Club Fills The Bill With Laughs The Comic Stop In Center City Caters To The Black Audience.

Posted: October 25, 1991

A guy who calls himself Gumby was talkin' dirty after dark in Center City one Thursday night, in an upstairs, upscale club, trying to get the folks to add laughs to their food and drinks.

Gumby, a black comedian in front of a mostly black audience, seemed to have the situation in hand when he started his monologue, but then it happened.

There he was, sitting at the bar, the bane of every comic, a heckler, giving Gumby a hard time.

"You ain't even funny," the guy said, although he did so in more profane terms.

That wasn't true, but the brother was funnier than Gumby.

And, for a few seconds, the two went at it with both profane malevolence and good nature, and then Gumby finished his monologue with a sexually charged Dr. Seuss-style rhyme.

The club's emcee came on stage and Gumby left to applause, and went to the bar to challenge the heckler. Instead, he was greeted with a hug. The heckler was an old friend who came by to mess with Gumby.

That's how things sometimes happen at open-mike night at the Comic Stop, a Center City club its owner and boosters say is the first black-oriented comedy club in Philadelphia.

The club, which opened last month, is on the top floor of Club Rhythmz at 2121 Arch St., and offers comedy Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

For the first four Thursdays of its existence, the Comic Stop held a competition for professional and wannabe funnymen and women, and the top 12 comedians were invited back for the finals last night.

The winner was to receive $175 for the trouble, the runner-up $100, and the third-place finisher $50.

It's not a lot of money, but the show's promoter, the club owner and the comedians say that this venue, which has changed hands at least a dozen times, is filling an entertainment space long needed in Philly.

"I think we as a people, since we do take over the city at night, needed our own place down in the city," said Victor Washington, who bought Rhythmz in May.

"White people come in here, they work, they own downtown, but they don't live downtown," he said. "They leave work, and they go home to the suburbs. Black people feel comfortable in the city and want to be here, they stay or come back at night."

The site of Rhythmz has had many owners and has gone under many names. Since 1985, the building has been known as Memphis, Voodoo and 2121. Washington said he has invested more than $100,000 in the club since May, when it opened, and that his, like most places in the city, experienced a slow summer.

But Washington and Rick Thomas, the comedy promoter and emcee, are confident that comedy will be popular and profitable. Washington said he'll survive because Rhythmz offers dance music, jazz, comedy and soul food (from Delilah of the Reading Terminal Market).

"Our primary focus is on an older clientele," Washington, 47, said. ''We're looking for 25-and-up professional black folk. Before I started this place, I couldn't find anyplace in the city that focuses on people like me."

Thomas, a 34-year-old publicist and frustrated comedian, said he believes the Comic Stop will flourish because it offers an opportunity for local black comedians to hone their craft. He also pointed out that Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta are home to successful black-owned comedy clubs.

"When I moved back to Philadelphia two years ago, I went to a lot of the comedy clubs," Thomas said, "and I'd notice that there weren't that many African American comedians. Some of these guys can headline, but they don't get the opportunity because the clubs don't cater to our crowd, our type of comedy."

"With the African American base here, I can't see it not working."

Last Thursday, that African American base was giving every comedian a hard time.

The Comic Stop crowds are sometimes subdued and sometimes rowdy. Men are dressed in suits and ties and women in business attire or going-out gear.

After some deep breaths and closed-eyed meditation, Sean C. Turner, a 25- year-old comic with a black, red and green "X" baseball cap, began regaling the audience with Clarence Thomas jokes, but one gag didn't seem to go over well.

Turner trained a jaundiced eye into the crowd and cracked, "A black audience'll turn on you in a minute."

After his turn at the mike, he explained.

"Black clubs make you work harder," said Turner, who has performed in white-owned Philadelphia clubs as well as black clubs in New York. "They definitely come out to be entertained, while a white audience may give you a

break.

"There's a different rhythm to black comedy. Black comedians have to go for the knockout. White comedy is like jab, jab, setup, jab, jab, BOOM. Black comedy is like BOOM, BOOM, BOOM."

Gumby, known to the IRS as Eric Spicer, agreed. He said he has worked in California as a comedian, but moved back to Philly a couple of years ago and didn't start up again until a few weeks ago.

"It's really exciting that this is happening in Philadelphia. My people like to be entertained. A stand-up comedian can do comedy, but if you come in front of a black crowd, you have to give them movement, you have to give them style."

Then there are those comedians who are not professionals. For them, the Comic Stop can be both brutal and gratifying.

Waldo Derryrymple is an example. He's a 62-year-old white guy, an accountant. Funny name? Funny job? Maybe.

But the last time he performed at open-mike night, he had no such luck.

When Derryrymple, whose real name is Sheldon Jahss and who works as internal controller for the Philadelphia School District, made jokes about accounting, he was greeted, most of the time, by stony silence.

But, he said, he would return to perform if the Comic Stop wanted him to.

"I love this. It's addictive," he said.

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