- WINSTON SILL/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER
Owen 'Blakka' Ellis and Claudette Pious perform at 'Caribbean Christmas Crack Up', held at the Hilton Kingston Hotel, New Kingston on Sunday, December 26, 2004.
Kesi Asher, Staff Reporter
STAND-UP COMEDY has grown by leaps and bounds in Jamaica and is now definitely a plausible entertainment choice, "especially with the question marks behind dancehall", as comedian Ian 'Ity' Ellis says.
It is a homecoming of sorts, as Jamaican comedy has long enjoyed international recognition, with Oliver Samuels, Winston 'Bello' Bell and Owen 'Blakka' Ellis being household names overseas.
Some of the main jokers causing the current storm surge of commercial laughter are the duos Johnny and Iceman, Ity and Fancy Cat, and Bello and Blakka, as well as solo performers Lemon and Pretty Boy Floyd. However, the pioneers of Jamaican stand-up comedy in the 1980s were Bello, Blakka, Claudette 'Ms Likkle' Pious and Dorothy Cunningham.
And even before them was Prince Edwards.
Ian 'Ity' Ellis and Alton 'Fancy Cat' Hardware were introduced to comedy through a show staged by Komedy Klub, whose principals were Judith Thompson (Ms. Upton from 'Lime Tree Lane'), Dorothy 'Ms. Zella' Cunningham and Claudette Pious. The show featured Blakka Ellis in concert and, being Blakka's brother, Ity was on hand. After persistent persuasion and a trial run, Claudette agreed to book Ity and Fancy Cat to do two songs and a joke as the opening act.
PAVING THE WAY
'Flexx', hosted by Claudette Pious and featuring Ity and Fancy Cat, Apache Chief and Freeman, Blakka Ellis and Vernon Darby, was one of the early Jamaican stand-up comedy shows. As it was also on video, it was pirated and spread locally and overseas. This seemingly unfortunate event helped pave the way for stand-up comedy.
Then, with the new millennium, came the rediscovery of the art.
Jamco Enterprises, run by members of the Small family, was instrumental in providing employment opportunities for Ity and Fancy Cat through comedy shows. Other people on the scene at that time were Bobby 'Inspector Madden' Smith, Charles Hyatt and Tony 'Paleface' Hendricks. With the staging of 'Caribbean Christmas Crack Up' and 'Laugh Riot', it was clear that stand-up comedy was going to hit big in Jamaica.
Along the way to landmark success, though, it had a 'half-time' - the Half Time Sports Bar in New Kingston where Johnny and Iceman started out with a mini Crack Up in 2000. The audience started with 20 persons, grew to 100, eventually 300, until there was no more space for the pool tables or the crowd. Blakka Ellis and Ity and Fancy Cat were regular acts.
It was at the overflow point that Johnny, singer Brian Gold and Ian McKay opened Backyaad at 126 Constant Spring Road, St. Andrew, which quickly became a new and improved home for stand-up comedy. Crack Up was first staged in March 2004. It was sponsored by RE TV and named 'RE Crack Up'. Johnny was the host and the performers were Blakka, Ity and Fancy Cat.
The new venue for Crack Up received massive crowd support and corporate sponsorship, with Red Stripe Lite as the major sponsor. The theme of Crack Up is 'Lighten Up', encouraging persons to take things light and have fun.
And they have with the Backyaad Crack Up series, now into its 17th month, pulling huge crowds to be seated for side-splitting laughter on the last Wednesday of each month. In addition Crack Up has taken the cause of laughter over the causeway, with the first of planned regular shows held on Sunday, August 28.
Ellis International, which includes the Ellis brothers Ian, Owen and Aston (a musician based in New York), and Backyaad have combined to stage the shows. Christopher Daley produced Crack Up for its first seven months and is still responsible for the set up. Ity and Blakka do the marketing of the show and are responsible for booking the artistes.
In November 2004 the show received international and corporate support with the staging of the BET Comedy Tour and the Red Stripe Lite Comedy Tour. The crowd support was better in Kingston than it was in St. James and Clarendon. "For some things Kingston catch on faster. Stand-up comedy is one of those things," Ity said. However 'Laugh Out', held in St. Elizabeth in early 2005, saw greater success with approximately 4,000 patrons and others turned back.
Building on the momentum of Crack Up, the Cash Pot International Comedy Festival, held in July this year, wreaked comedic chaos at the Hilton Hotel, as people were turned back in droves from the Sunday show, forcing another to be held the following day. Supreme Ventures and Courts were other sponsors. Another festival is scheduled for December 2005.
The media have been paying attention to the comedy developments, as Buzz Caribbean Lifestyle magazine announced 'Backyaad Crack Up Keeping Laughter Alive!' in its July to August 2005 edition.
"Backyaad Crack Up has been the backbone of stand-up comedy in Jamaica. The show continues to unearth new talent," remarked Christopher Daley. One such talent is Christine Hewitt-Gordon, who brought down the house with her debut stand-up comedy performance at the first Crack Up in Portmore on August 28, repeating the feat three days later at the regular Backyaad venue.
Johnny also cites a comeback by Lemon and Pretty Boy Floyd. Dahlia Harris has also graced the Backyaad stage while one of the hosts, Elva Ruddock, has frequented FAME FM's Full House Friday, which showcases comedians and has featured Johnny, Ity and Fancy Cat and Blakka Ellis.
With the current prominence of stand-up comedy, comedians are now being treated with more respect and as professionals by both corporate Jamaica and the man in the street. Daley explained that the reasons behind the gravitation towards stand-up comedy are varied. For one, the level of performances has risen and the Kingston and St. Andrew audience also has a greater appreciation for the art.
Daley also observes that the increased intelligence of audience members reflects in the level of entertainment that is being delivered. He further explained that stand-up comedy now has a defined structure, with agencies and managers.
Patrons are very impressed with the level of performance and the organisation of the events. Toni, a professional business woman, comments that "stand-up comedy is definitely an entertainment option; in fact, we need more of it. The personalities are good, the humourous way they put across serious situations make them easier for me to deal with. They use material we can relate to and it is a good medium to release stress".
"I think it's different from the usual sessions you go to, where you have to stand all night. There is variety within the two hours and the stand-up comics are very versatile. Their versatility exceeds their American counterparts, as they also have songs and dances amidst their jokes," commented Odeth Reynolds, a management professional.
One person is upset, though, that the comedy shows do not go to the rural areas as much as she would like. "I think it's a good idea. I don't know why others in the entertainment industry hadn't thought about it before. I just think they should take it outside of Kingston, because I would love to see it again," said Sashalyn Holt, a 25-year-old hotel manager.