Theres plenty of funny business happening in Music City, and some of it has nothing to do with the dubious budgetary practices of local officials or buffoon ideologues. Nashvilles black community has a comedy scene thats now exploding alongside its more prominent and publicized theatrical and musical ones.
Such locales as The Corner Bar on Elliston Place, Café Bella and Nashville Center Stage are home base for many popular events. These include Money Marc and Sleezys Wild Funny Wednesdays (8:30 p.m. weekly), Renard and B-Covs Urban Soul Comedy Hour (8:30 p.m. each Thursday) and Just Jokes (bi-monthly shows). Its a safe bet the jokes and routines unveiled at these places are spicier, voiced differently and emerge from a cultural base and perspective thats not heavily represented on late-night network television or Saturday Night Live.
Nashville is growing and there are a lot of new clubs and bars opening up and looking for ways to bring customers to their venue, says Renard Hirsch, who sees expanding local opportunities for black comics. Many of them are looking for ways to bring customers to their venue and comedy is always an option, 'cuz who doesnt want to laugh?
Hirsch, Brian B Cov Covington and Atlanta-based Nashville native Kevin Renegade Green are among the most well-known and popular comics making regular appearances at various Music City sites. They understand and appreciate the demands placed on comics in general and the inevitable issues faced by African-Americans operating in the genre regarding content, direction and sensibility.
You dont want to be labeled as just a 'black' comic, Hirsch says, "because you dont want to put limits on what you can do. I do mainstream, urban, clean, Blue Collar, Christian, whatever. The crowds are all different and that is part of what keeps comedy interesting and challenging, trying to find that pure joke that transcends race and makes everybody in the room laugh.
Most of my show is political and social topics because those are the topics thats relevant to everyone, says Green. That and family. I try and stay abreast with whats going on in society. Knowing your audience is the biggest thing to me. I have to understand who Im trying to make laugh.
Ive always said my life is a sitcom, Covington says. Ive had a white stepfather since I was 13, my grandmother was half black and half Mexican, my mother is one of the funniest people I know, and I was married with a family by age 21. Once you throw in my in-laws, its like the perfect storm of comedy. Along with the fact I was the chubby kid in school that made good grades, so my ability to entertain and make people laugh was more a defense mechanism than a talent!
They are also 21st century comics. Green got his start doing open mic nights around Nashville in 2001, and four years later he was appearing with many others, including Covington and Hirsch. Hirsch found stand-up to be his forte while majoring in speech and theater at TSU in 2001, and Covington began in late summer that same year.
In addition, theyve come of professional age in an era when the content and linguistic freedom afforded Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney and Eddie Murphy not to mention such predecessors as Redd Foxx, Nipsey Russell and Slappy White is under siege from advocacy groups zealously trying to protect the African-American image from what they deem overused stereotypes, vulgar personas and one-dimensional portrayals. Still, they maintain they are unconcerned with political correctness.
When I go onstage I dont go with the intent to say something that is going to scare the pants off the audience," Hirsch says. "Im not knocking comics who do, it just isnt my style. My goal is to make people laugh at some everyday topics, enjoy life and forget the stresses of the day.
Covington, for his part, says he doesn't worry about political correctness because he likes the challenge of getting a laugh with inoffensive material. Still, he says, a comic must walk a fine line.
You want to have that edge that people expect of comedians, but you also dont want your crowd to feel uncomfortable," he says. "The best comedians can say what people are thinking but dont know to get it out the right way. I think people enjoy and respect you when youre honest. B.S. does have an odor!
Im a comedian, Green says. I tell jokes. I dont say anything to be mean-spirited or disrespectful. Club owners worry about political correctness more than comedians. Now saying that, I dont talk as brash when Im doing a mainstream show as when Im doing an urban show.
Their ability to simultaneously be universal and specific also reflects their array of influences. Covington cites G-rated types like Bill Cosby, Sinbad and Flip Wilson, and has equal praise for Billy Crystal, Robert Townsend and Damon Wayans. Greens just as quick to rave about George Carlin as Bernie Mac and Dave Chappelle, while voicing special praise for a colleague, local performer T.C. Cope. Hirschs long list of favorites includes both Chris Rock and Zack Galifianakis. Thus their material has scope, topicality and variety, and can easily be shaped to work in any particular place and reach any audience.
While giving praise to promoters and behind the scenes types like AG Granderson (the guiding light thats helped make both Jazz and Jokes and his newest venture Just Jokes prime factors in the citys comic world) and John Wright (a central figure behind the Urban Soul Comedy Hour), Hirsch, Covington and Green feel things are just getting started for black comedians in Nashville.
I feel like this is a 'perfect storm' situation because when we started the Wednesday-night dates lots of new talented people came out, and now we have a bigger comedy community than ever, Hirsch says. I think black comedy is taking off because we get out and hustle to get people in seats.
Contrary to what a lot of folks in Nashville think we [black folk] will get out and support. Covington says. Now weve got a new wave of comedians that look up to us, like we got a TV show or something, just because weve been doing it longer. So we dont look at them like competition; its just more funny people around that can help the movement here. We all promote and support each other because one person isnt going to get this city on the map as far as comedy goes.
But their focus is even broader than that suggests. It should be noted that our stages are open to every ethnicity," Renard Hirsch says. "Black, brown, white, green, it doesnt matter. Funny is funny.
(Renard Hirsch and Brian B-Cov Covingtons Soul Comedy Hour stars 8 p.m. Thursday at Café Bella, 209 8th Ave. South. Admission is $5. Check Kevin Greens facebook page for updates on his Nashville appearances.)
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