It wasn’t quite Mardi Gras in West Hollywood, but for a solid decade from 1995-2005, the hottest stand-up comedy show in Los Angeles took place on Tuesday nights at The Comedy Store. A new three-part docuseries on Amazon Prime Video, directed by Reginald Hudlin, pays tribute to “The Era of Hip-Hop Comedy”.
Opening Shot: We enter an empty showroom. We hear Guy Torry say, “It’s 1995.” Then we see him, sitting on a stool onstage behind a microphone. “I’m all excited. You know, I got my own comedy night, at The Comedy Store. And comics back then were predominately White, so I wanted to put some other people on.”
The Gist: Before the opening title credits, we get hyped up with all-star testimonials.
Cedric the Entertainer: “Tuesday nights was our night.”
Dave Chappelle: “Phat Tuesdays was such an under-recognized cultural moment. It was very significant.”
Nick Cannon: “Phat Tuesday was Def Jam on steroids.”
Snoop Dogg: “Phat Tuesdays was like, a melting pot for genius s—t.”
They tell us why The Comedy Store played such an important role in whether any stand-up comedian could enjoy success in Hollywood, the symbolism of having your name on the club’s exterior walls, and how club owner Mitzi Shore controlled everything, including who could perform there. Then George Wallace points out how Black audiences could see John Witherspoon as the house MC and Paul Mooney closing out shows, but no one who looked or sounded like them for hours in between. Which segues into Chappelle reminding us that comedy clubs before the 1990s used to segregate or otherwise follow sometimes subtly racist rules, and how Black comedians in the 1960s and 1970s had to cater to the tastes and senses of humor of White audiences if they wanted to break through in show business.
Stave Harvey, he of the talk shows, Family Feud, Miss Universe and soon a court show, drives the point home by telling us Mitzi rejected him when he first tried to get spots at the Store.
The first episode proceeds fairly chronologically, starting a decade earlier when the late Robin Harris ditched the Store in 1985 to start his own night at The Comedy Act Theatre in South Central in 1985, with plenty of footage of Harris and comedians who performed there, and the story of how The Comedy Act Theatre inspired Stan Lathan and Russell Simmons to pitch Def Comedy Jam to HBO.
Hudlin steps in front of the camera to explain how much he enjoyed working with Harris, who died in 1990 at only 36 of heart failure, and how he made an animated film, Bebe’s Kids, based on Harris’s comedy so that his legacy could endure.
The first episode also introduces us to the brothers Torry. Joe took over The Comedy Act Theatre showcase when Harris died, scored a plum role on the big screen in Poetic Justice, and also took over hosting of Def Comedy Jam when Martin Lawrence vacated that gig. His younger brother, Guy, moved out to L.A. from St. Louis after the 1992 L.A. riots, and the aftereffects of the riots left show business execs unwilling to scout talent in South Central.
But Guy, through his representatives, managed to convince The Comedy Store to give him a trial run of four Tuesday nights in February 1995. In the club’s intimate upstairs Belly Room, which only seats 90. Fortunately for Guy and for his comedy peers, he managed to capture lightning in a bottle. Nine months later, Phat Tuesdays graduated to the 400-seat Main Room.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of?: Showtime’s 2020 docuseries on The Comedy Store, obviously. Def Comedy Jam 25 on Netflix, which came out in 2017, covers some similar ground but in a much different atmosphere as a variety special.
Our Take: That The Comedy Store devoted so many episodes to the history of one comedy club and virtually left out the story of Phat Tuesdays is kinda shocking, actually, though perhaps not surprising, considering how the showcase existed at once inside the club while also in its own orbit outside of Mitzi Shore’s outsized influence. It also proves the very point of why Phat Tuesdays, both the showcase and the docuseries, existed.
As Guy Torry told me in an interview last week, “It was bittersweet” seeing Phat Tuesdays snubbed by the Showtime docuseries, especially since his showcase helped keep The Comedy Store open during the club’s leanest years at the turn of the millennium. But then again, Torry figured it was all in God’s plan. “He wanted us to tell our story our way,” Torry said. “It wouldn’t have told our story the way Reggie Hudlin would’ve told our story.”
Although I expected the docuseries to dig a bit deeper into the specific history of the showcase and how it spawned Black-themed comedy nights at clubs across America, I still appreciated all of the extra detours into the various aspects of the cultural history of the 1990s.
Parting Shot: The first episode ends with a montage of comedians teasing how big Phat Tuesdays would get, closing on Kym Whitley saying “You don’t want to miss it,” then joking about how hot she was getting in the coat she wore for her interview.
Sleeper Star: If only the male stripper Cherry Poppa actually showed up for this docuseries, he’d definitely qualify, but we only see and hear about the guy who moved into the Torreys’ closet and then helped recruit audience members for the early showcases. So that leaves non-sleeper Steve Harvey as the talking head who wins the first episode, what with his lively act-outs impersonating the differences between White audiences at stand-up comedy shows vs. Black audiences.
Most Pilot-y Line: The opening shot is followed by a trio of security guards, sitting outside in the club parking lot, and one of them says: “Guy was like, ‘Hollywood don’t want to come to the hood, so let’s take the hood to Hollywood.’”
Our Call: STREAM IT. I loved the ’90s before MTV and VH1 told us to, so I’m already partial to this nostalgic look back at Generation X comedy when we were young.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.