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Oh, to be taken seriously! Two comics address blurring of laughter, business

Published:Sunday | February 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Owen 'Blakka' Ellis officially retired from stand-up comedy last year, after nearly a quarter century of stirring, side-splitting laughter while addressing very serious matters. Rohan Gunter is in his fourth year of stand-up comedy, after entering the Comedy Buss contest in 2006.

Ellis and Gunter are at vastly different ends of the stand-up comic's cycle of laughter, but they have more in common than the ability to reel off jokes. They have found that being a professional stand-up comic can mean that their business side could be taken for a joke. In addition, being asked to do the funny under very serious circumstances is no laughing matter.

In an email interview Ellis, who now lives in Canada but visits Jamaica regularly and is slated to perform at next Sunday's Poetry in Motion in Mandeville, said when he was a stand-up comic, "I repeatedly had situations where people assumed that being a comedian meant that I had to be jolly and joking all the time. I regret to tell you that I once completely lost it, and told a beaming man some colourful words when he accosted me after leaving the funeral of a loved one and said to me, 'but nuh you a di comedian? Yu nuh supposed to look so serious'. After I angrily chided him for his insensitivity, he left laughing like he finally got the joke he wanted."

Gunter has been working with the Postal Corporation of Jamaica since 1994 and is also a party promoter, having staged the first Eclipse Pool Party in 2001. He has also ventured into the business side of comedy, the Kingston leg of his 'Me Nah Laugh' series slated for next Sunday and the Mandeville leg on May 30. He says that sometimes he would be offstage and in a serious mood and someone would demands a joke.

He is not amused.

Neither is his funny bone tickled when, in a business situation, someone tries to "deal with the business as a joke thing. When they do something they try to laugh it off and expect me to laugh it off." He points out that he does not have that problem with his co-workers who knew him before he started doing stand-up comedy. With some of those who knew him through stand-up comedy, it was another matter.

"It does get me angry, but at the same time I have to remain calm. At the end of the day it is business and I don't want to leave a bitter taste," Gunter said.

Ellis has had that experience too, and while refraining from going into detail, says, "I can tell you that there have been occasions where people commit grave breaches of proper business ethics and/or contractual arrangements with me, and figure that, 'cho, a Blakka di comedian, him ago just mek a joke outa it, or use it draw card' and end it there. And when I responded in the appropriate business manner they would respond with hurt, disappointment and bewilderment."

"Dem just cyaan understand how di comedian a deal wid dem so serious!" he said.

Ellis says, "I've never had any difficulty separating any of my other roles from my role as a comic and people who live and/or work with me know that. As a business person people dealing with me often discover very quickly that I save the joking for the stage. Sadly some are disappointed. The truth is onstage, I'm always laughing and joking and clowning. Offstage I'm often described as impatient, too serious, often miserable and grumpy."

Gunter's show is not named
Me nah Laugh
arbitrarily. "I believe in Jamaica we try to take comedians as a gimmick. I am portraying that, not because I am a comedian, I am a gimmick.

"When I am a comedian it is time for jokes. When it is time for business it is time for business," he said.

He does say, however, that while he separated the two sides of his personality, there were times when the lines were blurred and something he said in a business setting came out in a comedic way. The reaction depended on whether or not the person was into comedy. If he was, it would come across well. If not, it would wind up corny.

Gunter pointed out too that sometimes persons he did business with may be fans.

In his post stand-up comedy years, there is another separation of roles for Owen Ellis, who has officially become a student once again.

He tells
The Sunday Gleaner
, "I'm at the final, final leg of completing an MES (Master of Environmental Studies) degree at York University. Comedy doesn't play any real role in my academic work, except that I may occasionally draw on my experience as a comedian to make oral presentations more engaging as well as use humour to sharpen the delivery of some points as a teaching assistant.

"Here, I'm a student, not a joker. While comedy is a great icebreaker, people will soon tire of you if you can't provide substance as well. My area of academic focus is the intersection of gender, culture and environment and my major research project attempts to explore ideas and images relating to black masculinity and environmental engagements through the narratives of Jamaican men," he said.

"Still," he says, "I'm getting demands now to do motivational talks, and I use plenty comedy in those settings."