Friday last we visited the West Side Comedy Club on West 75th Street. I have to confess I am no fan of such venues. My experiences with them have been uniformly bad for two reasons: (1) many stand-up comics think they have to use foul and often disgusting language and stories in order to get laughs from modern audiences (Rule 1 is “don’t do this,” and (2) I go to shows to be entertained, not to be part of the entertainment for the other guests (Rule 2 is “don’t try to engage me in your shtick.”) Call me old-fashioned if you must, but that’s how it’s been. I therefore approached this particular evening with some trepidation.
As fate would have it, some of my worst fears were realized. Three of the first four comics were guilty of violating both Rule 1 and Rule 2. I am not sure about the other one because I could understand little of what he said. Old ears, I suppose.
Comic Five, one Sherrod Small, on the other hand, was both funny and also making some serious points about human behavior at the same time. He went on a bit long with a series of “jokes” about Ted Bundy, the serial killer responsible for the gruesome murders of at least 30 women. Then he switched to racial jokes and the audience enthusiasm immediately dimmed. Small observed that it was pretty striking that people were more bothered by racial jokes than serial murderer jokes. Anyway, Small’s deal was within the bounds of acceptable comedy club stuff by my rather stodgy rules.
Then came Brian Scott McFadden, a genuinely funny rascal of a man with numerous mannerisms and voices with great comedic timing who wrapped up the evening with a raucous variety of stories and jokes. His riff on the airline boarding process was hysterical because it was so closely based on the truth about what goes on. McFadden brought to mind George Carlin but without the constant cursing. I would definitely see McFadden again.
Saturday night arrived with little in the way of movies to offer so we decided (actually I just went along with the idea) to go to a poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poetry Club in the East Village. With 46 years under its belt, the Club qualifies as an “institution” by any standard. As this photo shows, the Club is not much to look at inside:
Don’t let that fool you. To some extent, this is one of those “you had to be there” scenes that cannot be adequately conveyed in an after-the-fact report like this one.
Nevertheless, while it’s fair to say that the quality of the “poetry” was highly variable, some genuinely talented performances and powerful messages were delivered, many of which went on for close to five minutes. It was clear that these were mostly practiced and confident slam poets but, some 24 hours later, some of their voices still resonate in my mind.
The poets were all volunteers who just signed up on the spot to speak their minds. A couple of young white boys, roughly college age, from Vermont, a 13-year old girl from Washington DC who had a lot to say in a short space about the sanctity of her person and the threats to it in American policy, a youngish woman from Barbados named Birdspeed, with a lot of anger and passion about her position as a black woman in contemporary society and, most compellingly, a black man from Ohio, LJ Hamilton, who delivered an incredible soliloquy that, if it had a title, would have been “I Don’t Want to be Black No More.” One of the Vermont boys, Birdspeed and LJ made the finals based on audience enthusiasm and ultimately, and wrongly in my view, the Barbadian lady was declared the winner. She was good, very good, but I thought LJ was clearly better. In any case the difference between them was small and, upon reflection, it was impossible not to think that these were at least semi-professionals at their craft. You can see Birdspeed here: http://bit.ly/2IyEgdu and hear LJ Hamilton here: http://bit.ly/2Pn5hBd.
As we departed the club, I stopped to speak to LJ and told him I thought he should be publishing. He was visibly moved, asked my name and shook my hand. He said he had indeed produced some books but from what I can find, the books are related to his poetry but do not contain the poetry. They are more like self-help books. Too bad, because his poetry was among the most powerful in content and voice that I have ever heard.
So, two nights on the town and, once again, unrepeatable experiences that we will long remember. As out of character as it may be, it’s highly likely that I will return to the Nuyorican, or another club like it, to hear more young people (mostly) expressing themselves through spoken word poems of power and passion. As troubling as their anger may be, and it seems fully justified, they also convey a strong message that says, “I understand why I am angry and I intend to do something about it.” In that may lay our salvation.