonizing attempts to start it anew, but after he gives that up for the time being, we don’t learn much about what he or his partners are up to now. Still, despite the film’s weaknesses, it’s an engaging view for any comedy fan, especially considering that with all the close looks we get at what it takes to be a comic these days thanks to other documentaries and podcasts, we don’t often get a look under the hood of the venues that help launch comics careers. Phunny Business is being billed as part of a Black History Month celebration on Showtime, and while it’s always fun to celebrate our favorite black celebrities, showcasing a tale of black entrepreneurship is a refreshing point of view.
- I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of Bernic Mac’s actual standup at All Jokes Aside, rather than the reverential footnote that was reserved for him towards the end of the film.
- I have a theory that part of the reason why Lambert figures so heavily in the visual narration of the film is that he’s a much cooler-looking dude now than he appears in old photos, and he wants the world to know he’s a smooth, hip-glasses-wearing bald-headed guy now and no longer the awkward, chubby-faced mustachioed man he once was.