St. Louisan Guy Torry highlights iconic night for Black comedians in ‘Phat Tuesdays’
During the mid-1990s, a small entry fee would give a comedy fan a chance to see some of the nation’s most dynamic Black comedians at the Comedy Store club in Los Angeles.
St. Louis comedian and actor Guy Torry created “Phat Tuesdays” to give Black comics a platform when many were not welcome at white comedy clubs in Hollywood.
In the three-part Prime Video documentary series “Phat Tuesdays: The Era of Hip Hop Comedy,” which premieres today, Torry and other comedians relive those special nights. Reginald Hudlin, an East St. Louis native, directed the series.
Those evenings of laughter, comedians said, began as a cultural movement that jump-started many careers in the industry.
“I just wanted to make people laugh and showcase Black people in a safe place,” Torry said.
From 1995 to 2005, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Kim Whitley, Kevin Hart, Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence and other comedians graced the Phat Tuesdays stage. The night often boosted careers, as executive producers, directors and talent agents were in the audience.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke to Torry about the night that changed comedy forever.
Andrea Henderson: How did the night Phat Tuesdays at the Comedy Store club in Los Angeles come to fruition?
Guy Torry: Well, the night itself, Phat Tuesdays, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I was just young and hungry back then and just wanted to showcase other comedians. I never ran a room before or a comedy night before. It was definitely a divine intervention because I was only doing comedy three years before I started it. I didn't finish college, so I didn’t take any business classes. I just wanted to make people laugh and showcase Black people in a safe place because they would not come into the hood anymore to see Black comedians.
Henderson: You and the other comedians talk about how white industry leaders or white people would not come to the hood anymore because of riots and destruction that spurred from the 1991 Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King. Why was this moment in time so pivotal in the Black comedy movement in L.A.?
Torry: Before the Rodney King riots, the hood is where Hollywood came to see Black comedians. That's where Black stars would come to see Black comedians. Even if you weren't from the hood, the only place you could really get a show like a Def Comedy Jam type show was in the hood. White clubs weren't doing that at all. That's why it was important for Phat Tuesdays to be in the Comedy Store on Sunset. ... The Rodney King verdict and people seeing South Central and other neighborhoods in urban communities burned to the ground [had] people being fearful. That's why white people were scared to come to the hood to see Black comedians — because the tension was still there. So, that's why the Rodney King beating had such an impact on Black comedy.
Henderson: Were the comics that you showcased during the beginning days of Phat Tuesdays your friends or were they up-and-coming Black comedians you saw and wanted to give a shot?
Torry: Yeah, there were some friends in the beginning. When I first started Phat Tuesdays I was in the smallest room of the Comedy Store called the Belly Room, and I really didn’t have any structure, well I had a little bit of structure. Comedians had to show up and pull a number out of a hat and whatever number you pulled that was the order you went up in. At that point, I really didn't have a screening process. It was just whoever showed up.
Henderson: While growing up in St. Louis, did you ever do any performances in the area before you left for L.A.?
Torry: At Southeast Missouri State University they had this little talent show. The AKAs had a little talent show, so I just wanted to be part of it. I didn't know what being a comedian was, but I was just like, “let me come out and just **** around for a minute.” And I came out and got that laughter and was like, “Whoa, it’s addicting.” And right before I was ready to move to L.A., there was an awesome variety show going on at some place, and that was the first time I actually tried to write material and go onstage, and after that the rest was history.
Henderson: What is it that you want the audience to experience from watching the docuseries?
Torry: Just how resilient Black people are. I always say this, when the smoke cleared and the dust settled in South Central Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots, what came out of it was a lot of art, a lot of pain. A lot of comedians wanted to tell their stories, their riot stories, their Rodney King stories, their police stories. So, no matter what you do to Black people, still we rise.
Henderson: Where do you think Black comedy is going?
Torry: That's a good question, because most of the comedians who are winning on social media are Black, and some of them just don't put in the rep or don't have the respect for the game. And, prayerfully, this documentary will reach them and they see what Black comedy is and where it came from. Slaves told jokes to the master to keep from getting whipped and if they were funny enough, the slave master would take them to another plantation to perform for another slave master. So, Negroes have been on tour a long time. I want these young comedians to understand where this art came from and where it is now, where it used to be, when you were just telling jokes to keep from getting whipped. Now, you tell jokes to buy a nice whip.
Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist