Educator finds comedic inspiration in city students

Fresh from his day job at Leith Walk Elementary School, Jason Weems took to a comedy club stage in Annapolis recently, knowing he would need the funniest lines to win the crowd over.

So, he simply told them about his day.

"This actually just happened," Weems began. "A little boy in my class, just sitting there talking to me."

"He is like, 'I'm gonna be a teacher when I grow up, I'm gonna have a house, I'm gonna get a job, and I'm gonna get a Carfax,'" Weems continued, giggles rising from the crowd.

"So his dream is to grow up and just get a vehicle history report," he said. "He doesn't actually want the car. He just wants to know the car that he doesn't have wasn't in an accident."

Weems, a teacher's aide by day and stand-up comedian at night, draws heavily from his experiences of interacting with his tiniest audiences at Leith Walk, where he has worked in kindergarten classrooms since 2004. His everyday interactions with students are the epitome of innocent wit and unfiltered insight that have tickled audiences locally and nationwide.

"Kids are just a universal topic, whether they're black kids or white kids, and no matter who you're talking to, that can bring a whole room together," Weems said.

The punchlines inspired by the city's students have helped land the Baltimore-born and -bred comedian on the national television show "Last Comic Standing" — twice as a contestant, most recently as a semifinalist in Season 7 — as well as on stages from Washington, D.C., to Montreal.

Weems will headline his first show, "Jason Weems, Vol. 1: Intellectual Property," in Baltimore on Dec. 4 at The Lof/t Theatre, where he hopes the audience will get a kick out of hearing the best of what students have to offer.

Weems' Annapolis audience got lots of laughs at city students' expense — though Weems didn't shy away from also taking jabs at he crowd for buying toilet paper from Williams-Sonoma, and offering sailing lessons and Ralph Lauren Polo shirts as his compensation.

"I loved the education slant," said Rick Casali of Annapolis, who did offer to take Weems out for a sailing lesson after the show. "I think he knows who his audience is, and relates it to today's issues, while being clean. That takes talent."

"It goes back to the idea that 'Kids say the darndest things," added Casali's wife, Anne. "This was one of the best acts I've seen."

That's because Weems' punch lines can describe how he started an open-air "drug" market in the classroom by causing his students to become addicted to pixie-sticks, or how a kindergartner cleverly came to school last year dressed in a Spider-Man costume and sombrero to comply with Leith Walk's policy of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month instead of Halloween in October.

His colleagues on "Last Comic Standing" said that Weems' decision to use city school material has, in part, been the ticket to his rapid success.

"That's all you have, is your experiences in life," said fellow comedian Erin Jackson, who made it to the semifinals in Season 6. "And if you're being honest, it's funny."

Edna Greer, principal of Leith Walk, said that Weems' success on the show brought great pride to the school. She was supportive of Weems' endeavors, though his treks would take him out of school for weeks at a time or have him show up to the classroom having less than five hours of sleep.

"We all followed him, and it's just so positive for the school," Greer said. "We support his dream and can't wait for his big break. It will be a shame to lose him because we need male teachers, but it's his dream, and we support our kids' dreams."

Weems, 29, a native of Northeast Baltimore, also draws jokes from firsthand knowledge as a product of city schools. Weems graduated from Dunbar High School and obtained his degree from Morgan State University. He now lives in Baltimore with his wife. In addition, both of his parents have put in nearly 40 years combined in the school system and work at Leith Walk.

He speaks with personal knowledge about the challenges that the city and its students face, and how sometimes the only way to overcome them is to laugh.

In Annapolis, Weems described for the crowd how "two days ago, little kid — little plus-sized kid in my class — comes walking in, and he looks me dead in my eye, and he's like, 'Mr. Weems, I'm sexy.'

"So I look down," Weems said. "He has on some shorts, all-white tennis shoes, navy blue dress socks, his legs are covered in ash — look like he just got pulled from beneath rubble, like Port-au-Prince ash."

Weems used the tepid laughter from the crowd to his advantage. "I know y'all feel like you can't laugh because it's too soon, but that's the only way we're gonna get past it — got to laugh to keep from crying," he said.

While chasing the dream of being a stand-up comic, Weems said he happily spends most of his day entertaining his Leith Walk kindergartners, though juggling the two professions can be taxing. He connects with them, he said, because "in some ways our maturity level is the same."

But in the classroom, Weems is serious, taking misbehaving students to the side to make sure "they're acting like they got some sense." Those who have worked with him said the comedian in Weems usually appears in the classroom in the form of creative games, art and fun spins on lessons.

Aaron Cuthrell, whose classroom Weems worked in for two years, said the jokes were few and far between when Weems was at school, sometimes so subtle they were afterthoughts.

"I mainly see him as the paraeducator who is really good with kids," Cuthrell said. "He's always on — but sometimes I didn't realize he was on until days later."

Weems said his appearances on the national talent show were a great experience. But he also got a taste of controversy on the show, when it was revealed that he and a Florida actress were performing a similar joke — one that may have garnered the support he needed to move on to the semifinals.

The two disagreed about who told the joke first, and Weems sent the actress a harshly worded Facebook message that circulated around the comedy and entertainment world, urging her to stop performing the joke and taking her to task on comedic integrity.

When asked about it, he said he regretted sending the message. "Before I knew it, I was reacting. It was the heat in the moment," he said, adding, "I learned and moved on."

Weems is excited to share his experiences with a Baltimore audience at The Lof/t Theatre this winter. He said he hopes that the audience will appreciate the hilarity of his experiences with the city's children.

"The classroom is a breeding ground for jokes," Weems said. "I just go on stage and repeat what they say, and it's gold.

"I probably owe some of these kids some money."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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