HBO's 'Def Comedy Jam' offers in-your-face humor

August 07, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Hollywood -- Atorrent of rap music fills the packed theater and a sea of fists pumps the air as emcee Martin Lawrence swaggers confidently on stage and yells, "Yo, whassup, black people, whassup?"

A sharply dressed comedian surveys the crowd and proclaims: "Fellas, give it up for the ladies in the house! Let the dogs loose!" followed by a sustained chorus of "woofs" deeper and more sustained than any ever heard on the Arsenio Hall show.

Another comic describes his southeastern Washington state neighborhood: "It's like three Harlems and half a Bronx . . . my neighborhood's so bad that the mailman just leaves the mail on the corner and lets you sort it out."

A comedian with an oversized beret performs a dancing, twirling impression of "Michael Jackson on crack . . . you know that someone who's [expletive] up his face as much as Michael has got to be on something."

Not exactly "Star Search" or "Evening at the Improv."

"Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam," an edgy, in-your-face version of the traditional stand-up comic television showcases, hip-hops into its second season on HBO tonight at midnight. Although the show is named for the rap-music mogul who turned his affinity for street music into a $34 million recording and entertainment empire, it could very well be titled simply "Laughz N the Hood."

The weekly half-hour of stand-up is a standout from the cavalcade of programs showcasing unknown comics.

All the comics are African-American. Much of the material is filled with references and language that might be obscure to a mainstream television audience. Comedians speak frankly about AIDS, police brutality, racism, cultural differences. Tensions -- sexual and otherwise -- between black women and black men are explored.

Unrestrained simulations of sexual activity and raunchy

discussions about sex are a staple. Routines are liberally sprinkled with four- and 12-letter obscenities. The tapings at the Academy Theatre in New York are frequented by such celebrities as Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes and LL Cool J.

One aspect that sets the show apart from its more low-key clones is its audience members, who often leap up and "give it up" in response to some of the more outrageous material. Young men wearing backward baseball caps high-five each other, while women rock jubilantly in their chairs.

To Mr. Simmons, though, the show is not just a laughing matter.

He believes "Def Comedy Jam" -- def meaning excellent in rap lingo -- is similar to rap music in giving a voice to young African-Americans to express their rage, thoughts and observations about growing up black.

"These guys are expressing their real values and attitudes," Mr. Simmons said. "If they are not as positive as you would like them to be, you have to listen to them and understand them. It's a dose of reality."

Even the show's director and co-executive producer, Stan Lathan, said he is sometimes squeamish about some of the comedy, especially the sexually explicit material.

"There are things that I find really difficult," said Mr. Lathan, a show-business veteran of episodes of "Hill Street Blues," "Cagney & Lacey" and "It's Gary Shandling's Show."

"Being an old-timer in television, I'm conditioned to think of television as a forum for ideas," Mr. Lathan said. "But I still have a hard time with the totally, totally raw stuff.

"I could say a few have been in bad taste, but we have an obligation to air it and put it on, totally uncensored. If it's funny to our audience, no matter how dirty it is, we use it. We know that our crowd is a very representative crowd."

HBO research says that the show is the most popular late-night comedy program in its history, attracting 1.7 million viewers. Approximately two-thirds of the audience is non-black, officials said.

Looking at the show's audience, Mr. Simmons said, "I knew it would have a wide appeal, like rap music. You don't have to be black and urban to buy rap music. Most of those records are bought by white kids in the suburbs."

What's more, as Mr. Simmons predicted, the program may prove to be the big break for many of the comedians, who said they had to water down some ethnic or raunchy material in order to perform on the "white" comedy circuit.

Host Martin Lawrence, who had co-starred in the two "House Party" films and "Boomerang," will star in his own series on Fox this fall that is being produced by HBO Independent Productions. Eddie Griffin, who was an unknown three years ago, now has a development deal with HBO.

J. Anthony Brown, 41, a stand-up who also is a writer on the Arsenio Hall show, said "I've been on every show there is -- 'Stand-Up Spotlight,' 'Evening At the Improv,' everything. But seven minutes on 'Def Jam' did more for me than all those shows put together. People recognize me in stores, in restaurants. That didn't happen before."

Mr. Simmons said he got the idea for "Def Comedy Jam" a few years ago while touring dance clubs around the country; many of these would have a comedy night during the week.

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