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COMEDY

Getting Its Act Together

After a string of setbacks, the Comedy Act Theatre is serious about again becoming the launching pad for black comedians. First target of the make-over: the jokes.

June 23, 1996|Erin J. Aubry | Erin J. Aubry is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Ten years ago the Comedy Act Theatre was the hottest ticket in town, so raucously funny that comic Louis Dix swears that "the walls used to laugh." The Leimert Park club boasted headliner Robin Harris--the best insult-meister this side of Don Rickles--and a legion of then-little-known hopefuls, including Dix, Robert Townsend, Sinbad, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence and Rusty Cundieff.

They all vied for a chance to regale the packed houses with salty, distinctly black-flavored humor. The club drew not only black crowds but also scores of Hollywood talent agents who discovered that the country's first all-black comedy spot was a gold mine of talent, and not the novelty that some predicted it would be. Comedy Act alumni were briskly going on to TV and movie careers--beginning, naturally, with Harris--and club proprietor MichaelWilliams was at the top of a game he had virtually created.

But the '90s proved to be nothing to laugh about. Harris died of a heart attack in 1990 at 36, and the crowds and Hollywood cachet seemed to die with him. The riots erupted in '92 and stigmatized the Crenshaw neighborhood enough to keep non-local patrons away. The recession took hold and Williams was forced to close the new locations he had opened with high hopes in Chicago and Atlanta. And then the bomb dropped: In 1993, Williams developed lymphoma and was told by doctors that he had only months to live. Life, it seemed, was playing the worst joke of all on him.

Against the odds, Williams recovered from his illness, and last year he returned full time to the helm of the Comedy Act, which had been kept afloat by his family. And though he has facilitated a slow but steady comeback for his club, he faces a new breed of problems. Most of the club's successful proteges never came back to lend their old stamping ground the visibility it sorely needed through the worst of times. (Repeated calls from The Times to several of the comedians who started their careers there were not returned.)

The rampantly raunchy black humor spawned in the last decade by HBO's 'Def Comedy Jam" and its ilk poses some sticky quality-control problems for Williams as he attempts to lure back the club's original, and now slightly older, crowd. After surviving the unsurvivable, however, the 43-year-old Williams declares that he is more than up to the challenge.

"When I went back to the club in late '94, it was on the verge of closing," says Williams, a tall, robust man dressed in African garb who betrays not a trace of his former illness. "I was discouraged because it seemed all the work I had done was for naught. I decided, 'This is my business. I made something people believed in.' And I decided to rebuild the club and its image."

*

It still hasn't wholly regained the luster of yore, but the Comedy Act's cavernous digs at the Regency West Ballroom are full again Thursday through Saturday nights. The normally empty parking lot across the street fills up, and a line consisting mainly of couples forms well before the show. The dozen or so comics who strut their stuff for two hours range from novices navigating awkward pauses to seasoned performers like Maestro Clark, now star of his own television series (Fox's "The Show"), who had the audience roaring with withering I-hate-when-that-happens observations made at breakneck speed.

Host Speedy affably evokes the ghost of Robin Harris as he trains the spotlight on late-arriving guests who are unlucky enough to become running jokes for the rest of the evening. ("You say you're a machine technician?" he asks a business-suited man seated near the stage. "Oh, yeah, we all know what you do--vacuum the carpets in those office buildings after hours. Vrooooom, vrooooom.")

For Speedy--his real name is Donald Ray Caldwell Jr.--and other regular performers, the Comedy Act Theatre still holds a certain magic that is absent from other rooms in town.

"I'm a paid regular at the Comedy Store, but it's a small room, and it's not the same thing," says Caldwell, who like several other comics was mentored by Harris. "The opportunity to emcee in front of a black audience is rare. As a comic in L.A., you don't usually get much stage time or chances to stretch out."

Since the Comedy Act opened a decade ago, black comedy nights have cropped up at existing clubs around town--the Comedy Store, the Ice House, the L.A. Cabaret--but no other exclusively black clubs have come on the scene except the Fun House at the Mavericks Flat club, on Crenshaw around the corner from the Comedy Act. As popular as it has become, Mavericks only offers comedy on Saturday nights. With three full evenings of shows per week, the Comedy Act still offers the greatest volume of entertainment.

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