Behind the Scenes at the Comedy Union

For a comic, the worst thing in the world may be dying the death of a thousand dogs at the Comedy Union, where the audience has exacting standards—and so does its owner

On Pico Boulevard just west of Roscoe’s House of Chicken ’n Waffles is a little club called the Comedy Union, which used to be a dentist’s office and is now L.A.’s premier showcase for black comedians. Among the reasons they like to play the Comedy Union is that it’s one of the only places in town where four or five black comics can perform on the same bill weekend nights. If you look at the schedules for the Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store, and the Improv, you’ll see each has an Asian night, a Latin night, and an urban night, which is the euphemism for black comedy. The purpose of these evenings is not to segregate so much as to lure anyone who will pony up the two-drink minimum, but black comedians are always saying that unless they’re Chris Rock or Jamie Foxx, they’re not welcome the rest of the week. Some say it’s racism. Some say it’s all the dick-and-pussy jokes, as they’re called in the Industry. Whatever the case, since it opened three years ago a bunch of comics have been coming to the Comedy Union, where, as one put it, every night is nigga’ night.

The Comedy Union is run and co-owned by a man who appears to have no sense of humor when you meet him. His name is Enss Mitchell, he’s 37, and he believes he’s a comic visionary. Mitchell used to manage a Laugh Factory on the outskirts of Chicago and for a brief time the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. One of his missions in life is to wean black comedians off the dirty jokes and denigration of women and white-people-this-and-white-people-that, which so many have come to expect of them. To this end Mitchell decided to provide an environment that would be the polar opposite of urban nights, which tend to run raunchy especially at the Improv’s “Mo Betta’ Mondays,” where comedians are sometimes booed off the stage and the police can be waiting when the show gets out. When people go to the Comedy Union for the first time, they always remark on how pleasant it is. After you pang you are met by a greeter who asks how you are and if you’ve been before and chats until the hostess comes to seat you. The room seats 160 and is shaped like a shoe box and has high brick walls and red curtains and is lit almost entirely by red and orange lights that make everything look slow moving and far away, except for the stage and the comedians on it.

Most of the comics who play the Comedy Union are professionals who tour the country and who sometimes appear in movies or on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam or BET’s Comic View. When they come to the Comedy Union, they make no more than $25. This is the standard rate at all clubs here, since L.A. is lousy with comedians willing to play for nothing in the hopes of being discovered and having a sitcom built up around them. One thing comics like about the Comedy Union is that the spotlight there isn’t too bright, so they can see the audience, who tend to be older and more educated than those at urban nights. “They have real jobs with W-2s,” as one comedian put it. The audience ranges in age from twenties to seventies and is predominantly black, apart from the early Friday and Saturday shows, which are usually white comedians playing for white audiences. Famous comics like Eddie Murphy, DL Hughley, Earthquake, Sinbad, and Kevin Nealon sometimes come to the club and even “go up,” as they say The night before the mayoral race Bernard Parks gave a speech there and was filmed watching a Ray Charles impersonator and clutching his side. Another frequent visitor is a USC anthropologist named Lanita Jacobs-Huey, who is writing a book about black stand-up comedy and is devoting a section to Michael Jackson jokes, of which there were a good many this spring, especially after he came to court wearing his pajamas.

Mitchell is tall and wears his hair in dreadlocks and has a perpetually blank expression. For reasons no one can articulate he likes to run around insulting people and shouting “Awful!” and “Not good!” at everyone he sees. Some have likened him to George Jefferson of The Jeffersons. If Mitchell were to have his own sitcom, he would be portrayed as the penny-pinching proprietor of a black comedy club who is beset by comedians who aren’t funny and bartenders who put too much alcohol in the drinks and who is always trying to entice white people into his establishment. Mitchell is prone to rants about the business of comedy and the details of running a club. Tables must never be teetery, he will tell you, or they will send the subliminal message to people that the whole place is awful. Glasses of wine must be seven ounces, no more, otherwise he’ll lose money. The reason he has someone seat you isn’t just to be polite but because black people insist on sitting in the back. “It’s in our DNA,” he says. He is notorious for telling comedians they’re awful to their face. “I bring them into my office,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to do something, ’cause this is awful! I’ve been watching you for three months, and I’ve seen no material change. I’ve seen no timing change. If I can be honest with you, I’ve seen you regress. You need six years of nonstop writing, and even then I think you’re going to be not good.’” Many comedians don’t like him for this reason. In fact, many comedians can’t stand Mitchell and call him a megalomaniac and a control freak and a star-fucker and say he must not have been hugged as a child. But those who do like him like him a lot and say this is just his sense of humor and that once he insults you he’s a dear, especially if he thinks you’re funny. There are endless tales about kindnesses Mitchell has extended to comedians—money lent, agents procured, jokes punched up. It pleases Mitchell to talk about the inner workings of a joke. He has an extensive recall of all the ones he’s ever heard, and he can tell you exactly what the comedian was doing with his arms and his eyes when the punch line was delivered. He doesn’t laugh easily, but when he does, he throws back his head and shouts “Hilarious!” or “Bananas!” or “Beast!”

One of Mitchell’s beliefs is that all comedians should have a 12-minute routine, a 7-minute routine, and a 3-minute, squeaky-clean routine they can do on The Tonight Show, should the situation arise. He doesn’t mind foul language or even filthy jokes per se. As he himself points out, there are some damned good dick-and-pussy jokes out there. He just doesn’t like it when they’re gratuitous and not funny. He is also a firm proponent of a strong point of view and feels that when a comedian gets off the stage, the audience should know who he is. This is one of the determining factors that Industry people look for in a comic.

Among the comedians Mitchell is helping is a 22-year-old from Atlanta named Justin Mitchell, no relation, who recently gave himself to God and came out here to become a star. Justin has dark skin, and when he gets onstage he usually starts off by pretending he’s African. Then he launches into a series of stories requiring impressions of dogs and horses and hogs and young men pretending to have cerebral palsy to get out of trouble. He’s an extraordinarily gifted physical comedian, and he recently directed a DVD of his own sketches, one of which features him as a pregnant man.

“The problem with Justin is, his Southern accent is too thick,” Mitchell says. “When he gets excited, you can’t understand a word he says. I was on the phone with him the other day, and I was like, ‘What? What are you saying?’ I had to hang up. It’s awful!”

Justin is staying in Mitchell’s apartment and does odd jobs around the club. Unlike most comedians, he is not morose or self-involved, and he loves to talk. One day when I stopped by, he told me he thought he was going to be a millionaire before he was 25 and that he probably had more to draw from than the average comedian.

“I’m from the hood,” he said. “But not from the hood hood. My family was wealthy. I had horses. I love horses. In fact, I was a bucking bronco rider. I was in the Bill Pickett circus. My father owned a barbershop, so I also know how to cut hair.” Then he turned to Mitchell and said, “I really do believe I’m going to be the new hot star.”

“Oh, really?” said Mitchell. “I just got the breakdown for BET’s new talk show, and they’re not looking for anyone dark skinned.”

“I like my color,” said Justin. “I wish I was darker. I think I’ll move to Africa.”

Whereupon Mitchell told him that if he wanted to do something useful, he should cut off his neck.

The Comedy Union is open six days a week, and Mitchell choreographs nearly everything from his tiny office, which is located under the stairway and filled with stacks of yellow audience-response cards. Mitchell prides himself that most are positive. When people write negative things, Mitchell calls to discuss the problem—unless the problem is the high price of drinks. Mitchell also takes reservations, works the box office, cleans the toilets, does the books, and posts notes throughout the club. The first note you see when you arrive is taped to the box office, which says MICHAEL’S FRIENDS DO NOT GET IN FREE. This refers to Michael Colyar, who for years played the Venice boardwalk and who hosts Monday nights. Colyar likes to give his shows themes, which in the past have included “Prison Night,” where anyone who’d been in prison or knew someone who had been got in for half price. Mitchell nixed that. Tuesday nights are “Lyrics & Laughs,” which combines poetry and comedy. Wednesdays are “Crack ’Em Up College.” Thursdays are hosted by comedian Michael Jay Anthony Brown but are often preempted by one-offs, such as “Children’s Stand-up Comedy Night.”

If you are going to the Comedy Union for the first time, you will want to start with the Friday or Saturday ten o’clock shows. Mitchell handpicks the comedians for these shows, and they always sell out. He never knows which comedians are going to play until Tuesday, which is the designated day for them to call and say they’re in town and want to go up. Only four comedians go up per night, and a hundred people call for those spots. Most clubs have headliners, but Mitchell doesn’t believe in such hierarchies. The least experienced or least funny go first, he says. “That’s so if they stink up the place, it’ll be ancient history when the funniness starts. Next come the storytellers and guys who provoke more thought than laughs and people with slow cadences. That way you can train the audience to laugh slow and build from there. After the second guy, it doesn’t really matter who you put up, as long as you close on the person with the most energy. That is because some people are just so huge that as soon as they walk onstage, they’ll suck all the energy out of the room and destroy it, and there’s nothing left for the next guy. Dirty comedians should always go up last. If they’re really dirty, you can never bring it back to a level of sanity. Once I made the mistake of letting this dude Bobo go up first. And right at the start he unzipped his pants and pulled out a fake dick and the front row walked out. There was no laughter at all. There was deficit laughter.”

When mishaps of that sort occur, it is the job of the emcee to right the room for the next comedian. “People don’t realize how crucial the role of the emcee is,” Mitchell continues. “The emcee has to be the audience’s trusted friend. The safety valve of the evening. The pleasant aroma. That means if somebody dies the death of a thousand dogs, you got to address it ’cause before they went up you told the audience they’d be good, and if they weren’t good, it’s not good.”

Friday nights are hosted by Rodney Perry, who is considered one of the best emcees in the country and who once came onstage after a comedian died and said, “I hope he’s not flying tonight, because they’ll never let him on an airplane with those bombs.” Perry is stocky and wears suits that are tight about the torso. Mitchell met him a few years ago when Perry was hosting a comedy night at the Hollywood Park Casino, and he thinks he’ll soon be a household name. “Rodney’s huge. Huge!” Mitchell says. “He has a light that shines in him that you want to be around. But it’s impossible to describe. It’s almost like when you’re in love and then you’re out of love. The pain is just there. But you can’t pinpoint it. You just can’t describe where the pain is, but it’s all over you. That’s how I describe Rodney Perry.”

Perry starts by joshing with the crowd, asking who among them is married, how long they’ve been together, and what they do for a living, trolling for jokes. In the beginning they’ll be one-liners, until the audience warms up. Then he’ll go to the longer bits, most of which are about life’s endless pageant of little cruelties. On a recent evening a clinical psychologist in the audience triggers a joke about the taboo of infidelity and grandfathers cheating on grandmothers and siring whole other families. “And they wasn’t across the country, either,” Perry says. “They was in the same neighborhood! Your friends! You’d be playing with your brothers and sister!” The audience howls at this line. “And don’t think Grandma didn’t get even,” he goes on. “We all got an uncle in our family don’t look like nobody else. Everybody’s five four, this nigger’s six fifteen! Nigger’s just out of place! And what Grandma do?! Grandma ain’t gonna let this punk go through life forgetting this shit. She’s gonna name this baby Junior! Junior don’t look like Daddy, don’t walk like Daddy, don’t talk like Daddy. But this nigger named Junior!” With that, Perry will bring up the first comedian of the evening.

Mitchell doesn’t generally like to watch comedians when they’re on. Mostly he likes to stay in the office and listen for laughter. If there is none in the first 10 or 20 seconds, something is wrong and he’ll go into the room. “Some guys, if they’ve had a fight with their wives, they’re dead and never recover,” he says. “It’s a terrible thing to watch. Awful! So that determines whether he gets his full 12 minutes or just 7 minutes or 5 minutes and whether I give him the light.” The “light” is the light that all comedy clubs flash when they want comedians to get offstage. When comics ignore it at the Comedy Union, Mitchell says, they’re not invited back.

If you spend a lot of time in comedy clubs, you’ll notice the themes start to repeat: the bait and switch of marriage, the cost of gas, and anything to do with Michael Jackson (his monkey, his translucent skin, his sister’s breast, and his father, Joe, who people are always blaming for the Jackson children’s problems but whom Rodney Perry says should be commended because he beat the kids to success). The most memorable of the Jackson bits was by a comedian named Jay Phillips. “Mike banged that boy,” it went. “I’m gonna say it right now. Mike banged that boy: And he gave the dude 20 million dollars. Twenty million dollars! I would go to Mike’s house myself for 20 million dollars. And I would take my son with me, too. Understand? ‘Come on, son, let’s go. Stop crying. Daddy’s coming, too. Man up!’ That’s two checks. That’s 40 million dollars! I can buy some pride and relocate with that kind of change. You’ll be at the bus stop, and I’ll pull up in my brand-new Bentley: ‘That’s that dude that had sex with Mike.’ Beep! Beep! I’d blow his back out for 20 million dollars! That don’t make you gay: That make you a businessman.”

Recently, I asked Mitchell how he’d gotten into the comedy business, and he told me it was on account of a bad breakup in the early ’90s. “Things were not good,” he said. “My degree is in marketing from DePaul. At the time I was living in Aurora, outside of Chicago, and I was working as a national sales trainer for a company called Allied Education Corporation, and I was traveling all the time, and I was supposed to have married this woman, but it ended badly, and I was crushed, and I couldn’t see being in a hotel room in a different city any longer, and I wanted out, but I didn’t know what to do. Then one day I was driving on Route 59, and I noticed they were building a new building, and it turned out to be a comedy club, a Laugh Factory, and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to apply for a job, whatever opening they have, and if I get it, I’ll quit my job and work here.’ I’d been making close to $60,000, so to throw it all away for a five- or seven-dollar-an-hour job, that should tell you what dire straits I was in. I hadn’t even been in a comedy club before. Anyway, they hired me, and I went from ticket taker to assistant manager to marketing manager, then general manager. I did everything there. I did liquor inventory. I did the numbers. I booked comedians. In those days everyone was coming through. Don Read, Basil, Scott Rose, Marty Putz, John Campanera, Lenny Clark, and I didn’t want them staying in their hotel rooms all alone. So me and my waitresses would take them out, and we’d have fun and talk about their jokes, and I’d just make suggestions, and then I’d hear it the next night and it would work. So then comics started telling me, ‘You got a knack for this stuff.’”

The club closed a few years later when comedy hit a dry spell, and Mitchell decided to move to California, which he had imagined as a paradise where he would hang out with all the comedians he’d met over the years and have drinks. “Well, I don’t drink,” he said, “but coffee and tea.” Hollywood being what it is, no one had time for Mitchell, and after a month spent alone and depressed in his apartment, he got a job at the Comedy Store. That only lasted nine months because, he says, he’s a perfectionist. “I tried to save them money on the liquor order and set up their telemarketing department and the comment cards,” he said, “but they were like, ‘Why you coming here changing the system?’ So they rebelled.” After that he got a job writing promotions for NBC and started spending his nights at a club called Mixed Nuts Comedy, which was located where the Comedy Union sits today.

Mitchell did not realize it at the time, but he was about to open the third black-owned comedy club in the history of Los Angeles. The first was the Comedy Act Theater, which was started in 1985 by a man named Michael Williams, who had an epiphany one night at the Comedy Store. In those days black comedians weren’t usually booked at the three big clubs in town unless they were stars. When they did appear, it was invariably at the end of the night after the Industry crowd went home, which some used to call “the nigger slot.” “So I paid my money,” William says, “and I drank the two-drink minimum, and I sat there the whole night watching white comic after white comic come up and feeling like I’d been robbed. Then a black comic finally comes on, and I’m thinking he’s just as bad as the white comics until he does a joke that I thought was somewhat decent—about a preacher. And I said, ‘Finally! Something I can relate to.’ At that moment he decided to open a black comedy club. The idea was so novel and word spread so fast that the first week he opened, Williams received phone calls from people like Damon Wayans and Robert Townsend asking if they might play there. Huge crowds came from the start, and young comedians like Chris Rock and Jamie Foxx began to play open-mic nights. Industry people piled down in limos to see them. One was Russell Simmons, cofounder of the rap label Def Jam Records, who got the idea to feature the comedians he saw there in an HBO special called Def Comedy Jam. The show drew so much attention to black comedy that Williams opened new clubs in Atlanta and Chicago, which flourished until 1997, when he was diagnosed with cancer and shut down his empire.

A year later Mixed Nuts, the city’s second black club, was opened by a Nigerian immigrant named Bene Benwikere, who’d had a lot of trouble understanding black slang when he moved here in the ’70s and had taken to watching Sanford and Son to pick it up. According to Mitchell, the place wasn’t inviting. “It had bugs,” he says, “and everything was rickety.” So Mitchell started to help out, and pretty soon that became a second full-time job. Then, shortly after September II, Benwikere announced that he was moving to the Crenshaw district and Mitchell decided to take over the lease.

Things did not go well for Mitchell at first. He had grand plans and lined up a partner, but halfway through the renovation she dropped out, and he went home and stayed in bed for a week. “Under the covers,” he says. “I’m not lying. Then one day I got out of bed and sent an e-mail to everyone I knew saying that I had a vision for a club and that I needed their money I said I wasn’t going to ask a few of them for a lot of money but rather a lot of them for a little money—50 bucks, 100 bucks, whatever they could spare. And I shed tears ’cause I’m not used to asking people for things, and gradually the money started coming in. Twenty bucks here and there.”

In the end it wasn’t enough, and he had to find a silent partner (a comedian named Erick Nathan). Sinbad and DL Hughley played the first night, and then Perry came on board as emcee and began promoting the club on KJLH, where he’d just gotten a job on the morning show. Perry recalls the first years as grueling. “A lot of people don’t know it,” he says, “but Enss didn’t pay himself a salary for two years. He was living hand-to-mouth, sleeping in the club. One of the hardest things for him was all these comedians showing up who gave him money to start the club, and they felt they should have unlimited stage time forever.”

This is still happening, says Mitchell, and it infuriates him. “They expect me to bow down to them when they show up,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘Dude, you gotta call Tuesday like everybody else,’ and they don’t like that. There’s three of them now who go around town going, ‘I gave that fucker money,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, you did. But I’m not going to change who I am because you gave me $200.’” To this day some comedians claim Mitchell turned his back on them, that in the end he’s just the same as white club owners in that he only books black comedians who are on TV or are about to blow up or who kiss his ass. “Let me put it this way,” says James Hannah, one of the comedians who gave Mitchell startup money. “I don’t wish Enss dead, but when he dies I hope it’s screaming.”

In the three years that the Comedy Union has been open, the waitresses have taken to running around saying “awful” and “not good” and helping comedians with their jokes. Agencies like William Morris have started holding showcases there, as have Comedy Central and the Aspen and Montreal comedy festivals. Seeing the comedians in those showcases, most of which are awful (“They have no point of view! No talent!”), has only confirmed Mitchell’s belief that the comics who play his club must be championed. Last year he started managing four, including Rodney Perry. Another is a white comedian named Angela Hoover, whose signature routine is about being fired from her receptionist job at a Century City law firm for inadvertently mimicking the voices of celebrity clients when they called. Mitchell has also made forays into the profitable world of comedy DVDs with a series called Phat Tuesdays, filmed at the club and featuring some of the regulars. Now he is talking about opening a Comedy Union in Atlanta and perhaps more franchises, each of which will have brick walls and red curtains and look just like the one here.

Among Mitchell’s regrets is that the Comedy Union has become known as a black club. “I never wanted this place to be just a black club,” he says. “I want it to be a place where the white guy goes, ‘Here’s my ten dollars, give me a ticket,’ and the Latino guy goes, ‘Here’s my ten dollars, give me a ticket,’ and all kinds of color comedians go up in the same show.” So far, this hasn’t happened. White comedians who play the Comedy Union mostly play for white audiences and rarely at the black shows. One day I asked Mitchell why this was, and he said that one of the reasons he has trouble booking white comedians is that most are terrified to play black audiences. “A black audience is the hardest audience in the world,” interjected Justin, who was sweeping nearby “They have a go-ahead-and-make-me-laugh attitude, and if you’re not funny fast, they boo you off the stage. White people never boo you off the stage.” He added that 80 percent of white comedians he’d seen weren’t funny, and that might be why.

Black comedians are always saying they’re funnier than white comedians they see in clubs and on TV shows. Most do not want to say this on the record, for fear of being racially rude or offending the white comedy clubs, but they will all tell you that black comedians have to be more seasoned than white ones. Any black comic who wants to be a professional has no choice but to learn to play white crowds, Rodney Perry says, whereas white comedians can spend their whole careers avoiding black audiences. Learning to play white crowds can often mean having two separate acts. When he performs before white audiences, Michael Colyar dumps the crack whore bits, Perry doesn’t use the word nigger, and Roman Murray always replaces the words house shoe with house slipper. What irritates Mitchell is that this “mainstreaming” doesn’t get them booked at the big clubs. “I got people here who kill with their mainstream material,” he says. “Destroy! And still they are not getting booked. It’s like the bookers still think all they’re capable of is dirty, nasty dick-and-pussy jokes and the defamation of women. That’s why I opened up this place. To make it a safe place for all the guys who can’t get up at the Improv and the Laugh Factory.”

The clubs deny they exclude black comedians. Jaime Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory, says such things used to happen, but not since the ’80s, and never at his club. He often books two or three black comedians on weekend nights, he says. Matt Komen, who books the Improv, says he doesn’t hear from many black comedians on call-in days, but anyone who is funny will go up. And Dean Gelber, a manager at the Comedy Store, said he’d heard it was difficult for blacks to get booked at other clubs, but it wasn’t like that at the Comedy Store.

Even some comedians disagree with Mitchell about the racism. Justin, who tends to see the sunny side of things, thought it might not be prejudice so much as that people want to be around people whose jokes they understand. White audiences would never understand the references that black people think are funny he said. Like what? I asked. “Like beatings from your momma,” he said. “With an extension cord,” added Mitchell. They both started laughing.

Then Justin said that either way L.A. will pimp you. “Oh, really?” Mitchell asked. “Is L.A. pimping you?” “Not yet,” Justin said, “but they might.” Whereupon Mitchell told him not to worry, because he had people looking out for him.

There have been further signs of Mitchell’s softening. On a recent Saturday he could be seen cooing and kissing a baby at one of the occasional workshops he holds, in which the more experienced comedians help the less experienced with their jokes. The baby belonged to Angela Hoover, who had given birth not long ago and was trying to incorporate jokes about it into her routine. Another white comedian named Eric Schwartz suggested a joke about her home being so small she had to store the baby in a drawer, but this was vetoed by the black comedians, who said that black babies sleep in drawers all the time. Black people probably wouldn’t think it was funny. Then it was decided that Hoover looked too hot for a woman who’d just had a baby and that it would probably be best to portray herself as a vain and self-involved mother, one so concerned about her figure that she brings her baby to the gym and nurses it on the treadmill. “A breast-mill!” shouted Schwartz. “No, a tread-milk!” Mitchell said the idea was bananas and to work on it. Justin followed and killed everybody with a new bit involving the boy who tries to get out of trouble by feigning cerebral palsy, and Mitchell said he wasn’t going to give Justin notes because Justin was 22 years old and wouldn’t listen anyway Then he stood up and told everybody that after all his years in the business he saw comedy as a marathon, not a sprint, and that working out jokes was like juggling silver balls until they’re shiny. “It might take a week or six months or a year and a half,” he said, “but eventually one of those silver balls is going to glow and then another and then another—and woohoo!—you’ve got seven minutes worth and bam bam bam bam bam good night.”

A few days later Mitchell was back to his old self again. When I stopped by to see him, he told me that my shoes were ugly, that he’d been in a car accident and it was my fault, and that the night before a comedian came by smelling like weed and he had to throw him out because he was worried it would scare the old ladies sitting nearby. While we were talking, a homeless man banged on the door and Mitchell gave him some change and sent him away, saying he could not afford to have homeless people peeing in his bushes. “When white people see homeless people up at the Laugh Factory, they pay no attention,” he said. “They say it’s just some guy that’s out of his element. But here they think it is the element.” Then he heard some raindrops on the roof and shook his head and said, “Do you hear that? Do you know what that means? No one’s going to come tonight. Because people do not come out to see comedy when it’s raining. We’re going to be dead tonight. Guaranteed. This is awful.”