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Joe Torry: Young, Gifted and Wack : The comedian almost missed his chance to headline the first New York 'Def Comedy Jam.' But things have worked out--he's starring in 'Poetic Justice' and hosts 'Jam' at Universal Amphitheatre tonight.

July 31, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Torry says he's no slouch, but then he's also nothing like the appearanceobsessed postal worker he plays in the new John Singleton movie, "Poetic Justice." Preening and strutting, Torry plays Chicago, a man who can talk endlessly about his wardrobe and is rarely seen without hairbrush in hand.

"I know people like that, but that's like 180 degrees from who I am," Torry said. "I keep pretty groomed in real life, but not like that."

Chicago is a major supporting role for Torry, the latest step in a rising career that got its big national boost from HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," the vibrant black comedy showcase that continues to pull phenomenal late-night ratings, especially for cable.

Torry is host of a touring "Def Comedy Jam" revue that makes a stop at the Universal Amphitheatre tonight.

Others on the bill include Adele Givens, Reggie McFadden, Royale Watkins, Ricky Harris and Tony Brown. In a reflection of the show's hip-hop tone and attitude, a deejay shares the bill: Kid Capri.

After starting his comedy career with open-mike nights and occasional gigs in his native St. Louis, Torry moved to Los Angeles 4 1/2 years ago and became a regular at the Comedy Act Theater on 43rd Street in the Crenshaw district, then presided over by the brilliant Robin Harris.

"That was my home club," Torry said. "The better I got, the more I appeared there."

The club attracted everyone from the Wayans brothers to Martin Lawrence on stage. When Harris died of a heart attack in 1990--just 36 years old and on the verge of a career breakthrough--Torry took over as club emcee.

"Robin and I were really tight. He kind of took me under his wing," Torry said.

Torry made two important connections while working the club. One was with a young film student who approached the comic after a set: John Singleton. The other was with a big name that Torry couldn't place at the time, someone who said he was planning a TV showcase for black stand-ups. He gave a skeptical Torry his phone number, but the comic threw it away.

Bad move.

The man was Russell Simmons, the rap-music impresario who went on to create "Def Comedy Jam." When Torry told his manager about the encounter, he was incredulous. The two searched frantically for the discarded phone number, but couldn't find it, although Torry managed eventually to track him down.

"He kept me in mind, too, and I headlined the very first show they did in New York," Torry said.

Although Singleton hadn't seen Torry since that first meeting at the Comedy Act Theater, the director looked up the comedian after making his acclaimed debut film "Boyz N the Hood" and approached him about the role in his follow-up, "Poetic Justice."

Torry's character Chicago is a friend and co-worker to Lucky (Tupac Shakur), whose relationship with Justice (Janet Jackson) is the film's centerpiece.

Chicago is involved in a tempestuous relationship with the equally self-obsessed Iesha (Regina King), and the heart of "Poetic Justice" is a drive the four of them take together from Los Angeles to Oakland.

The superficial, stalemated affair between Chicago and Iesha is the backdrop for the budding "real love" between Lucky and Justice. While Chicago has his comic moments, he ultimately turns violent in his humiliation at Iesha's hands, and the relationship becomes a comment on the often stunted state of affairs between men and women.

"They were in a relationship for the wrong reasons," Torry said. "Everybody knows somebody like Iesha. Everybody knows somebody like Chicago."

Although it was Torry's first big film role, Singleton eased any tensions he might have felt. "It was cool with John, 'cause we're the same age," Torry said. "He made it into a family, and it was fun."

He is more than pleased by the public response to "Poetic Justice" (it made $11.7 million in its opening weekend, the top box-office draw of the week), but is a little confused by the mixed critical reaction.

Critics, he believes, were expecting a reprise of the gritty urban drama of "Boyz," and got an inner-city love story instead.

The flap over Cineplex Odeon opting not to screen "Poetic Justice" at its Universal City complex in its opening week, reportedly because it would not draw the "upscale demographics" desired, has Torry somewhat bemused: "They missed out on some money."

He also finds it ironic that the entertainment complex would not show a "warm, loving" romance, but is featuring the "Def Comedy Jam" revue tonight in its Universal Amphitheatre.

The comedy show has gained a reputation for being raunchy and explicit. While the comics work in a variety of styles, subtlety is not the show's strong suit.

Torry's own humor is rooted in real experiences, he said, from relationships to work to debt. "Most of my stuff goes off pet peeves and anger," Torry said, and instead of keeping that anger inside, "I just take it on stage, and it's like my therapy."

Audiences relate, he believes, because "I say the things they think ."

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