Phunny Business: A Black Comedy
An Interview with John Davies
Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, and many of today’s other hottest black comics got their start in a now defunct Chicago club called All Jokes Aside, a place you’ve probably never heard of. This slickly produced doc is a portrait of that place — which was co-founded by visionary entrepreneur Raymond Lambert, who helped produce this film — and that era, meanwhile shining a bright light on the Windy City’s dirty racial politics. It was a place where comics were treated well and got paid without any problems, where the patrons were expected to dress nicely and not heckle, and where a whole generation of entertainers learned to be professionals.
The director John Davies and star Raymond Lambert recently answered of few of my questions about the film, which has its world premiere at SBIFF this week.
First off, great film, very compelling story. Why had I never heard this story before?
John Davies: You are not alone. Most white journalists/entertainment writers covering the pop culture scene in Chicago missed it with the exception of the Sun Times Ernie Tucker, who is interviewed in the film. It’s just another example of the two worlds, “Ebony and Ivory”, co-existing but not co-mingling in Chicago.
Raymond Lambert: That’s an interesting question and one that we have thought about often while making this film. I guess the short answer is that the All Jokes Aside was a black-owned club, featuring black comedians, so naturally our target audience was the black community. Everything else was gravy.
How did this movie come to be? How involved was Raymond Lambert with the production?
JD: I do a documentary about every 10 years because they usually don’t pay the bills. I was in-between projects and had stashed away some royalty money from Run’s House, the MTV series I co-created and executive produced for six seasons. I ran into Ray on a trip to Chicago in early 2008. I had first met him back in 1992, when as part of the Comic Relief producing team, we did some charity shows at his club with the comedian Sinbad.
I had stayed in touch with Ray on-and-off since then and when he told me the sad story about the demise of his club, I knew I was going to make a documentary about it. The stars had lined up — I had some cash, I didn’t have another project and Ray told me he could work with me full time. Now all we needed was a partner to help us with logistics and production and that became Reid Brody, my longtime friend and Chicago collaborator. Reid just happens to run Filmworkers, the best production facility in Chicago.
So was Ray involved in the production? Yes. Although not a producer by trade, he learned a lot but if he had been the only producer, the film would barely have mentioned Ray. He kept saying the story was about the club and the comedians and not about him. But I partially disagreed. I would constantly remind him that the club is a thing and he is a human and I didn’t want to make a film about a thing. As far as the comedians were concerned, of course they were going to be included in the telling of the All Jokes Aside story.
Have there been any complaints that Lambert is treated too flatteringly? I don’t have any info to that regard, but I know how business relationships go.
JD:We haven’t heard any complaints yet but I’m sure we will. There are probably some comedians and employees who might feel that way, but the majority of them have a great deal of respect for Ray and feel it’s about time he got his due or they wouldn’t have participated. I mean just look at the people who wanted to be included in this story.
RL: John is correct. I’m sure not everybody loves Raymond. In the film the comedians and staff reflect on my idiosyncrasies in a funny way, but believe me we did not always see eye-to-eye. I do believe they respected what we were trying to do, which was to be the best comedy club in the business.
Does Lambert feel at all that the people he helped start left him behind?
JD: Here’s what I think. I sense there’s a tiny bit of this, but very little. Ray never confused himself with the comedians. He knew what they did was not what he did. He didn’t have an ego like that. Like I said, he would have been okay with me lessening his on camera role in the documentary. Ray’s goal, from what I can tell, is still to be successful in business and yes, to be successful in show business would be a plus.
RL:No. What we created was special and it had its time. Back then I was a purist and felt stand-up belonged in the intimacy of a comedy club. I did not see concert halls or stadiums as the right venue. In retrospect, I lacked the vision and experience to build on my relationships and grow with the comedians. Guys like Russell Simmons and Walter Latham had that vision.
Chris Gardner [the true life rags-to-riches finance genius who was played by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness] was a particularly entertaining interview. Does that guy just love life or what? What is his relationship with Raymond now?
JD: I know they still talk a lot and he will always be a mentor to Ray.
RL: Chris is ever the optimist. Prior to Chris, I never had a mentor so it is great to have him as a mentor and a friend. Honestly, I don’t make any major decisions without talking to Chris first.
Does Raymond still keep in touch with a lot of the comedians in the film?
JD: He’s in touch more now because we have a movie we’re proud of and we want them to celebrate it with us because it’s their story too.
RL: After the club closed, I took a step back and dropped out of the comedy scene. I would see guys around town, but I rarely went to live shows and it was even tough to watch stand up on TV. Moreover, I had started a family thus my life and responsibilities changed. I did cheer from the sideline at all of their collective successes. It made me very proud to know that I had worked with them early in their careers. I will say that during the making of this film, I was able to reconnect and have been in frequent contact with many of the comedians.
I found it to be a great portrait of Chicago and the racial politics of the past and present there. How much did you know that this would be about the city when the project was begun?
JD: Immediately and I would always say, “Chicago is a character in this story”. I wanted to let the audience know that Chicago shaped this club, its success and its demise. Chicago also shaped me, Raymond, and Reid Brody, our third partner. I began my producing career in Chicago back in the ’80s and, while I live and work in Los Angeles now, and have for 20 years, L.A. still feels like a temporary assignment until I return to Chicago.
RL: I totally agree with John. I might add that despite that, or because of it, All Jokes Aside could not have happened in any other city. It was the right place, at the right time, with the right people.
Is Chicago getting better in terms of segregation?
RL: I’m afraid not. According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago remains the most segregated big city in America.
Lastly, should Rahm be mayor?
JD: To quote Chris Gardner: “Don’t ask me no questions about no pimps, politicians, or preachers!”
RL: You just gotta love Chicago politics.
The world premiere of John Davies’ documentary Phunny Business: A Black Comedy is on Friday, February 4, 8 a.m. at the Metro 4. It also screens on Saturday, February 5, 4:20 p.m., and Sunday, February 6, 1 p.m., at the Metro 4. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.