It's Showtime for bittersweet lesson in Chicago comedy
John Davies and Reid Brody
Coinciding with Black History Month, a critically acclaimed documentary about a legendary black-owned comedy club in Chicago will premiere at 7:30pm Thursday on Showtime.
Phunny Business: A Black Comedy tells the alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking story of the rise and fall of All Jokes Aside, the swanky South Loop venue that advanced the careers of Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Mo'Nique, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve James, Dave Chappelle, Mike Epps, Michael Winslow and many others in the ’90s.
It’s also the story of Raymond C. Lambert, the visionary entrepreneur who launched the club — and eventually lost it to gentrification, the success of the stars he showcased, and old-style Chicago politics.
Roger Ebert, who praised Phunny Business as one of the best documentaries of 2011, invited it to his annual film festival in April. Time Out Chicago critic Jason A. Heidemann called it a “cautionary tale” that “contains all the ingredients of a thriller.”
Blending archival footage with interviews of many of those on both sides of the stage, the documentary was written, produced and directed by John Davies, the former Chicago producer (Sneak Previews, Wild Chicago) who went on to create and produce dozens of series and specials in Hollywood.
In addition to the big-name comics in the film, Chicago radio people figure prominently, including such personalities as Steve Harvey (who went on to become, well, Steve Harvey), Doug Banks, Tony Sculfield and George Wilborn, and owner/executive Marv Dyson. Ernie Tucker, the former Sun-Times reporter who covered the comedy beat in the ’90s (a measure of how important standup was at the time), is a voice of authority in the documentary.
Kudos to Davies for getting it done. After he and Lambert agreed to collaborate, it took three years to complete the documentary against very long odds. Davies didn’t even bother to seek outside financing because he knew it would be futile. Instead, he pooled his resources with Lambert, Filmworkers Club post-production founder Reid Brody, and editor/videographer Brian Kallies.
“[We] all agreed to the put the time in, self-finance it, and just count on the fact that we’d make something good enough that would sell, and that’s what’s happened.” Davies told WGN’s Rick Kogan earlier this week. “We’ll get out money back. We’ll probably make a little bit. But we certainly don’t do something like this expecting to make a profit.”