As recently as three years ago, African-American comics Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey and D.L. Hughley were, despite extensive touring and numerous television appearances, relatively obscure.
But Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy, a filmed performance from the four comics’ nearly $40-million concert tour, which began its lengthy run in 1997, made their names common in homes of all races. The tour renewed an interest in “urban” comedy — and gave the four “kings” TV and movie deals, opening the door for more comedians to find their own style of success.
Three of these will-be stars — Patt Brown, Shawty Shawty and Degario “Double D” Turner — will be in Asheville on Friday for a performance at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium.
Brown, a native of Kansas City, Mo., found her way east when she received a basketball scholarship to attend South Carolina State. After realizing her chances of making it in basketball were, as she put it, “null,” she fell into doing comedy.
“I got drunk one night and said I wanted to be [on stage],” Brown reveals. “I got on stage with a book of information, but people didn’t want a speech, they wanted jokes. I came back the next time and it’s all history.”
Since then, Brown has written for BET’s Comic View and appeared with some of the biggest names in comedy, including a few of the “kings.” She also acts in the Black Top Comedy Improv Group at the Uptown Comedy Corner in Atlanta and headlines shows aimed at college audiences.
Performing at colleges offers unique challenges, she notes.
“[College audiences] give you a lot of love,” Brown explains. “They want you to talk about people — but only if someone else starts it. They love any over-the-top stuff.”
Like the other comedians, Shawty — who got his start in comedy nine years ago, at age 18 — doesn’t have to search far for material.
“My material comes from real-life experience,” said Shawty, who grew up in southwest Atlanta. “It’s a real approach to comedy. I make everything funny. There’s a lot of energy, a little rapping and dancing, and pretty much you got the Shawty Shawty.”
All three comedians slated for the Asheville show are based in Atlanta, which, thanks in part to the “Dirty South” hip-hop sound, has become a national cultural hotspot.
While all three performers want to break into the film industry, Shawty — who received his nickname as a youth because of his size and his tendency to make friends with older people — also has a foot in both rap and dance. One of Shawty’s connections in Atlanta is rapper Ludacris, whose third album, Chicken and Beer, is due out this spring.
“He used to be a radio DJ,” Shawty explains. “I had my own night at the comedy club on Tuesday, and went to the [radio] studio one day and went on his show.
“I was supposed to be on 30 minutes, but I stayed three hours.”
Shawty has maintained a relationship with the former DJ, making an appearance on Ludacris’ Word of Mouf, released last year. He also appears in several music videos, including Clipse’s “When’s the Last Time” and Georgia-based Field Mob’s “All I Know.” (You can also catch him in the upcoming film National Lampoon’s Hilarious Hip-Hop Party.)
Turner, 29, got his professional start four years ago, but has been interested in comedy since his high school days in Decatur, Ga., where he knew comedian-turned-film-star Chris Tucker (Friday, Rush Hour).
Turner says his own comedy reaches a variety of audiences.
“I talk about poverty, about being broke, about police,” Turner elaborates. “I take whatever the situation is and make it funny. I can do any type of crowd — Hispanic, white, black, Christian.”
Because urban comics are willing to reach a wider audience, they have found greater success, Turner believes.
“Back in the day, a hot comic might just cater to just one crowd,” he says. “Now [black comedians] are doing all types of work, not just the ‘Chitlin Circuit.'”
Shawty maintains the recent attention paid to urban comedy is due to the professionalism of the performers, success in cable TV and the popularization of urban culture, particularly hip-hop.
“It’s beautiful — those guys [the “kings”] have been comedians for 25 years,” he observes. “They put in work. They had heart.”
Friday’s performance is the final event scheduled in UNCA’s Black History Month series. Shawty says he feels the inclusion of a comedy show during a time when serious social topics are more often addressed — the rest of UNCA’s February lineup included an exhibit of documentary photos and a dramatic portrayal of the life of Sojourner Truth — is entirely appropriate.
“[Growing up], we had Black History Month, and positive people would come talk to us,” Shawty recalls. “It brings attention to our culture.
“[Performing] for Black History Month … makes me feel like what I’m doing is worthwhile,” he adds. “It’s a time to reflect and celebrate. I don’t think [comedy] is out of line.”