Arvin Mitchell is onstage in front of 300 white people at a club called Déjà Vu in Columbia, Missouri. The black comic, clad in a natty black leather jacket and red undershirt, is trying, a bit too desperately, to make them laugh.
"I hate doing the same shows in the same city every night," Mitchell declares. "I had a girl come up to me the other night and ask me, 'How come every time I see you onstage you tellin' the same jokes?' and I said, 'Bitch, you go out too much.'"
The joke doesn't draw the laugh he'd been hoping for -- he's hurried the delivery -- though it does receive a piercing "Woooooo!" from an obviously drunk woman with blond bangs.
The St. Louis native muffs his next joke too, saying "Schnucks" when he meant to say "Wal-Mart." The joke after that gets only a modest chuckle from the crowd. He's burying his normally crisp punch lines, as if he's got his material too well memorized.
Part of the problem is a case of nerves. Unbeknownst to the crowd, Mitchell's routine is doubling as an audition for Montreal's prestigious Just for Laughs Festival, where stars such as Jerry Seinfeld and Jeff Foxworthy got their starts.
Mitchell's saving grace, ironically, comes from the drunken blonde.
"I'm glad all the holidays are over with and stuff, man--" he starts out.
"Me too!!!" she yells.
"Praise the Lord, that's what I'm talking about," he says, looking over at her. His shoulders relax. "I'm afraid to be around white people when y'all get drunk, man. Y'all get to knockin' stuff over." Mitchell breaks into falsetto. "'Hey, sit down, Becky! The Rams won!'" He staggers toward the microphone stand, knocking it over, then smiles, looks back toward the blonde and belches.
The crowd roars. Mitchell's gentle racial rant has gone over much better than any of his safer, prepared material. Although he won't find out until May whether he'll be invited to the Montreal festival, he leaves the stage on a high.
"I could have gone off on that woman all night," he says afterward, flashing his bright, toothy grin. "Sometimes drunks in the audience are the best thing that can happen to you."
But you need a lot more than a few well-placed drunks in the crowd to make it big as a black comic these days. Just ask Mitchell or Jessie Taylor. These two are, by most accounts, St. Louis' two great comic prospects. They're both highly talented, good-looking and ambitious.
Both comedians want their own show, a Martin or a Bernie Mac that will pave the way to superstardom. But their comedic stylings are very different. Mitchell, age 28, relies heavily on impressions and prepared bits, while Taylor, who's 29, is almost always joking off the cuff. They manage their careers differently as well.
What the two have in common, everyone agrees, is the potential to hit it big in Hollywood.
"They're young, they have a lot of stage presence, and they're likable," says Dave Carlo, who has worked with both comedians as vice president of operations for the nationwide chain Funny Bone Entertainment. "They're the perfect comics that you can develop a TV show around."
But before Hollywood, Mitchell and Taylor must navigate the highly segregated St. Louis comedy scene. Although both men's bread and butter is performing for black crowds, the ultimate goal is to move from being "black comedians" to being simply "comedians." To cross over.
Rocky terrain, for sure, but nothing new for African-American funnymen. Indeed, Mitchell and Taylor are the most recent examples in a legacy that dates back to Dick Gregory, a St. Louis native who broke through nationally during the racially charged '60s.
In his memoir, Callus on My Soul, Gregory describes the night Hugh Hefner invited him to host a comedy show at his Playboy Club in Chicago. When Gregory got there, the doorman tried to convince him not to do the show; it seems the club was packed with white southerners in town for a frozen-foods convention. Broke and unknown at the time, Gregory paid him no heed.
"I just walked right past the [doorman] and into my future....I looked into that audience and I didn't see Southern Whites; I saw...my future. I went for it." The jokes he told were ones no white comedian could have gotten away with, and the crowd ate them up: "Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant. The white waitress came up to me and said, 'We don't serve colored people here.' I said, 'That's all right, I don't eat colored people, no way! Bring me a whole fried chicken.'"
St. Louis native Redd Foxx's brand of potty-mouthed social criticism brought him into millions of homes across the nation in the 1970s. Toning down his outrageous live act for television, his Sanford and Son was one of TV's first shows featuring a primarily black cast, paving the way for hits such as Good Times and The Jeffersons.
Gregory and Foxx opened doors for other black comedians with strong social messages, such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. That they came from St. Louis should be no surprise. Our city's segregation-by-choice may be a bane to guilty white liberals, but there's no denying that it produces fertile comedic ground. The city's racial tension becomes fodder for the rarely voiced observations that good comedy depends on. And in an increasingly politically correct culture, black comedians have an advantage. (Imagine Mitchell's joke about drunk white women with the races reversed, for example.)
In keeping with its storied history, St. Louis remains a vital comedy center today, the breeding ground of talents such as standup comic Lavelle Crawford, actors Joe and Guy Torry and, of course, the big guy who dances with Grimace.
The scene-stealing star of Barbershop and The Steve Harvey Show, Cedric the Entertainer became a household name after co-headlining the "Kings of Comedy" tour, the highest grossing comedy tour ever and the subject of a concert film made by Spike Lee in 2000. Locals might remember Cedric from his playing days at the Funny Bone and as host of the Gong Show at the Wiz (now known as the Diamond Cabaret).
"Cedric really put us on the map," says local promoter J.P. Phillips, who adds that he considers St. Louis "one of the comedy meccas." Phillips runs a black-centric events-listings Web site, www.holleratus.com, which lists local black comedy events for nearly every night of the week. "Blacks really come out to support their own," he adds.
But too many black comedians, Mitchell says, are unwilling to cross over to a white audience.
"I think some black comics don't care to do white rooms because they love black people so much. They're like, 'These are the people I'm around all the time, this is who I want to make laugh.' To me, that's where you have to differentiate between who you love and who you want to entertain."
Mitchell wants to entertain everybody.
"I don't just wanna do 'my dick so big,' 'the police beat the shit outta me,' 'I smoke this joint' jokes," he says. "Don't get me wrong, though," he says, smiling mischievously. "I got some weed jokes myself."
"I smoked weed for the first time last week," yuks a comedian who calls himself The Rookie. It's a Wednesday night and 400 folks have gathered at The Spot on North Broadway. The Rookie drags the microphone cord behind him as he paces. "But then yesterday I quit." He pauses for comic effect. "I ran out of money."
A drummer somewhere silently ba-dum-chings.
The audience boos, but that doesn't stop the aptly named comedian from launching into his next gag. Pulling a cell phone out of his pocket, he pretends to talk to the Hollywood producer of the movie Training Day. The gist of the joke is hard to determine. The booing gets louder, though The Rookie is oblivious.
"Hello?" he says into the phone, plowing on. "Yo, you stole my idea." The crowd's distaste spins into a hailstorm.
The Rookie, by now drowned out, slowly turns to face the crowd. A small "Heh?" escapes from his lips, a meek half-question that seems to ask, "Is that for me?"
Quickly escorted off the stage by the club's 300-pound bouncer, The Rookie looks indignant. Meanwhile, unruly crowd members are getting up out of their seats and yelling at the now-empty stage. Perhaps they've taken too much advantage of the club's three-dollar Hypnotiq special or not gotten the joint that's been making the rounds in back.
Jessie Taylor, the evening's MC, quickly comes onstage to ply some damage control. The six-foot-four comedian has his hair in short twists and a "JT" medallion around his neck. He looks down at his mother, Shirley, who's sitting at a front table, and smiles. He's seen this situation many times before and quickly brings the crowd back by directly addressing their complaints.
"He knew it was boos, but black people, we be in denial," he says, imitating the comedian's slow gait across the stage and asking the crowd to boo him. "Booo!" they holler, still upset. He turns to face them, mock-surprised.
This imitation -- conceived on the spot and repeated for the rest of the night -- is a metaphor for being shown a truth you're not ready to receive. "It's like when you're fucking someone and she tells you you're no good," Taylor explains, looking into an imaginary unsatisfied lover's eyes. "Heh?"
A low level of non-hostile laughter indicates that the crowd's mood is beginning to shift. "You know," he goes on, "when people talk about sex they always say that brothers have a big dick. Not everybody's got a big dick! Make some noise, brothers with a little dick!"
Silence, and then laughter.
Jessie Taylor is in his element, like a street-ball basketball player who knows how to navigate every crack in the local blacktop. Tonight is his tenth consecutive Wednesday hosting The Spot, an eternity in comedy years, seeing as how the crowd expects new material each time out. Coming to the stage each week with barely any prepared material, Taylor riffs on audience members ("I could've been your daddy but the dog beat me over the fence"), on current events or, if the situation arises, on the incredibly awful comics that precede him.
"Black people will boo you quicker than white people, because they came out for service," he explains later. "They paid money so you would make them laugh. They'll boo the shit out of you if they think you're wasting their time."
Taylor's stage presence is really nothing more than a slightly focused version of his everyday personality. Watching music videos on BET at his home in an unincorporated area near Florissant, he jokes about the neighborhood where he lives with his nine-year-old son, Jessie Jr.
"My next-door neighbors are old, they're white, so when I moved in, this was like a rude awakening to them. I come in here with my low rider and they're like, 'What do you do?', and I'm like, 'I sell drugs,' and they're like, 'Oh, so how is it, how's business?', completely serious, and I'm like, 'It's hard, crack sales are really down.' And they just stared at me. They didn't know if I was serious or joking."
Taylor has been drawn to comedy's rebellious nature as long as he can remember. At twelve, he and his brother would sneak into their parents' room while they were at work and listen to their reel-to-reel Richard Pryor tapes. Pryor was Taylor's first comic idol, and his material was forbidden fruit. "We weren't allowed to curse back then," he recalls.
He followed his brother into work at the Funny Bone two years later, starting as a busboy and working his way up to doorman. In 1991 he befriended Cedric the Entertainer, who performed regularly at the club. Cedric liked Taylor so much that he brought him onstage after one of his own performances.
"I was so nervous," Taylor remembers. "My mouth was dry. As soon as I got onstage Cedric was like, 'We've got a comedy virgin in the house, put on some condoms. We don't want him to get pregnant.' Afterwards he was like, 'Smoke a cigarette, we've just had a comedy virgin.'" Taylor remembers that the performance was okay but says he doubts Cedric could have realized then "how funny I was going to be."
But Taylor's career, and vision, were nearly destroyed a few months later. On New Year's Eve 1997, while he was working at the Funny Bone, a cork from a Champagne bottle popped off into his eye, blinding it. He received emergency surgery at Barnes-Jewish hospital shortly thereafter, his nonfunctioning eye replaced with one that doesn't see but looks almost exactly like the other.
Taylor, who was on full scholarship to Washington University at the time, dropped out. Because he'd been good at math and science in high school, he'd been pursuing a chemical engineering degree. "But I don't think I was gonna make it at Wash. U. anyway," he says. He cites his lack of academic motivation, as well as an unsettling racial incident. In a physics class he once heard a fellow student mutter, "What's that nigger doing here?"
Ironically, dropping out of school launched Taylor's career in comedy. Helped by his connection to Cedric and the networking he'd done at the Funny Bone, he was profiled in the June/July 2000 issue of Vibe magazine. He got slots on BET's Comic View and later on NBC's Last Comic Standing, a reality show in which hundreds of comedians compete to be crowned "The Funniest Person in America."
In St. Louis, his fame in the black community is now so great, Taylor says, that when an out-of-town filmmaker came here to find him, he simply asked the first black person he saw on the street where he could see Jessie Taylor perform. That person pointed him to The Spot.
Local promoter Phillips says Taylor has the potential to be the next Cedric, and it's clear he has raw talent to spare. But he's not quite organized enough for prime time. He could have performed at the Just for Laughs audition in Columbia, for instance, but didn't manage to make the necessary phone calls. He dropped out of Last Comic Standing right before the finals, citing the death of a close cousin.
For all his local props, Taylor says he's sick of making low rates for gigs in town. But he lacks the negotiating power to get more. He says he's unhappy with the company that manages him but has yet to hook up with a new manager, despite a bevy of offers.
Taylor understands his underachiever status as well as anybody. "I opened for Damon Wayans a while ago, and he was like, 'You're funnier than I am. I should be opening for you!'" Taylor says. "Everybody tells me the same thing."
But success, says the Funny Bone's Carlo, isn't just going to come up and bite Taylor in the ass. "If you want to be successful, you've got to move to LA," he says. "That's where the industry is, and that's where the industry wants you to be. These people are looking for the youthful look, for breakout talent. They're looking for the next Chris Rock."
Taylor rents an apartment in LA for the steep price of $1,700 a month but hasn't been out there in months. It's hard for him to tear himself away from St. Louis. "I've got to be comfortable, got to be around somebody I care for, like my family," he says. There's also Jessie Jr. to consider. "You get stuck in providing mode. He needs me, and there's a lot of misdirection out here a kid can go in. When I went to LA, he would cry. He thought I was leaving because he did something bad."
Mitchell lists Taylor as one of his influences, and Taylor returns the compliment, claiming Mitchell's A-game has helped bring his to the next level.
"Arv's good," Taylor says, "and he's hungry. Right now everybody's making a big rivalry between us. Black people always got to have a number one and a number two, like, 'Nelly's better than Chingy.' I don't think he's better than me, but he's just as hungry as me, so that's a reason to compete."
As it turns out, Mitchell has good reason to be hungry. The north-side native spent three years in the pen for assaulting a police officer after he was pulled over while driving a stolen car in 1996. He was charged for the assault, as well as for carrying a concealed weapon.
"Being in jail gave me more of a drive," he says now. "It made me see what I was good at: making dudes laugh. Guys sentenced to life and double-life, 25 years, they crackin' up. Just to be a light of hope for them, just letting them pass time listening to me b.s., I knew that's what I wanted to do."
Mitchell's hoping to play to a different kind of audience these days. He plans to go to LA as soon as it's financially feasible. And he has fans in high places. "Arvin has movie-star good looks," noted actress Kim Coles, a judge on BET's Coming to the Stage, a comedy competition in which Mitchell was a finalist. Pauly Shore, also a judge on that show, described Mitchell as "the whole comic package" and suggested that he move out to Tinseltown as soon as possible.
"If I got a [development] deal, I'd go the next day," Mitchell says. Until that happens, he's trying to build up a backlog of jokes. He wants to have good material so that when he gets his big shot -- say, at the Montreal festival -- he'll be ready.
In the short term, Mitchell is trying to star in as many TV commercials as possible. He recently submitted an application to be in a Crest commercial. The advantage of commercial work is that it pays out over time, which would leave him with free time to write and a monthly income. Right now, in order to support himself, he's got to do local shows on a regular basis, which saps his energy for writing.
Mitchell is as strong a businessman as he is a comedian. He's got his own Web site, www.arvinmitchell.com, and he's actively considering offers from people who want to manage his career. He also has a strong sense of how he wants himself portrayed in the media. In interviews, for instance, he's quick to retract any stray curses that slip into his quotes.
As single-minded as Mitchell is about his success, he's also trying to bring others to the top with him: "This is my avenue. I want to be able to help people, like Dick Gregory did. I want to be able to open doors for other comedians, to make a difference."
"Do you ever, like, go up to the Rams cheerleaders and, like, get their autographs, and they're all nice and everything?" goofs Mike Reale, performing at Mitchell's bi-weekly Sunday night comedy show at Blueberry Hill. "And they write, like, 'Love, Lisa' and 'Love, Tonya' and put a heart on it and everything?"
A white comic, he is performing to a nearly entirely black audience in the Duck Room. Although Reale doesn't look the twenty he says he is, his claim to be a virgin is entirely believable.
He grows suddenly outraged. "I mean, they don't really love you! If they really love you, shouldn't they, like, suck your dick?" This line, spoken with a lisp not of a white person trying to be black but of a young child with a speech impediment, rips. "They don't go out with you, they don't even have sex with you. That's bullshit!"
The room roars.
Reale has been doing comedy less than a year. If he is the Eminem of St. Louis comedy, then Arvin Mitchell is his Dr. Dre. Until now, Reale has played largely white rooms and has often bombed. Mitchell saw him playing at the Funny Bone, however, and went nuts for the kid's talent. He thought he would kill at a black show.
"He has a comedy spirit of silliness in him," Mitchell says. "You gotta love his energy. You can tell that Mike Reale is onstage, living out loud. Black audiences appreciate that. I can't say why, but they do."
"I got a riddle for ya," Reale says, closing out his brief set. "What's big and jiggles?
The crowd pauses and then explodes in a stunned, guttural laugh.
When Mitchell himself performs at Blueberry Hill, he's a bit more subdued. Unlike Taylor, who hopes to bring the house down with every joke, Mitchell is unafraid to infuse more subtle social observations into his act. He ruminates on the ease with which our society sends astronauts into outer space. "But there ain't no money in the budget to find missing kids?"
The Sunday-night shows, which also feature spoken-word performances, are standing room only. "It could be the opening of a long gig," says Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards. "That is, until Arvin gets so famous that he's traveling all around the world."
Taylor's thoughts seem less about traveling around the world and more about traveling around St. Louis. He's been hunting for a site where he might open a new comedy club.
On a recent chilly afternoon, he pulls his Lincoln Navigator into a lot at the intersection of Interstate 270 and Bellefontaine Road. "St. Louis Nites," reads a slightly rusted sign, which faces the freeway from the top of a modest brown brick building. Shivering beneath his sweatsuit and lightly tinted sunglasses, Taylor gets out of the SUV and looks around the plot.
"Parking, man," he says, having a Field of Dreams moment. "Parking is wide open. It's got 92 parking spaces!"
Taylor dreams of opening what he says would be St. Louis' first black comedy club. (Venues such as The Spot aren't comedy clubs, per se, because they feature other events, such as concerts, on other nights). He might call it Comedy Impact.
The site before him seems perfect, both for its convenient location and its renovated kitchen. The owner wants six figures for the property, but Taylor is confident that he can line up investors.
"I think whoever opens a black comedy club could do good, because right now the people are starving for it," he says. He cites as proof his most recent Sunday-night show at The Spot, which he says drew upward of 500 fans. "Club owners make a killing on food," he adds. "Black people eat."
Taylor wants to get out from under the club owners, promoters and network executives. "Sometimes they blackball you," he says, referring to the comedy world's political players. Comics who play the Funny Bone, for example, will often get a chilly reception if they want to play the Comedy Forum in St. Peters, and vice versa.
But Taylor's even loftier goal is to change the segregated nature of the St. Louis comedy scene. "This is a mixed area," he says, referring to the racial composition of the club's location, the town of Bellefontaine Neighbors. He points to the other side of the freeway. "It's real diverse. Blacks, whites and Latinos stay in these apartments."
Taylor wants mixed audiences to come to his shows, to "cross over" themselves. "I learned how to be more crossover while I worked at Westport," he says, referring to his tenure at the Funny Bone, which began more than a decade ago. "They love me at white clubs. I kill 'em."
Back in the car, Taylor turns up the volume on a comedy CD of Jewish comedian Rich Voss, which he listens to for inspiration. He looks out at the cars whizzing by on the freeway a hundred yards in front of him and sighs audibly, as if every person in those cars could be coming to his club instead.
"Everybody knows where this space is. You say '270 and Bellefontaine' and they know. It's perfectly located. The cops out here are pretty good, they're quick and responsive. It's a good neighborhood, it's doing good things."
Animated now, he turns down the volume of the CD and explains his deceptively simple comic philosophy.
"To me, comedy is comedy. I don't think there's such a thing as a 'black comic.' You have to be relatable to everybody."
To Taylor, being a "black comic" would mean not being a comic at all. "You have to be crossover," he says.
And with that, he starts his Navigator and heads back toward home.