A smart and poignant documentary, Phunny Business: A Black Comedy tells the story of All Jokes Aside, one of the most influential comedy clubs in the United States, which during its nine year run in Chicago became proving ground for some of the biggest names in comedy. In 1990, on a trip to Los Angeles Raymond Lambert, an MBA working in Chicago for entrepreneur Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness), visited The Improv on Mo’Bettah Mondays, the club’s black comedy showcase night.
The show biz bug bit Lambert hard, and the fever provoked an epiphany–while Chicago had a huge black population, there was no comedy club catering to the black community. Combining his business sense and love of comedy with absolutely no showbiz background, Lambert and his college classmate James Alexander put together a business plan for an upscale comedy club which would showcase black comics for a black audience. After a shaky start in an art gallery on Chicago’s South Side (with Jamie Foxx performing), the club hit the big time when Lambert put Steve Harvey on a local radio show to promote his gig at All Jokes Aside. Harvey’s promotion drew lines around the block; and he credits that day on-air with launching his radio career, the station hired him to be their drive-time personality.
A loan from James Alexander’s mom moved All Jokes Aside from the art gallery to a storefront next door where Bernie Mac, Cedric The Entertainer, Chris Rock, MoNique, Dave Chappelle, D.L. Hughley, Adele Givens, Melanie Comarcho, Mike Epps, JB Smoove, Ali LeRoi, Aries Spears, George Willborn, Sheryl Underwood, Laura Hayes, Bill Bellamy, Craig Robinson, Deon Cole and many more all performed to sold out audiences.
Lambert ran All Jokes Aside with professionalism and style: There was a dress code for comics, the staff wore uniforms and the customer was always right, plus comics were paid in full after their set. Lambert reviewed hundreds of tapes of comics to pick who would perform, and expanded the clubs roster to include non-black comics like Carlos Mencia and Honest John. More ground was broken by gay comics.
The club flourished, drawing celebrities, and somehow avoiding the Three P’s of doing business in Chicago: Politicians, Police and Preachers. Eventually though, the club fell victim to the rising popularity of standup comedy, the very thing Lambert had championed. The Kings of Comedy and Queens of Comedy tours, featuring comics who had played All Jokes Aside, were selling out arenas, and other comics were moving up to playing thousand-seat theaters for one night rather than doing a weekly runs at clubs. Plus, gentrification–spurred by the success of businesses like All Jokes Aside–had caused landlords to raise the rents in the club’s neighborhood, pushing out the very businesses that drew people into the area.
Lambert took a deep breath and reassessed his options. He had tried to break into television with an All Jokes Aside show, but unlike other standup comedy programs airing, the show was hugely unsuccessful. So, in move decried by many, he decided to move All Jokes Aside to the traditionally white North Side, and there he encountered the fourth P in Chicago: Prejudice.
Using archival footage and interviews (including many of the comic greats who played All Jokes Aside), Phunny Business chronicles the rise and fall of the club as well as illuminating the social and political environment of Chicago (considered to be the most racially segregated city in America) and exploring the stand-up comedy explosion.