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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Joe Torry plans to add his own flavor to the 'Def Comedy Jam' stage

August 07, 1994|CHRIS RUBIN | Chris Rubin is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

The new host of HBO's "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam" isn't out to remake the show, just move it forward.

" 'Comedy Jam' won't change much," says Joe Torry. "It's just a continuation, hipper, a new flavor. And," Torry adds with a laugh, "better looking."

"Def Comedy Jam" producer Russell Simmons caught Torry's act in a comedy club and promised him a spot based on the strength of that performance. Torry was such a hit with the "Jam" audience that Simmons soon decided to hire him to replace the departing host, Martin Lawrence.

Torry realizes he's got big shoes to fill in taking over the show. Lawrence, a manic comedian with a pliable, Gumby-like body, left his mark on the raucous comedy showcase. But Torry didn't feel worried about replacing him. No challenge could be greater, he believes, than when he jumped in at the Comedy Act Theater after the death of comedian Robin Harris, his friend and mentor. "That was harder than filling in for Martin."

"Martin's a more physical comedian than I am. I'm sort of just from the hip," Torry says. "I've been blessed, it just comes out funny when I get up and talk. Earthquakes, floods, the L.A.P.D. ... L.A. is pretty rough, it's jokes all around. Most of my material comes from pet peeves, what irks me, pisses me off."

Torry, who has done everything from semi-pro football to selling vacuum cleaners door to door, is very loose and fluid. As he walks out on stage, he unleashes a stream of four- and 12-letter obscenities that would, no doubt, solicit a "whooping" from his mother, were she in the audience.

His parents, who live in St. Louis, have seen his act live a couple of times. "They wish I didn't use so much profanity. I would have gotten a boot to the head if I cussed like that as a little kid. My father was strict, strict, strict."

An Army brat, with a drill-sergeant father and a school-teacher mother, Torry was born on a base in Virginia and grew up in a handful of cities around the country. He spent much of his youth in St. Louis with his three sisters and one brother. Yet despite his highly disciplined childhood, Torry turned into a quick-witted prankster.

Torry attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., graduating with a degree in journalism. While writing for the school paper and acting as a deejay at the college station, he continued to hone his comic talents. Despite a handful of local job offers after graduation, Torry packed his bags into his '75 AMC Hornet and headed for L.A. in search of stardom.

The military was never a career option. "Not a chance in hell. Closest thing I thought about was being a cop. I can't stand taking orders like, 'Get down and give me 20.' I'm too much of an individual for that."

Though he's only been performing professionlly since moving here five years ago, he's been cracking people up as far back as he can remember. "I was the mischievous one, always in the doghouse. But I had good grades, so I could get away with being funny.

"My first role model was Sammy Davis Jr. He was the first person I saw who made me want to be an entertainer. When I found what my niche was--comedy--then I got into Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Eddie Murphy."

"Richard Pryor is like a god," Torry says reverently. "I would sneak around and listen to his albums. My father finally gave me a Richard Pryor album when I graduated college and moved to L.A."

Torry's ambitions include movies and more TV. "I knew at an early age I wanted to be in front of an audience. I can't sing too well, so comedy was it. The acting thing is what I'm trying to conquer now."

He's made appearances in the film "Poetic Justice" and the Fox series "Roc," and recently filmed a series of ads for Nike.

In the meantime, he sees his "Def Comedy Jam" hosting job as a "baton to be passed on to someone else. I'd like to be too busy, making too much money, like Martin, to do the show."

"Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam" airs Fridays at midnight on HBO.

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