‘Def Comedy Jam’: from Harlem to HBO and beyond
Funky, raw and hard-hitting. That’s what “Def Comedy Jam” was when it was on HBO. It was comedy, in front of a raucus crowd, down and dirty, uncensored, straight up, no chaser. The show ran for nine seasons and launched into stardom comics like Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Adele Givens, Cedric “The Entertainer,” Bill Bellamy and others. Tonight, many of those performers, as well as the creators and producers – Russell Simmons, Stan lathan, and Sandy Wernick – will take to the stage at the Wheeler Opera House for a nice evening of roasting.”This is going to be a lot of fun,” said Lathan. “There’s going to be some funny people onstage. Adele, Bill, Cedric, and Dave Chappelle need no introduction. When these guys get together it’s always a lot of fun.” He continued on, “I’m ready to take a few potshots and Russell always does. He’s a great target.” They’ll celebrate the 15th anniversary of the show, and Russell will accept the 2006 Freedom of Speech award from the Center for American Progress.
“It’s great to recognize ‘Def Comedy Jam’s’ existence,” said Cedric “The Entertainer,” who is currently working on an action comedy with Lucy Liu called “The Cleaner,” which he describes as “‘Bourne Supremacy’ meets ‘The Pink Panther.'” “[Def Comedy Jam] was able to catapult so many people into the American conscience and its psyche,” said Cedric. “It should be honored and recognized.”In the early ’90s, the underground comedy scene, especially nights featuring African-American comedy, were becoming highly popular, with clubs packed to capacity and a resulting party atmosphere. The audiences were loyal and the comics would unleash everything they had.Lathan and Simmons were in those audiences, and they recognized a phenomenon when they saw it. “We knew the only place that could possibly do the show, that could do raw comedy, was HBO,” said Lathan. So they called up Caroline Strauss at HBO (now the president of original programming at HBO) and brought her to the Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem. “All we had to do was take her there and she got it,” said Lathan. “It was undeniable, the shows were amazing. Several of the comedians that became big on the show were there. It was just like a typical ‘Def Comedy Jam’ show. The energy from the stage was a give and take between the audience and the comedians.” Bill Bellamy, the originator of the term “booty call,” as part of a joke he was telling at the time, was one of those comedians.
“Russell Simmons and some others came to check people out [at the Uptown Comedy Club],” said Bellamy. “I dropped the booty call on ’em.”It worked, Bellamy said. “Right after the show Russell Simmons and some other people came up and said, ‘We’re doing this show – we’re calling it ‘Def Comedy Jam’ and that joke you did, you have to do it on the show.”At the time, Simmons was mostly known for being a hip-hop mogul and owner of Def Jam Recordings, an immensely successful record label. “I didn’t even know who he was,” said Bellamy, who became the first comic to appear on “Def Comedy Jam.” That was a few years before he started hosting “MTV Jamz” and “MTV Beach House,” and starring in movies. Chappelle, well known for “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central and numerous apearances in movies, was just out of high school when he appeared on “Def Comedy Jam.” “He was already starting to make noise in the New York Comedy circuit,” said Lathan. “People were already talking about him. It was hilarious. You’ll see a couple of clips of him at the show. It was obvious. It seemed polished, like he belongs onstage with the mic in his hand. He couldn’t have been older than 18.”But it wasn’t just Chappelle or Chris Rock. The talent that the show presented, consistently, was part of what made “Def Comedy Jam” so popular.
“Cedric was the same,” said Lathan. “He stepped onstage and he killed them. The people involved in the show – Adele, Dave, Cedric and Bill – it’s the same story. These were folks that became stars of ‘Def Comedy Jam.’ We invited them back over and over again. They established themselves in their first appearances. They all ended up hosting shows. They all went on to work extensively after that in television and film.”As the show picked up speed, talent scout Bob Sumner started traveling around the country, going to comedy clubs to find the next Dave or Cedric or Bill. “That’s how the show became unique,” said Lathan. “There were a lot of young black men and women going up onstage and doing comedy. After the show aired for the first year, that number of people who were stepping out there multiplied. After the first season, which was a short season, the number of people available to us became overwhelming. So we were able to keep doing it on a fairly high level.””Def Comedy Jam” was damn funny, but it was also the first time that much of the African-American and minority talent was presented, uncensored, to a mainstream audience. American culture never looked back. “We’re proud to honor Russell Simmons as an innovator and champion of new voices in American comedy from an African-American perspective,” said John Podesta, former White House chief of staff and current CEO of the Center for American Progress, who will be presenting the Freedom of Speech award. “‘Def Comedy Jam’ provided a unique forum to interpret life in America in a way that makes us think as well as laugh.””A Salute to Def Comedy Jam” is scheduled for tonight at 10:30 p.m. in the St. Regis ballroom.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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