Monday, July 30, 2007

Black rooms versus White rooms

Ooooo. This post is about to get controversial! Hang tight!

Okay, so this weekend I happened to be lucky enough find a very hip and "with it" black comedy group, The Neighborhood Watch. They've been in existence for almost two years. They have garnered a small following and are looking to make some waves in the near future.

The director is David Lester, who befriended me immediately, after I performed for the first time at his weekly open mic on Tuesday nights at The Five Spot in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

...If you don't believe racism still exists, then I pity you...

A few days later, we get to talking about the most controversial issue in comedy: Being a black comic and playing a black room versus playing a white room. It's a major issue in comedic development.

A little bit of history: Black rooms are called the Chitlin circuit. That circuit was named this because of the popular southern black cuisine, Chitterlings.
Because of Jim Crow laws and your basic garden-variety segregation, great black artists/musicians (Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Little Richard, James Brown, Ray Charles, AND JIMI HENDRIX) needed to travel to distinctly black clubs in order to perform for them. Because white people sure as hell weren't going to sit next to "the help" while trying to enjoy "the help"'s performance on stage. dynamic directly goes into crafting a career as a comedian...

(And guess what, folks? They still exist today. Yeah, along with racism. If you don't believe racism still exists, then I pity you.)

Anyway, this whole black/white dynamic directly goes into crafting a career as a comedian. It's to our advantage.

To make it easier, let's just go through the Pros and Cons of each circuit.

Benefits of playing a black club:
- It doesn't cost anything to get on stage (no drink minimum, no drink tickets, no $5-$7 to get on stage.)
- Once you're established, you always get paid! (And payment equates to anywhere from $50 - $200, depending on the show)
- If you can play a black club, you will kill at a white club. (Again, this requires a small adjustment in delivery, but minor if any at all.)

- It's easy for comedians who play the black circuit to get stuck and remain in this circuit. (I'm purposely not saying "black comedians" in this line. The very first person/comedian I met on the black circuit just happened to be white had been in the business for 5 years. He also is a staple in the black clubs in NYC.
- Black clubs are not located anywhere central. Usually they are a distance from any major subway stop or train route.
- Black shows almost never start on time. I know it's sad and stereotypical to say, but it hasn't changed. Don't be surprised if you arrive on time and wait an hour before the show starts. (CPT is in full effect, yo!)

Benefits of playing a white club:
- Name recognition -- if you play them long enough, people will eventually get to know your name and face. It's where you'll get agents, managers, producers, etc. to see you. ('Cause they sure as hell aren't coming out to the black clubs.)

- There's no immediate pay off. You might not even get paid for your gigs. Consider it a donation of your time!
- Competition - You have to work and work and work to gain the top spots. (But again, if you play black clubs, you won't have to do as much work, because you really honed your craft at the black clubs.)
- A lot of networking and politics is involved (not that you won't find it in black clubs), but it's more at play in the white clubs.

So my talk with Dave was telling. And as you can see there are benefits to both. If you want to be a knockdown drag out Triple Threat comedian, cut your teeth on the black circuit, and craft and refine your comedy on the white circuit. Guaranteed you'll be a force to be reckoned with!


Did you enjoy this post? Buy me a warm cup of joe.


Rob7534 said...

Excellent post! I was only familiar w/the Chitlin circuit in relation to musical performers who toured the South. I loved the part in "RAY" the movie w/Jaime Fox who plays Ray Charles when they refer to the Chitlin circuit.

There were black venues set aside, and black owned hotels where they could stay, black theatres... ect ect...

Do you have any comedy routines recorded? You should post a snippet of your performance! We'd love to hear it.

Alex said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog! I'll add you to my RSS feed.

Jessi said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog. There won't be much going on during the next 3 weeks, but after that, hold on, because I've got plenty of stories to tell. Wait until you hear about the attack of the raccoons. ;)

RAFFI said...

as rob said, we'd love to hear you. or maybe post your show schedule on your blog.

Fever Dog said...

As ever, I'm fascinated :)

Indeterminacy said...

Very informative - I had no idea this type of mental segregation still existed. Truly sad. From the point of view of quality, I'd assume the blakc clubs have the more interesting players, artists who are there for love and passion of their craft.

I had to think of the Destination Freedom Episode about Nat King Cole while reading this. Lucy, if I can find an e-mail address at this site, I'll send it to you.

Thanks also for your fantastic story to photo 406 - I just now finished reading all the stories and commenting. Loved what you wrote!

DonkeyBlog said...

Where I come from, it's not so much black and white clubs, but rising comedians still have to play the "unlisted" rooms, where they hone their skills and hope to get noticed. Oddly enough, these amazing reserviours of telent are where established comedians (including visiting international celebs) return for un-promoted, impromptu gigs, 'cause the environment is more likely to foster opportunities for collaboration with other bods and trying new (and often pretty out there) ideas. So you start in a dive, progress to the "big time", get bored with the same old routines and requests for your old gags, and return to the dive 'cause that's where it's at.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

Quite an interesting perspective.

I'd be right in thinking you're American?
Sorry if I ask, but what you describe is an extreme version of thecway things are in the UK.

I've been to clubs where myself and my friend were literally the only white folk there, but comedy clubs aen't so common any more over here.

I like your style. If more could hear what people like you had to say, we'd get closer to ending these colour barriers.

Lucy said...

rob7534 - thank you! The Chitlin Circuit refers to all forms of black entertainment (so music and comedy included). The upscale Cotton Club and The Apollo Theater (post 1934) in New York City and The Victory Grill located in Austin, Texas are all included.

alex - thanks, alex! I'll be sure to check up on you!

jessi - no prob, jessi! I'm excited to see what you have in store!

raffi - yes, you and rob7534 keep hounding me for my horrible sets. Check out the audio links (top right corner) under the "Most Popular Posts" heading.

fever dog - glad you like it. stay tuned for more.

indeterminacy - I think it's funny you called it 'mental segregation,' because what other form (how else) does segregation manifest itself? Doesn't it always start with the mental?

donkeyblog - yes, it's the same here. But rising black comedians cater to the black clubs, and rising white stay at the white clubs. What you describe (returning to the dive clubs) isn't uncommon. If an established comedian (i.e. Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld) needs to craft a new set, they head back to the beginner/dive rooms. I've ran into them myself. But again, I don't think you'll ever find Seinfeld at a black club, for obvious reasons.

crushed by ingsoc - "perspective" implies that it's my opinion. But let me tell ya as a witness to this self-segregation--it is well in effect and doesn't seem to be fading anytime soon.

thanks for all your comments, everyone! Keep in touch and add me to your blogroll, if you're truly nasty!

MymaniacalMind said...

Wow, Lucy! Amazing work. Being a black artist AND a historian I LOVED reading it. And mostly everything you said is 100% correct (even the CPT! sadly enough.) I would like to note, I love how it seemed that there were more pros in for the Black circuit and the White. . . . .was that something that happened by coincidence or was that intentional? Great writing!

SJ said...

Self-segregation I like the term though I can't help thinking how "self" it is... sure the laws have changed but is a social restriction really "self". I of course mean an individual by self.

Nice to hear from someone who is actually "there" not in Univ classroom writing a thesis on race :)

Lucy said...

mymaniacalmind - I was psyched to witness the Pro side of the scale tipped on "the black end." The way I see it, if you don't branch out as a comedian, you're doing yourself a disservice and holding yourself and your career back. To each his own.

sj - You mention that there are no laws holding people back from socializing with people of other races/cultures/etc. Okay, then, so what else is holding you back?

My point is that there is no such thing as "social restriction." You stop yourself from doing whatever you want to do.

If you and your friends want to hang out somewhere, you just do it. You don't read into whether or not the black club you would like to go to has "social restrictions."

But then you answer your question in the next line by saying, "of course I mean an individual." You are an individual, not bound by society. You decide. If you're subject to peer pressure, it's because you allow it to happen.

Arranged marriages aren't a social restriction if you don't let it. You can decide tomorrow to break that cultural or social condition.

A society is a state of mind. If you and your friends decide to go to a black club one evening, what's holding you back but gas money? Nothing. No one will ban you from going. Like I wrote in my post, my first encounter on the black circuit, was a white guy, from Jersey. He finished school (university) and has become an established comic on the black circuit. Why does he feel it's okay to hit up the black clubs? Because he doesn't let society restrict him or his access. I would love to continue this discussion. Email me, if I'm not clear on this.

Josh Homer said...

Being a working comedian and one of the original memebers of Neighborhood Watch (I quit the group about 8 months ago), I disagree with a lot of the things in this blog. If you do great in a "black club" does not guaruntee anything in a "white club". First and foremost when you do any room that is biased, it is very easy to cheat as a comic. Just look next Tuesday how many comics can say anything about white people or just behavior common amoung black people (with no punch lines) and get laughs.

I will address some of your points (not that I know everything).
It does not matter if it is a black or a white room, you can get up anywhere for free. You just have to look.

See above on killing in white rooms and killing in black ones. Not every black comedian can do waht Wali Collins or Reggie White do. Many of them are not passed at the major clubs in NYC because they can not kill in front of a white audience. I will say this, the black comics who do get passed (in my opinion) at white clubs are much funnier than their white counterparts. They have to be in order to be looked at as a funny comic and not a funny black comic.

Once you are established there is no garuntee of anything. Just look at Cool Budda Ice. Who? Exactly.

There are really no black clubs. The rooms I believe you are referring to are really bars with stages. Most comedy clubs in NYC have urban (aka black) shows at least once a week.

To say black shows don't start on time is wrong. Ask any of the pros who run shows. They have more than one show a night and starting anytime will not work out. Starting late is a 5 Spot thing, and starting 30-60 minutes late is bad business. It trains your audience that they can show up anytime.

Playing a white club does not mean name recognition. I know pro comics who work the road and have done so for 30 years. No one knows their name or face except the industry. Managers will come to where ever there is a comic who can make them money.

There is no pay off in any comedy in the immediate future, black, white, yellow or purple.

There is competition at black and white clubs. I think you might be looking at bars like the 5 Spot. Those rooms work off of trade, every comic Dave puts up puts him up in their room. It works the same way with "white rooms"; that's underground comedy, not a black/white thing.

There is networking and politics at all clubs and rooms, people kissing ass of people they hate as people and as comics, again it's not a black/white thing, it's a comedy thing.

I wish you well on your journey, but talk to a bunch of comics, ones who are working and get a second opinion.

check out my blog at


ollie's fork in the road said...

I dont think that you have to embrace a Black room but you better know how to work a "Black" room.

Doing a "Black" room is great training but it takes skill, have you done a "Black" room and if so what happend?

Lucy said...

Yes, I have done a black room and actually got a lot better response than I have when I play white rooms, considering my upbringing is a upper middle class background (mainly white). I guessed I have a lot of resentment to work out. LOL