Def Comedy Jam

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Whatever you say about Def Comedy Jam, they know how to get an audience in the mood; with the talented hip-hop DJ Kid Capri scratching his way through a sizeable compilation of dance classics, and frequently imploring us to ‘make some motherfucking noise’, before we get anywhere near the comedy.

This being Birmingham, West Midlands, rather than Birmingham, Alabama, means there’s a little more reserve that he’s probably used to, but the crowd gets properly hyped-up for the comedy… eventually. A sense of occasion’s certainly needed here – and not just because in 16 years of showcasing black comedians, this is the first time Def Comedy Jam’s come to the UK. Tickets cost a credit-crunching £33.50, about twice the price of a top-end comedy club, so punters want to feel it’s something special.

The almost exclusively American comedians tend to grandstand, too, performing with impressive force to try to bolster the hyperbole. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it seems an exaggerated energy to over-compensate for weaker material.

The only Brit on the bill – indeed, the first Brit ever to perform at one of these branded gigs – is host Kojo, who Def Comedy Jam impresario Russell Simmons called the ‘UK answer to Chris Rock’ before this mini-tour began. Rock might have grounds to sue.

For where Rock has provocative insight and fierce intelligence, Kojo has a repertoire of exaggerated mannerisms with which he illustrates mundane material on unoriginal topics. He’s got vast reserves of energy and charisma but too little to say, which means that his charm can slip into hubris, as he can seem overly self-satisfied at some of the less edifying material.

He impersonates black women with attitude, pursing their lips; mocks the elongated warbling of an evangelical choir; and does a couple of comedy accents – a terse African man and a generic ‘white people’ voice, which is gruff Cockney, overdue revenge, perhaps, for Jim Davidson’s hideously offensive Chalkie. But all this delivery doesn’t obscure the lack of good content.

When he evokes childhood memories of his dad meting out rough justice, for instance, the punchline is little more than: ‘Where was Supernanny then?’, which comedically isn’t much beyond a real ten-year-old’s idle threat to call Childline if he’s not allowed to stay up late. Other routines, about him not coming to his girlfriend’s aid in the street, or going home with a girl who has a filthy flat, are jumbled in their exposition and don’t have much of a payoff.

As compere, his sets are limited, so their shortcomings aren’t fully exposed; but even so he doesn’t live up to his hype. And he had an irritating way of insisting we all stand up when he introduced the acts, giving an enforced and uncomfortable standing ovation – and moments of awkwardness as everyone had to sit down again before the routines could start.

Opening act Dominique had an appealing screw-you attitude, and her tales of getting one over on the authorities – whether it be police or credit-card companies – certainly resonated with the audience.

Her proudly blue-collar set, delivered with calm, if grumpy confidence, probably makes Roseanne Barr the closest point of comparison. But it was hit-and-miss, thanks to obvious tales about smoking dope and the reconstructions on America’s Most Wanted. She had a peculiar routine about not wanting to get involved if a friend was a victim of domestic violence, which didn’t always hit the laughs, but was certainly raw and unusual.

Lively Tony Roberts is a fireball of pent-up energy, flitting about the stage like an angry wasp trapped in a jamjar. He ruthlessly spits out his hard-hitting material – borderline offensive but tempered with his innate silliness –with a ceaseless, crazy physicality. He repeatedly slaps the microphone stand down in mock fury, and literally tore the place up; busting up a barstool on stage as he re-enacted a stupid rap he’d written. The man’s a force of nature, for sure, and his passion and performance is irresistible – let’s hope we see more of this excellent act on this shores.

Patrice O’Neal does perform on the UK circuit now and again; but really should be here more often. He’s a solid, brooding presence – a Godfather of comedy dishing out his philosophies with the calmness that comes with inherent authority. His gravitas means that whatever he says sounds like they are well-considered nuggets of unarguable wisdom – though, in truth, they’re often as stupid and indefensible as anything a more Knockabout comic would say. If you know British circuit stalwart Reginald D Hunter, you’ll know exactly how this shtick works.

Sex is his main topic, from suggesting an officially sanctioned ‘harassment day’ at work, to the realities of fantasising about schoolgirls when you’re a 37-year-old man. The gags are great, and the delivery compelling. Another class act.

Capone was given the rapturous – almost hysterical – reception befitting his headliner status, reducing much of the audience to convulsions of laughter. He wasn’t the funniest comedian on the bill, however, but he was the harshest, playing up a no-nonsense image to match his gangster-inspired stage name.

Again he mostly dwelt below the belt, with extended takes on oral sex or men coming too quickly, but with none of the sophistication of O’Neal. Subtle isn’t his thing, in either content or delivery, and he relies on the force of his uncompromising language to provoke the laughs more than any wit.

He’s certainly got stockpiles of aggressive attitude, and an in-your-face performance style – which means he can wrap the audience around his little finger however weak the writing. But when you can have the audience whooping and hollering with posturing alone, crafting the perfect gag probably isn’t a priority.

But the punters were pleased… and at these prices, that’s the priority for the Def Comedy Jam brand.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Birmingham, September 2008

Review date: 1 Sep 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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