When it comes to comedy clubs, All Jokes Aside is still heralded as one of the best; the now-defunct venue, which was a major part of Chicago’s entertainment scene during the ‘90s, officially shut its doors in 2000. The club, which boasts a comedy “who’s who” of performers including Chris Rock, Steve Harvey, Jamie Foxx and more, was definitely on the “to-do” list for many black comedians.
SoulTrain.com spoke with club owner Raymond Lambert about his new book, All Jokes Aside: Stand-Up Comedy Is A Funny Business, where he discusses his life (including his time working for Chris Gardner of The Pursuit of Happyness fame), how the club was born, and why the rigors of operating a successful, über-popular comedy spot was no laughing matter.
SoulTrain.com: Your 2012 documentary, Phunny Business: A Black Comedy, centered on the birth and trials and tribulations of All Jokes Aside. What made you decide to write this book, which really is an extension from the film?
Raymond Lambert: The reason is two-fold. One thing I discovered in making the film was that it’s hard to compress 10 years of history into an 85-90-minute movie. It’s virtually impossible because you have to leave a lot of relevant stuff on the cutting room floor. I thought a way to really tell the story in-depth would be [via] a book and with the subject matter fresh in my mind, I thought it would be a wonderful time to stretch out and tell the story in much more detail. In addition, as I was out on the road [promoting the film], a lot of questions would come up: “Who are you?” or “How did you get to this point?” So I thought writing the book would be a great addition.
SoulTrain.com: You and your business partner, James Alexander, simply fell into the comedy business and while neither of you had any prior club or entertainment experience, you simply drew from your collective financial industry expertise and dreams of entrepreneurship. Given this, what kept you motivated?
Raymond Lambert: I personally have a tendency to get into things that I have very little to no experience in. My guiding philosophy has always been, “Well, somebody else did it—I feel like I can do it.” It’s just the idea that if someone else has done it, it can be done. I’m also always reminded of a quote that says, “The first person who built a car had never seen a car before.” So why not? I think we just wanted to be successful and we were driven by the idea that we could do this. Being young and naïve, which can be blissful, made us just jump in.
SoulTrain.com: In the book, it becomes obvious when you realized the void you filled in not only Chicago’s entertainment landscape, but also black entertainment in general—so much so, one can easily draw parallels to what you did with All Jokes Aside and what Don Cornelius did with Soul Train. What would you say it is about the city that makes it an attraction for black entertainers?
Raymond Lambert: Being born and raised on the East coast, I really didn’t recognize the contributions; actually, I probably didn’t fully recognize it until I did the film and started doing research. You know these people like Don Cornelius in an anecdotal or ancillary way, but you don’t really know them. I think it’s just a hotbed of cultural activity and talent and a strong support system within the black and Latino communities. Even being mentioned in the same sentence as Don Cornelius is almost received with a laugh, but the truth is that when you recognize something that’s not there that feels like it should be and everything else is lined up for it to be, Chicago’s a welcome and supportive place to do it. The great history of all the jazz musicians and all the blues music and all the comedians who have lived and worked [in Chicago] makes it one of the best scenes in the country.
SoulTrain.com: As you know, Soul Train was also a platform for rising comedians that included Paul Mooney and Arsenio Hall. What are your thoughts about Don Cornelius helping to expose these comedians to the world during that era, which, for the ‘90s, is akin to what you did with All Jokes Aside?
Raymond Lambert: Actually, I think he’s under-appreciated for what he did and what he represented because what he gave us beyond entertainment was a sense of pride that we can be on TV, we can be owners, and be out in front and compete with the best of the best. I would never put myself on his level but I do see what you mean by the parallels.
SoulTrain.com: At the heart of the book is the peaks and valleys of entrepreneurship , especially when trends come along and “change” the business; for All Jokes Aside, the turning of the tide was shows like HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. Talk about those challenges.
Raymond Lambert: That’s the beauty of and the exciting thing about entrepreneurship—how you can hold on and adapt and withstand and change with the times. It’s the learning experience and the ability to change and take your craft and mold it into whatever is taking place. And that’s not always easy to do because we tend to get in our own zones. I’ve always been told to do one thing, focus on it and do it really well.
SoulTrain.com: Many comedians who performed at All Jokes Aside have gone on to achieve industry acclaim; among them are Academy Award winners Jamie Foxx and Mo’Nique. Do you have any “proud papa” feelings there?
Raymond Lambert: I definitely do. I’m humbled by it because I never really looked at it from that perspective until we did the documentary. One day they asked me to write down all the headliners I had ever booked and when I did it, I thought, ‘This is pretty incredible.’ I knew these people were talented because I studied the craft. I am very proud to say I was a part of that and that I contributed in some ways. It’s amazing.
SoulTrain.com: In the book, you share anecdotes and credit a great deal of the venue’s success to Steve Harvey. As someone who has known him for a long time, I’m sure his success and the way he has diversified his brand doesn’t surprise you.
Raymond Lambert: Not at all. He was probably the hardest working comedian I’ve ever worked with, comparatively speaking. He’s just an incredibly hard worker and a very smart businessman, so none of this surprises me about him—at all.
SoulTrain.com: Given All Jokes Aside’s Chicago roots, no real discussion about the comedy club is complete without mentioning the late Bernie Mac. What do you want to say about him and his ties to the venue?
Raymond Lambert: Bernie really gave me that push in the back. [In the book] I talk about how I originally wanted him to be the [house] host of All Jokes Aside but he turned me down, which was kind of crushing at the time. He wanted to take his career to the next level and tour and things like that, so he suggested George Willborn to be the host, which was a great recommendation because he eventually became the heart and soul of All Jokes Aside. But without Bernie and his talent, ability and nurturing, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do what I did, so I’m forever indebted to and grateful for him.
SoulTrain.com: Even though All Jokes Aside’s physical doors are closed, you are still involved with comedy and want to approach it from a different angle. Tell us a little more about it.
Raymond Lambert: All Jokes Aside is going to become what I’m calling it is a “social mission-driven” organization, and by that I mean how we can use the power of stand-up comedy to affect social change. It’s not going to be a day in and day out operation, but maybe an annual event where I can bring together the best of the new, emerging comedians with some of the older, more established comedians to say how talent can be used to address some of these issues like homelessness, violence, lack of job opportunities, etc. that disproportionately affect our communities. That’s what I’m doing for 2016.
SoulTrain.com: As someone who has experienced both the “show” and the “business” side of comedy, talk about why, for African Americans, comedy remains an important vehicle for the community.
Raymond Lambert: Other than preachers, in the black community, I would put comedians right behind them with respect to talking about issues and dealing with them in a very humorous way. Comedians are the best arbiters of thought, especially in the entertainment industry. Whether it’s Chris Rock, Larry Wilmore, or Trevor Noah, they find a way to weave humor into these very serious things and it gives us an escape, but it also inspires us to think and to act. Comedy gives us permission to do that.
LaShawn Williams is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, Illinois. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast who has a serious thing for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter: @MsWilliamsWorld.