CHAMPAIGN — If the 2012 Ebertfest were to have a real-life hero of a sort, it might be Raymond C. Lambert, a black entrepreneur who founded All Jokes Aside in 1991 in the South Loop in Chicago.
Intelligent, accomplished and above-board in a city rife with corruption, Lambert refused to make under-the-table payments a decade later when he moved his comedy club a mile north and met with a delay in getting a liquor license.
He stands by the "integrity of his failure."
"I felt like I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do well in jail, in the first place," he said.
The Ebertfest audience applauded.
All Jokes Aside, Chicago's first black-owned comedy club, was the subject of the documentary "Phunny Business: A Black Comedy," shown the opening night of the 14th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.
Unknown to most white Chicagoans, All Jokes Aside showcased or introduced nearly every black comic, male and female, who would go on to huge careers. The venue often sold out three times a night. After the rent doubled and the South Loop became gentrified, Lambert closed All Jokes Aside and invested $1 million in a new All Jokes Aside in the city’s entertainment district a mile north.
In addition to the delays in getting a liquor license, the owners of nearby galleries and restaurants signed a petition protesting the change in "ambience" that the club would bring to the neighborhood — which already had, as the documentary points out, strip clubs and other "adult" entertainment.
Lambert had decided to open the original club after he visited Budd Friedman’s famous Improv club in Los Angeles and thought a similar venue would work in Chicago.
At the time Lambert was a stock trader in the firm of black millionaire Chris Gardner, the inspiration for the movie "The Pursuit of Happyness," starring Will Smith. Gardner, as well as many of the comedians who worked at All Jokes Aside, appears as a talking head in "Phunny Business."
Also killing All Jokes Aside was the fact that many of the standup comics who had performed at the club were being lured to much larger venues. During the post-screening discussion, Lambert said he failed as an entrepreneur in this respect:
"Being a purist at the time, I thought comedy belonged in a comedy club. I didn’t think people would go out to see comedy at theaters and big stadiums."
Lambert said that while he co-wrote "Phunny Business" with director John Davies, he realized the stars had aligned at the right time to make the South Loop operation a success .
That comes off in "Phunny Business," a stylized, fast-paced documentary that mimics the atmosphere and feel of a comedy club. In his review, though, Ebert wrote that the narration and editing often seem to upstage the comedians.
Also appearing on the Virginia stage after the screening was former standup comic Ali LeRoi, co-creator of the TV series "Everybody Hates Chris," loosely based on comedian Chris Rock’s teen years. Now a fulltime TV producer, writer and director in L.A., LeRoi had worked at All Jokes Aside and many other clubs; he called Lambert’s "a step outside the chitlin’ circuit."
The fact the black-owned club was well-organized and well-operated — the paychecks never bounced — shouldn’t have been shocking, as at least one comic appearing in "Phunny Business" indicated., LeRoi said. He also noted that by the ‘90s, when All Jokes Aside served predominantly black audiences, entertainment had become more segregated than it had been in the ‘70s, when black comedians Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby dominated the television airwaves with their sit-com series.