Saturday, March 9, 2013

Orlando Jones and the Power of a Single Joke

This review should have been written way before today. After all, it was the weekend of November 29th, more than three months ago, when Orlando Jones graced the stage of The Comedy Club. It was three months ago, when the man most of the audience recognized from 41 episodes of MADtv came to town. Three months ago, when the actor who created Clifford Franklin, Dr. Lee, Harry Block and Snack (a personal favorite, although if all of you shared my enthusiasm, there would have been more than 14 episodes of “Father of the Pride”), came dancing into the spotlight to some bumpin’, grindin’ groove and started the audience on a laughter frenzy.

I’ve noticed over the years that comedians who are known more for their acting than their stand up tend to draw the “curiosity crowd” their first night in town. A portion of the room is there just to see in person someone they’ve watched on television or on the big screen, curious about their actual height, true skin tone and general appearance. Another segment is curious about the sideshow: are there bodyguards? was there a limo? would there be a chance to connect and shake hands after the show? Finally, there are the hardcore comedy fans, curious as to whether the actor can make the transition to stand up, and usually having an expectation for success or failure before the show even begins. On this Thursday, there was a fourth group, of which I was a member, and it was comprised of people who had seem Orlando the previous year, at a gig he told us was only his 9th time doing stand up. I dug that show, and was curious to see how his act had progressed.

It did not disappoint. Beginning with a high-energy lip synch to some modern club hit, Orlando offers an exploration of the lack of love songs in today’s music. The revelation that his two-year-old daughter will grow up without love songs has hit him hard. He leads an audience sing-along of The Commodore’s “Three Times a Lady”, deconstructs Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” and gives a profound reading of LoveRance’s “Beat the Pussy Up.” (Marvin Gaye and Leonard Cohen didn’t write this shit!) Next, he talks about his mother singing the Lil’ Wayne song, “How to Love,” and getting a glimpse of what his father must have seen when they hooked up. Before women could get too comfortable thinking only men write these songs, Orlando reminds us of Kia’s “My Neck, My Back,” asking women in the audience who were singing along if they also knew the words to the Patriot Act or the Declaration of Independence. That line is representative of what I adore about his set: the way he weaves the smart through the pop. He finishes out this section with a shout back to Petey Pablo’s “Freek-a-Leek” and its finely crafted lyrics: Do you want it on the floor? Do you want it on the chair? Do you want it over here? Do you want it over there? Do you want it in ya pussy? Do you want it in ya ass? (Doesn’t that sound like Dr. Seuss for strippers?... That ain’t a proposition, that’s a threat!)

Next, Orlando apologizes for believing what he’d been told since childhood, that black folk all look alike to white people, and goes on to claim that just that day, a black woman swore he was the little boy from “Everybody Hates Chris.” He does some great material on having a baby and the particular hardships of your daughter dating (When the dude walks up to your door, or the girl, it don’t matter to me… two words are all you need. ‘I’m here to pick up your daughter, sir.’ ‘Catch this!’ ‘Mr. Jones, why did you toss me a bullet?’ ‘Because if you bring my daughter back here any different that she is right now, I guarantee you won’t catch the next one, motherfucker!’).

The audience is completely engaged and laughing themselves silly. Orlando claims to be a weed genius (when you’re high, you think you’re smarter than everybody else), talks about the fear regular black folk have of thug-ass black dudes and shares one of his smoke-inspired ideas: we’d find more missing children if we put black kids on chocolate milk cartons, Asian kids on soy milk and mixed kids on the half & half. I find myself really following not just the punch lines, but the rise and fall of the set, the way he brings the audience along almost as if he’s conducting the laughter. In the moment of the show, I am with the rest of the room, laughing out loud, glad to be witnessing the skill. The body language, the voice work, the shimmying through space all make for a very amusing set and, in my desire to tell you about something else, something deeper and more meaningful for me, I don’t want to skimp on this part of the review.

But I gotta’ tell you about the single joke, the one that stopped me mid-laugh, the one that stayed in my head for the rest of the set and finally had to be addressed in after-show conversation.  It was during a bit when Orlando was speaking of things he found sad, but not surprising. (when you heard Whitney had died of a drug overdose, when you first read Michael Jackson was on trial for child molestation); this is the joke. “Nelson Mandela gets out of jail after 27 years in prison. The first thing he did? Divorce Winnie Mandela. That shit is sad. Not fucking surprising. This man spent 27 years in jail, y’all, and you want him to come home to some 63-year old titties?”

My brain just went, wait. Hold the fuck up.

All my life I have been a person who wants to know what’s going on in the world. I’ve subscribed to alternative and political publications, I’ve attended lectures, held signs at protests, joined support and solidarity groups, developed strong and lasting friendships with people from all over the globe. I remember that situation differently and with a great deal of passion that is flooding my whole body with overreaction. In my mind, based only on my understanding of the situation, Nelson had no choice. Winnie had done some horrible things, including being involved with the disappearance of four young boys, and possibly the murder of one of those young men along with a doctor who had seen him in her home. Two years after Nelson’s release, amid rumors of her infidelity, he filed for divorce. Later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reportedly confirmed her participation in a number of illegal, illicit activities and ultimately accused her of trying to intimidate those willing to testify against her in that forum.  I had some semi-informed and strongly-felt issues with her, and all of them came rushing to the front of my brain when I heard that one joke.

One of the greatest opportunities afforded me by Mark Ippolito’s friendship and generous support is, when the comics are willing, being able to hang around between and after shows. Orlando Jones is a very giving performer; he stayed each night, thanking fans for coming out, sharing war stories with the local comics and answering questions for curious onlookers such as myself.  Conversation was lively. He explained how he had met a comic who just blew him away and decided to learn from him. He shared his theories on how to construct a set, how to modulate the rhythm of jokes. He spoke of process, of artistry, and at no point did it feel like anything less than a dialogue, an exchange of ideas. He listened attentively to each of us, standing close and engaging in a way that felt so natural, we forgot we were talking to someone whose credits as a story editor, producer, writer and actor were punctuated by the sheer number of screen scrolls needed in IMDb to document them: 18 by my count, and that’s if you leave the MADtv, Roc, A Different World and the Sinbad show in compressed mode. This man was accessible, willing to talk. So I asked the question that had been rolling around my mind.

“Does the Nelson Mandela joke always hit?”

“Yeah, every time. Why?”

And that opened the gate to a deeper conversation. I shared my position, why that joke struck such a chord in me. And then he shared his.

Given the way women are treated in South Africa and much of the rest of the world to this very day, prioritizing divorce sent the wrong message. Orlando felt, maybe – and I hope I’m capturing this with absolute accuracy, because this is an important thought - by starting somewhere else, or perhaps waiting a little longer, Nelson would not have been seen as unintentionally reinforcing the cultural view of women as “less than.”  I shared my perspective, that her actions were so antithetical to everything he stood for, that not addressing her betrayal not only took power from his personal sacrifice, but would damage the entire ANC movement. I had accepted the compromise that, for a post-Apartheid society to empower African women, it must first secure power for African men. It is one view point. It wasn’t Orlando’s. But by asking him about the joke, and by him being willing to share, I was shown another way to consider the divorce. Then Orlando told me that he knew Nelson Mandela, that they had shared time together in Africa. If you think I sound ridiculously impressed and a little star-struck, you couldn’t be more right.

When I started writing One Girl’s Giggle, I provided a basic review, a play-by-play of the event as it unfolded onstage.  It was merely a place to keep notes on shows that I intended to work into a book about the local comedy scene. As I grew more confident that what I was doing was worth further exploration, I began to expand them, to include the concepts that make comedy so vital to my own existence. I can say, honestly and without exaggeration, that this single joke, more than any other in the past year, has had the most powerful impact on me. It did what I have told you Whoopi and A. Whitney and a handful of others have done for me: it moved me from simple laughter to examine something deeper, encouraged me to seek more information and then gave me a lens for reevaluating my personal beliefs. It sent me home with more than a punch line. It educated me.

Two additional thoughts I want to share with you about Orlando’s shows. Through the years, many of the actor-comics I’ve seen live have leaned heavily on their replication skills, doing a set that followed the same trajectory every time in words, in pace, in rhythm. That doesn’t take anything from the performance; it’s just a style, one that allows audiences all over to have a shared experience, to see something polished and worked out. A few have been more Godfrey-like, having a huge repertoire of jokes and a gift for in-the-moment selection that keeps any two shows from being exactly the same. The upside is a feeling of greater risk and interaction with the audience; the downside is that the set can feel random and not yet ready for prime time. Orlando falls somewhere between these two markers. While the jokes were rather consistently told, he played with and flexed the order each time, and it had an effect that was quite noticeable for someone watching all five shows. Saturday late show had, for me, the best flow of the weekend. The value of paying attention to such choices is the constant reminder that stand up is an art form, and that an added brush stroke, a second edit, an improvised scene can change my experience.

Toward the close of his shows, Orlando talked briefly to the audience about words and how we react to them. “I don’t give offense. You take offense. I throw bitch in the air, you claim it for your own.” Some might see that as a dodge, as a way of saying “fuck you if you can’t take a joke.” Depending on the day I’ve been having when I hear it, I might be inclined to agree. But on better days, it strikes me as a good reminder, as a mantra to become less reactionary. Reading these pieces, you may realize how personally I identify with jokes, with words that come from people’s mouths and pens. You might even feel yourself doing the same with my words. In the end, all of it is just a way for one being to share with others their thoughts and emotions and, in the case of comedy, their laughter. Orlando Jones does just that.

I’m certain no one will have any trouble finding Orlando, but I would recommend you visit him at to keep informed about current projects, or follow him on Twitter (@TheOrlandoJones) and Facebook. Also, check out the documentary Looking for Lenny, where he shares his thoughts on Lenny Bruce and free speech. Go see him if he’s performing live in your area. He puts on a great show, even if you aren’t sitting in a back booth with your secret comedy decoder ring, hoping to discover life truths among the booty clap complaints and white fear footrace jokes.

 The next few posts will be less deconstuctionist, I promise. All laugh, no chaser.

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