Stars: Pauly Shore, Tiffany Haddish, Regina King
The three-part docuseries Phat Tuesday: The Era Of Hip-Hop Comedy features the alluring reality of a Saturday afternoon cookout. There is frank discussion, unbridled laughter, and a hard truth.
From 1995 to 2005, Los Angeles’ legendary Comedy Store dedicated one night a week to showcasing black comedians. Before that, Tuesdays were hardly lively and would never have gotten “cool” without Guy Torry. In the early 1990s, Torry worked his way from the mailroom to the writers’ room on the Fox sitcom Martin, where he co-wrote the classic episode “Romantic Weekend.” For many Black Gen-Xers, the line “That’s not a bloody pup!” resonates as loud as “We were on a break!” of contemporary Friends. Torry would take advantage of his success to turn it into an opportunity for his fellow black comedians.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Reginald Hudlin presents this stunning underdog story through a combination of never-before-seen live footage and in-depth interviews with an all-star roster of comedic greats including Anthony Anderson, Tichina Arnold, Dave Chappelle, Cedric the Entertainer, Tiffany Haddish, Steve Harvey, Finesse Mitchell, Jay Pharoah, Craig Robinson, JB Smoove, Chris Tucker, and Kym Whitley. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud, “pause the tape while you recover” moments.
Hudlin shoots most of the interviews on stage at the Comedy Store, so they feel like a performance that’s intimate, fresh, and never over-rehearsed. Stand-up is traditionally a solo affair, but Hudlin mixes things up: At times, he pairs Haddish with rapper Snoop Dogg, and they have fun together as they reminisce about their very different experiences during the heyday of Phat Tuesdays. This is all familiar ground to anyone who was around during the ’90s and involved in hip-hop culture, but Hudlin avoids telling a story we’ve heard before or producing a highlight reel of the decade. There are new revelations and interesting insights presented with the benefit of hindsight.
Chappelle looks at how segregated, or more to the point, racist, the comedy industry was in the late 1980s. George Wallace explains that the only way to break into the industry was to adapt his material for white audiences. There was an unspoken rule that there was only room for one major black comic per decade: that was Redd Foxx in the 1960s, Richard Pryor in the 1970s, and Eddie Murphy in the 1980s. (The documentary, perhaps for reasons obvious, it doesn’t mention Bill Cosby, who was possibly the real black comedian of the 1960s).
Although Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore had what her son Pauly describes as a “special relationship” with Pryor, she was less affectionate or even less appreciative of other black comedians. Shore turned down both Harvey and Robin Harris, whose act he reportedly claimed was “too black” for the Comedy Store audience. Marsha Warfield reveals how a fed up Harris became the emcee at the Comedy Act Theatre, an all-black comedy club in South Central Los Angeles. This soon became the place to be for black talent who didn’t have to compete with each other for Shore’s favor. Industry experts were frequent guests. According to Torry’s older brother Joe, the Comedy Act Theater provided black comedians with a reliable room to work and hone their craft.
But Torry had his own audacious plan: If Hollywood didn’t come to the “neighborhood,” he would bring the “neighborhood” to Hollywood. Comedy Store General Manager Scott Day agreed to give Torry the 50-seat Belly Room for a month-long trial. It seemed that Torry was prepared to fail, but he was not discouraged: “This room is too important. I’m representing black comedians who need this opportunity. And if I screw up, we’ll never get this chance again.”
Hudlin reinforces how motivated Guy Torry was to help other black comedians. As his own fame grew, he did not climb the ladder behind them. He personally defied the rule that there was only room for “one” major black comedian at a time. Phat Tuesdays quickly became a sensation, expanding from the small Belly Room to the 400-seat main room. It was the hot spot for the next decade, drawing celebrities like Murphy, Kobe Bryant and Prince to the VIP tables. By the mid-1990s, network television was becoming progressively whiter (Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace) as hit singles like Martin, In Living Color, A Different World, and The Fresh Prince Of Bel -Air left the airwaves, but black culture itself remained dominant, possibly due to Phat Tuesdays, which provided