Having toured the festival circuit, the documentary “Phunny Business: A Black Comedy” gets a showing on Showtime Feb. 23, timed to Black History Month. It’s an interesting, mostly entertaining film, whose flaws owe as much to its headliner as the execution.
That would be Raymond C. Lambert, who came up with the idea for All Jokes Aside, a comedy club featuring African-American comics in Chicago. Launched in 1991, the club had the good fortune to come into its own during the heart of the stand-up explosion, only to implode a decade later, thanks in part to resistance from local merchants, reflecting the thorny nature of both race relations and Windy City politics.
Directed by John Davies — who also produced and co-wrote with Lambert — and narrated by John Ridley, the doc is a useful examination of the club’s role in advancing the careers of many black comics, and how the shifting business model eventually worked against the small clubs that helped make such performers stars.
The main drawback, frankly, is Lambert himself, whose direct-to-camera interviews are stilted, stagy and insincere-sounding, in a way I struggled to put my finger on — finally feeling more like a performance than honest conversation. He winds up being the weak link in a movie devoted, rightfully, to his own foresight and entrepreneurial drive.
For all that, there’s still much to like about “Phunny Business,” which interviews a wide array of comics (Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, etc.) who cut their teeth at the club. There’s also a heartfelt tribute to the late Bernie Mac woven into the narrative.
Much has been said regarding the evolution of comedy — including the period in the late 1980s and early ’90s, overlapping All Jokes Aside’s heyday, when it seemed everyone with five minutes of material was getting sitcom deals. In that context, “Phunny Business” is a noteworthy reminder of cultural rifts that prevented some minority comics from fully sharing in those rewards.
So if you have an interest in comedy and its history — and can get past Lambert’s quirks — it’s worth the cover charge, but not if you include a two-drink minimum.