If there’s such a thing as alt-comedy, then can there also be such a thing as alt-black comedy? Elon James White thinks so. White and fellow New York comedian Baron Vaughn have been trying to educate audiences on the notion that there are many different types of black stand-up comedy, through their Shades of Black shows, their online site, The Black Comedy Project, and this weekend, their first full-on comedy fest, The Black Comedy Experiment. The "Experiment" debuts tonight and runs through Saturday night, with all shows at the two venues in The Tank.
Tonight’s mainstage shows are Souled Out (featuring Walli Collins, Rick Younger, Leighann Lord, Dean Edwards, Mike Yard and Marc Theobold) and Desiree Burch’s 52-Man Pickup. Other one-person shows include "The Oreo Kid" by Jordan Carlos (who auditioned last week for Saturday Night Live as a potential Barack Obama), "30 Years in Africa" by Michelle Buteau, Robin Cloud’s "Bag O’ Bitches," "Mystery Up at Negro Creek," by Baron Vaughn, and "2-Faced" by Erica Watson. There’ll be special editions of Chicks and Giggles, Laughing Liberally and Shades of Black. And that’s not all.
That SNL just got a lot of buzz over their search for a cast member to play Barack Obama only brought more attention to the plight of black comedians in getting the industry to notice them. "We couldn’t ask for better timing, literally," White told me last night. That SNL didn’t cast a black comedian for Obama didn’t surprise White. That Jordan Carlos and Donald Glover got face time with Lorne Michaels pleased him, though. "I was happy that two of the three Obamas were on our festival. There’s our buzz!"
In White’s view, the fact remains that most audiences and Hollywood industry types think of only one type of comedian when they think of booking a black stand-up. They think of Def Jam, he said. "Everybody feels I’m harping on it," he said. It’s not that Def Jam is evil or bad, he said, but rather that the great success of Def Jam created a model that everyone else has tried to duplicate without thinking or considering other forms or styles of comedy. That’s been the pattern, White says, going back to Bill Cosby. When Richard Pryor emerged, "he kicked the door down," but then other comics tried to be Pryor, then tried to be Eddie Murphy, then tried to be the Wayans Brothers, and more recently, Def Jam. "It was just bravado. In your face," White said. "But it pigeonholed us for years." The opportunities simply aren’t there, from SNL to HBO. "Dwayne Perkins might get to do Conan. But where’s his HBO special?" White’s online essay in October, "Did Def Jam Ruin Black Comedy?" sparked a furious back-and-forth debate with comedian Todd Lynn. "Todd Lynn says there ain’t no thing as an ‘Intelligent N—-r’ show. The fact is, though, he thinks there’s one way of doing it, but in my opinion, there are many ways of climbing the ladder," White said.
He acknowledges that "the chitlin’ circuit is strong in Harlem and the Bronx," and that New York City has lots of black comedians and black rooms, but wonders where the mainstream breakthroughs are for them. And White also knows that even though he’s a Bed-Stuy Brooklyn native, he sounds like he’s British and doesn’t always fit in either an urban Def Jam scene or a white scene. "There are jokes I have that I can’t tell in front of a white audience. It’s because they just don’t get it, nine times out of 10. They don’t have the same life experience I have." So there has to be another way. "It was the same when the alt-comedy scene started. That’s why I believe in alt-black," he said. "Some people argue I’m just putting another label on them and I understand that."
Like the comedians who formed an alternative to the club scene so they could work and build their own fan bases, White hopes to do the same for the many "shades of black" comedy. He’s not against "urban or Def Jam" comedians who are good, saying Patrice Oneal is great and killed on that show. He’s against black comedians who are hack about their blackness, such as the woman who threw her weave into the audience to get a standing ovation.
White still doesn’t know if he and Vaughn and the experiment will succeed. "If we make enough ruckus, at least we’ll be a footnote," White said.