HBO's 'Def Comedy Jam' offers in-your-face humor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hollywood -- Atorrent of rap music fills the packed theater and a sea of fists pumps the air as emcee Martin Lawrence swaggers confidently on stage and yells, "Yo, whassup, black people, whassup?"

A sharply dressed comedian surveys the crowd and proclaims: "Fellas, give it up for the ladies in the house! Let the dogs loose!" followed by a sustained chorus of "woofs" deeper and more sustained than any ever heard on the Arsenio Hall show.

Another comic describes his southeastern Washington state neighborhood: "It's like three Harlems and half a Bronx . . . my neighborhood's so bad that the mailman just leaves the mail on the corner and lets you sort it out."

A comedian with an oversized beret performs a dancing, twirling impression of "Michael Jackson on crack . . . you know that someone who's [expletive] up his face as much as Michael has got to be on something."

Not exactly "Star Search" or "Evening at the Improv."

"Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam," an edgy, in-your-face version of the traditional stand-up comic television showcases, hip-hops into its second season on HBO tonight at midnight. Although the show is named for the rap-music mogul who turned his affinity for street music into a $34 million recording and entertainment empire, it could very well be titled simply "Laughz N the Hood."

The weekly half-hour of stand-up is a standout from the cavalcade of programs showcasing unknown comics.

All the comics are African-American. Much of the material is filled with references and language that might be obscure to a mainstream television audience. Comedians speak frankly about AIDS, police brutality, racism, cultural differences. Tensions -- sexual and otherwise -- between black women and black men are explored.

Unrestrained simulations of sexual activity and raunchy

discussions about sex are a staple. Routines are liberally sprinkled with four- and 12-letter obscenities. The tapings at the Academy Theatre in New York are frequented by such celebrities as Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes and LL Cool J.

One aspect that sets the show apart from its more low-key clones is its audience members, who often leap up and "give it up" in response to some of the more outrageous material. Young men wearing backward baseball caps high-five each other, while women rock jubilantly in their chairs.

To Mr. Simmons, though, the show is not just a laughing matter.

He believes "Def Comedy Jam" -- def meaning excellent in rap lingo -- is similar to rap music in giving a voice to young African-Americans to express their rage, thoughts and observations about growing up black.

"These guys are expressing their real values and attitudes," Mr. Simmons said. "If they are not as positive as you would like them to be, you have to listen to them and understand them. It's a dose of reality."

Even the show's director and co-executive producer, Stan Lathan, said he is sometimes squeamish about some of the comedy, especially the sexually explicit material.

"There are things that I find really difficult," said Mr. Lathan, a show-business veteran of episodes of "Hill Street Blues," "Cagney & Lacey" and "It's Gary Shandling's Show."

"Being an old-timer in television, I'm conditioned to think of television as a forum for ideas," Mr. Lathan said. "But I still have a hard time with the totally, totally raw stuff.

"I could say a few have been in bad taste, but we have an obligation to air it and put it on, totally uncensored. If it's funny to our audience, no matter how dirty it is, we use it. We know that our crowd is a very representative crowd."

HBO research says that the show is the most popular late-night comedy program in its history, attracting 1.7 million viewers. Approximately two-thirds of the audience is non-black, officials said.

Looking at the show's audience, Mr. Simmons said, "I knew it would have a wide appeal, like rap music. You don't have to be black and urban to buy rap music. Most of those records are bought by white kids in the suburbs."

What's more, as Mr. Simmons predicted, the program may prove to be the big break for many of the comedians, who said they had to water down some ethnic or raunchy material in order to perform on the "white" comedy circuit.

Host Martin Lawrence, who had co-starred in the two "House Party" films and "Boomerang," will star in his own series on Fox this fall that is being produced by HBO Independent Productions. Eddie Griffin, who was an unknown three years ago, now has a development deal with HBO.

J. Anthony Brown, 41, a stand-up who also is a writer on the Arsenio Hall show, said "I've been on every show there is -- 'Stand-Up Spotlight,' 'Evening At the Improv,' everything. But seven minutes on 'Def Jam' did more for me than all those shows put together. People recognize me in stores, in restaurants. That didn't happen before."

Mr. Simmons said he got the idea for "Def Comedy Jam" a few years ago while touring dance clubs around the country; many of these would have a comedy night during the week.

"I could see there was this whole subculture developing," he said. "The arena was getting bigger and bigger, but there was no one to expose these people or take it to the next level. It seemed like the natural thing to do."

Mr. Simmons and Mr. Lathan became partners with Brillstein-Grey Productions, producers of several shows including "It's Gary Shandling's Show" and the recently canceled "Dennis Miller Show."

HBO executives had little knowledge at that time about Mr. Simmons, his influence in the rap world, or hip-hop culture. "Immediately we saw this as something that had never been done before," said Bridget Potter, senior vice president of original programming for HBO.

HBO also saw the opportunity to expand its subscriber base in black households, Ms. Potter said. "We have an interest in broadening our cultural base in every possible way."

Mr. Simmons said he is developing more black-oriented shows for HBO. Next is "The Johnson Posse," which he describes as "Married . . . With Children" in a housing project.

"I'm hoping these shows will open a lot of doors," he said. "There's so little positive material out there because most shows are designed to sell sodas, not to make any changes in society. Maybe shows like 'Def Comedy Jam' will help get us there."

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