Pride On Film: The Black Harvest Film Fest Part III – PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY

PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY tells the story of the legendary All Jokes Aside, a comedy club located in Chicago which served as the launching pad of a who’s who among young black comics which includes:  Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Sheryl Underwood and many others.

PHUNNY BUSINESS will be shown on Saturday August 27 at 5:45PM and on closing night Thursday September 1 at 7:30 PM at The Black Harvest Film Fest at Gene Siskel Film Center located at 164 N. State Street in Chicago. Director/writer John Davies and producer/writer and former club owner Raymond Lambert, shared with us their thoughts and experiences of making this dynamic documentary.

PRIDEINDEX: What inspired you to make a movie about comedy club All Jokes Aside?

RAYMOND LAMBERT: After I was unable to move the club north of the river, I walked away from comedy. I was on my way back to school and had been accepted to the PhD Project when I ran into John Davies in Chicago. I had met John in the early 90’s at the club with his then producing partner, Bob Zmuda, President of Comic Relief. I had done several charity events with Comic Relief and John and I had discussed doing a project together but nothing materialized. We lost touch and then I ran into him and told him what had happen to the club and the idea for the movie was born. John enlisted the help of Reid Brody, who runs the largest post production company in the Midwest and with that we had the nucleus to make it happen. I figured that I could dedicate a year to it. Three years later, here we are.

PI: Tell us about some of the notable challenges you experienced during the making of PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY and how you overcame them.

JD: The biggest challenge from the start was money. We self financed PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY and we are still trying to recover our investment. Documentary is not money making field generally speaking. If you can get your money back, you’ve hit a home run. Every other challenge was just typical and relatively easy to overcome if you know how to tell an 84 minute story with a beginning, middle and end and fortunately, I do. The biggest thing to keep in mind when you take on a project like this is that if you don’t have money, you’d better have time and that’s why it took us 36 months to make PHUNNY BUSINESS.

RL: We faced the same challenges as most small independent productions – How do you work with limited resources yet produce a quality movie? In addition, producing a documentary comes with its own set of unique challenges. The legal requirements alone are enough to make a grown man cry. We were fortunate to have a partner like Reid, and Co-Producer Brian Kallies, who also was our Cinematographer and Editor. Last but not least, the comedians and the staunch supporters of All Jokes Aside who were very giving of their time and resources.

Raymond Lambert

PI: What do you want moviegoers to take away from this film?

JD: I think PHUNNY BUSINESS is a cautionary tale. Every young entrepreneur, especially young Black entrepreneurs, must face up to the fact there are hidden challenges and obstacles in every business plan, things that reveal themselves over time that you just didn’t plan for. In Raymond’s case, he underestimated the reaction of the White business owners when he tried to move his club into Chicago’s predominantly White/mainstream entertainment district.  He was caught off guard and left with few options resulting in him losing the club. Is it fair? No, but its reality and it could happen again today even with a Black president.

RL: If they are engaged, entertained and inspired, we will have succeeded.

PI: PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY includes the who’s who among African American comics. How did you coordinate their schedules with your filming schedule?

JD: We didn’t coordinate much. We looked in the paper every week to see what comedians were coming to Chicago and if they were All Jokes Aside alumni, Ray reached out and had them come by our studio for an interview while they were in town. Every comedian in our film liked Raymond and had really good feelings about their time spent at All Jokes Aside and that’s why they agreed to be in our movie.

RL: We were very fortunate to be based in Chicago where most of the interviews took place. We did travel to New York, Atlanta, and LA but lucky for us, most all of the national acts working on the road make it through Chicago.

PI: Where did the name the PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY comes from?

JD: We argued for days about a title but the long and short of it is that there were problems using All Jokes Aside as our title so we went with FUNNY BUSINESS because the film is also a business story. It turned out that legally, it would have been very hard to clear the title FUNNY BUSINESS because too many other companies were using it but not the title PHUNNY BUSINESS with a PH. We added the A BLACK COMEDY part to make sure people knew it was a comedy movie but that was also a play on words. Black comedy traditionally refers to the nature of a certain kind of comedy but in our case it also meant something else that our film was primarily a Black story, relevant to all, but still a Black story as opposed to a White story.

PI: Is there any comic not included in this film that should have been?

John Davies

JD: We put everyone in who really wanted to be in. A few comics couldn’t be reached for an interview for whatever reason so in some cases we just used a clip or photo of them but there are no glaring omissions.

RL: We were very fortunate and have a who’s who of comedy in the movie. All were cooperative and graciously gave of their time and talent. It is a who’s who of comedy.

PI: Tell us about your first experience in a comedy club, what was it like?

JD: For me it was Chicago’s Second City and that’s a sketch comedy club, not a stand-up comedy club but it was inspirational and I know that’s why I ended up in the comedy business. i didn’t understand what they were doing but I instinctively felt that whatever it was they were doing, I wanted to be a part of it and I found a way, but not as a performer.

RL: I was blown away. I had no experience with comedy clubs so it was new to me. I instantly became a fan and looked out for comics when they would come through Chicago, which was rare. The local clubs were not booking comedians of color back then. That ultimately led to opening All Jokes Aside.

PI: Have you ever considered a career as a standup comic, or comedy writer?

JD: I can’t perform and never wanted to because I think the real control and power is behind the scenes. I don’t write comedy per se but I do write shows about comedy, case in point, PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY.

RL: No, I’ve never considered it. I prefer the business side of show business, I’m finding that balance between art and commerce.

PI: If you could go back in time and bring back with you only one of the great geniuses of comedy such as Moms Mably, Redd Fox, Richard Pryor and so on,  to include in PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY who would you choose?

JD: For me it would be George Kirby because he was the first Black comic I regularly saw on the Ed Sullivan Show and he was all alone in those days, no Pryor yet (BTW, I did Pryor’s BIOGRAPHY for A&E) but Mom’s was there and I don’t remember the pre-Sanford Redd Foxx on TV much because he worked so “blue.”

RL: If I could only talk to one comic for the purposes of this movie it would be Dick Gregory. He was the first Black comedian to perform in a mainstream club, in front of a white audience, in Chicago. Not to mention he is a genius and one of my favorite comedians of all time.

PI: Will there ever be an All Jokes Aside Reunion show?

JD: There will be an All Jokes Aside Reunion Show, more on that coming later.

RL: You never know; it’s a Phunny Business.

To purchase tickets click here

For a complete schedule of films showing at the Black Harvest Film Fest click here www.siskelfilmcenter/blackharvest2011

Poster design by Eric Hofmeister