*Below is the first review of “Phunny Business: A Black Comedy,” a documentary described by The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy as “a fast-talking, sharp-witted documentary about a black-owned Chicago comedy club of the 1990s.”

Narrated by John Ridley, the film is currently screening at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

John Ridley

McCarthy writes…

Generous archival video footage provides fantastic early evidence of the talents of a dazzling group of future stars: Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Mo’Nique, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve James, Dave Chappelle, Mike Epps, Michael Winslow and many other less known but equally funny performers make this peak into one aspect of contemporary comedy’s roots a pure pleasure. Although best enjoyed in a packed theater where the laughter is contagious and the sense of community palpable, this success story with a melancholy undercurrent will likely find its natural home on cable and home formats.

The sun around which the many glittery talents orbit here is Raymond C. Lambert, a bright, well-spoken entrepreneur and protégé of Chris Gardner, the famous basis for The Pursuit of Happyness. In 1990, Lambert caught a Monday night black showcase at the L.A. Improv and was inspired to launch a club blacks could call their own in Chicago, on Wabash at the south end of the Loop.

The very first act at All Jokes Aside when it opened the following year was Jamie Foxx, seen here in rough amateur video footage, while Steve Harvey is credited with definitely putting it on the map via a long day spent on local radio effectively promoting the place. Special emphasis is put on how Lambert, a quite proper Morehouse grad who knew nothing about showbiz, ran his club with professionalism and class, paying the talent right after the show, imposing a dress code (no baggy pans or t-shirts), not tolerating troublemakers and insisting that the customer was always right.

Raymond C. Lambert

Before long, All Jokes Aside was the place to see and be seen, attracting a well turned out South Side crowd including numerous Chicago Bears players and even Michael Jordan, glimpsed cracking up in the audience. And there was a lot to see: The array of talent is phenomenal and Davis has gotten many of the comedians to provide retrospective commentary on what it was like to perform there (wonderful) and what it meant for their careers (a great deal).

Before long, Lambert branched out into television, with a season of Comic Justice on Comedy Central and BET’s Comic View. But as the decade chugged along, the biggest names went into television and movies and, more crucially on a local level, the big-venue concert circuit. Suddenly, it all came down: Gentrification priced Lambert out of his original space, a deal for a new location on the North Side was botched and old-style Chicago politics and business practices sent Lambert packing. As one observer bluntly puts it, “Ray just didn’t pay off the right people.”

This makes for an unfortunate climax to the story, but in the end All Jokes Aside is seen as a phenomenon of being the right place at the right time for the right people. It also affords intimate impressions of certain participants, beginning with Chris Gardner, who seems to laugh with life no matter what, and including such lesser-known but exceptional performers as the irrepressibly energetic A.J. Jamal, the mammoth Lavell Crawford and the hilariously blunt Honest John, apparently the only white comedian invited to take the stage on South Wabash Street.

Snappy editing and visual effects are at one with the breezy proceedings.

  • Cast: Raymond C. Lambert, Chris Gardner, Doug Banks, Bill Bellamy, J. Anthony Brown, Cedric the Entertainer, Deon Cole, Melanie Comarcho, Lavell Crawford, Don ‘D.C.’ Curry, Earthquake, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Adele Givens, Steve Harvey, Laura Hayes, D.L. Hughley, A.J. Jamal, Honest John, John Kapelos, Tim Kazurinsky, Andre Kelly, T.K. Kirkland, Ali LeRoi, Jamie Masada, Carlos Mencia, Craig Robinson, Tony Sculfield, J.B. Smoove, Aries Spears, Sheryl Underwood, George Wallace, George Wilborn, Damon Williams, Michael Winslow.